The History of Colchester
Long before the Romans came to Britain the site that is now Colchester was already the centre of authority for the Celtic Trinovantes tribe controlling much of the South East in alliance with tribes in Kent and Hertfordshire. Iron Age earthworks can still be seen in the area, and it was here that King Cunobelin, Shakespeare ’s Cymbeline, ruled.
As a port standing on the River Colne the settlement was strategically important with trade and political contacts with Gaul. It is conjectured the wealth of traders from that port seen in Gaul first piqued the interest of the Julius Caesar’s Rome regarding Britain; but it is certain the Emperor Claudius latched onto disagreements between the Catuvellauni and Atrobates tribes there as a reason to intervene in Britain, or in fact invade.
Claudius himself came in AD43 to what the Romans called Camulodunum, a Latinized form (dunum meaning fort) of the British name based on the Celtic god of war Camulos, once his troops had defeated all but the last stronghold of the Catuvellauni (who long since had driven the Trinovantes out). The Emperor brought reinforcements and even elephants to ensure a spectacular victory to bolster his image at home.
It was decided to make Camulodunum the Roman capital of Britain, and a fortress was established at once with bricks made locally, a new technology brought by the Romans, making Camulodunum the first modern city in Britain. Such was the quality of the bricks made there that 1000 years later the Normans were able to reuse them in constructing a castle that stands to this day, and at least two church buildings of the same era recycled them too. Most impressive of the new structures was a temple to the deified Claudius, built by the retired legionaries who settled the place as a Roman colony.
The disgraceful treatment of Queen Boudicca and her daughters by the Romans – she was flogged, her daughters raped – led to revolt in AD61 by the Iceni tribe and their allies. They attacked Camulodunum, where the walls had been neglected by complacent authorities, its wholly inadequate garrison of perhaps 200 reinforced with retired legionaries soon slaughtered. Roman civilians and a few surviving soldiers barricaded themselves in the Claudian temple where they were burned to death as Boudicca razed Camulodunum to the ground.
After the revolt was brutally put down the Romans rebuilt the city, far stronger defences demonstrating their permanent intent. But by AD65 they preferred London as their new capital, though Camulodunum still merited a particularly wide road link with its usurper.
When the Romans departed in the early 5th century Camulodunum declined, but it is known from the writings of Nennius that ‘Caer Colun’ was still one of the largest towns in Britain in the 8th century. To this sub-Roman era belongs the legend that Colchester was Arthur ’s Camelot. The idea is based on the similarity of the names Camelot and Camulodunum and little else, though some historians have wondered if the local Celtic tribes resisted the advances of the Anglo-Saxons here longer than elsewhere in England, retaining a Celtic enclave in the East.
The Saxons who eventually did control the area were themselves driven west by the Danes who seized the town in 879 and held it until Edward the Elder expelled them with great slaughter in 920.
At the time of the conquest Colchester – its name changed by the Saxons and meaning the Roman fort on the River Colne – was still of relatively impressive size, with more than 400 houses, plus four watermills and two churches recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book . The Norman view of Colchester is demonstrated by their rapid construction of a solid-walled fortress there – though the existence of ready-made materials in the form of Roman bricks doubtless influenced this. They incorporated the foundations and vaults of the Claudian temple in the keep, the largest in Britain, its design very close to the Tower of London’s.
The town grew in the Norman and Plantagenet eras, given its first charter in 1189 by Richard I (another was granted in 1413 and yet another in 1635 when it finally gained a mayor) the place soon had two weekly markets, and several annual fairs marking it as economically important, known for fishing, the oysters enjoyed long before by the Romans, leather, grain, wool and weaving. The existence of a Jewish community before their 1290 expulsion from England shows its cosmopolitan nature.
Wool continued to be vital for centuries, the textiles industry boosted when Elizabeth I allowed, indeed attracted Flemish refugees to come to England in 1565, Colchester one of their main destinations. Their new techniques meant rival centres such as Lavenham declined. Rather less positive aspects of the 16th century’s religious strife were Henry VIII ’s closure of the various abbeys and priories in the town, and the execution there in Mary Tudor ’s brief reign of 23 ‘heretics’.
Colchester, a trading town, was staunchly Parliamentarian in the Civil Wars until June 1648, when the Royalists seized the place with little resistance – a fact for which the town suffered when the Roundheads laid siege to it. Many buildings were damaged in the bombardment, and the populace reduced to eating boots, candles, cats and dogs before it fell in August, a Parliamentary fine of £12000 fine for its conduct soon following.
A greater blow fell on the town in 1665, the plague supposedly worse in Colchester than any other English town, perhaps one factor in its inability to compete with Yorkshire and Lancashire weaving rivals, the industry fading away by the end of that century.
The 19th century saw engineering belatedly replacing textiles, and the town is still known for its manufacture of diesel engines, though far older links with its history remain in the garrison that recalls the Roman legions once stationed in Camulodunum and the famous oyster beds those legionaries esteemed as highly as aficionados do today.