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COLCHESTER CASTLE, CO1 1TJ

GETTING THERE

WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?

A Norman Castle that was partially demolished and then ‘restored’ in the eighteenth century. The result is externally hideous but nevertheless offers a fascinating mix of Norman and Roman features. A guided tour of the foundations and castle parapet is a must.


The circuit of the Roman Town Walls can be walked. Of particular interest are the remains of Balkerne Gate and the various Bastions along the south wall. A tour should also encompass a look at the historic churches - St Mary’s and St Martin’s in particular both sustained heavy damage during the siege of Colchester in 1648.

VISIT OFFICIAL SITE (Opens in new window)

Castle is managed by Colchester and Ipswich Museums.


POSTCODE

LAT/LONG

Colchester Castle

Castle Park, CO1 1TJ

51.890604N 0.902987E

Balkerne Gate

CO1 1PT

51.889655N 0.894038E

St Mary's Church

Church St, CO1 1NF

51.888748N 0.894431E

Romano-Christian Church

CO3 3BU

51.886576N 0.893990E

St Botolph's Priory

Priory St, CO1 2PX

51.887761N 0.904092E

St Martin's Church

CO1 1HN

51.890990N 0.899121E

Notes:  Colchester has numerous parking facilities although note that Priory Street allows parking in direct vicinity of the Roman Walls and is a good place to start walking the circuit.

Colchester Walls. The Legionary fortress was built in AD 44 and included a large annexe to the east. When the Colony was established circa-AD 50, the defences of the fortress were levelled to enable the town to expand. When it was rebuilt following the Boudica revolt, the walls enclosed a much larger area than the former fortress and this remained the boundary thereafter. The Normans built their castle on top of the podium of the Temple of Claudius and surrounded the structure with an oval shaped bailey.

Balkerne Gate. The impressive remains of the Roman West Gate which connected to the London road. This was also the site of a Monumental Arch built to celebrate the conquest and Balkerne Gate was built around it. This unusual arrangement led to the gate being blocked up at some point in the late Roman era and explains why this segment of gate has managed to survive.

Bastion. One of the surviving Roman Bastions on Priory Street.

Longinus (Left). Longinus was born in modern day Bulgaria and joined the First Thracian Cavalry. He rose to second in command, took part in the invasion of Britainnia and died at Colchester in AD 55 aged 40.

Marcus Favonius Facilis. An Officer in the Twentieth Legion, the tombstone of Marcus Favonius Facilis is the earliest yet found in Britain. He died circa-AD45 and was buried along the main road from Colchester to London.

Castle Entrance. The original entrance to the castle was planned to be on the north side on the first floor. However, a delay to construction caused by the 1075 Earls Rebellion resulted in a change of plan and the entrance was moved to the south side on the ground floor. Visitors will note the entrance is still higher than the surrounding ground level and this is due to the height of the Roman temple podium on which the castle was built.

Foundations. The castle’s foundations are accessible via a guided tour and are well worth the visit. These are the original remains of the Roman Temple of Claudius.

Siege of Colchester, 1648. The town witnessed a vicious twelve week siege in Spring/Summer 1648 during the Second Civil War. Sir Thomas Fairfax surrounded the town with earthwork forts/siege works and attempted to starve the garrison into submission. The town was also extensively shelled with several of the churches - St Mary’s and St Martin’s - still bearing the scars.

England > Eastern England COLCHESTER CASTLE and the ROMAN TOWN WALLS

Colchester was a substantial Iron Age fortified settlement and the first target of the Romans when they invaded in AD 43. They built first a Legionary fortress and then a colony for veteran soldiers on the site. The latter was destroyed by Boudica but the settlement was rebuilt and in the eleventh century the Normans added Colchester Castle.

HISTORY OF COLCHESTER CASTLE AND THE ROMAN CITY WALLS


Tribal Capital


Iron Age Canulodunum was a fortified area covering around 10 square miles and was the spiritual home of the cult of Camulos - a war-god widely worshipped in Britain. Unlike Iron Age forts elsewhere in the country, such as hill forts or promontory forts, Canulodunum consisted of a  series of dykes - a V-shaped ditch and earth bank - that isolated an area of land sitting between the River Colne and (what is now known as) Roman River. Within was a largely rural landscape with numerous small farmsteads plus two main population centres at Gosbecks and Sheepen both of which were protected by further dykes. Sheepen, which would later be the site of the Legionary fortress and modern day Colchester, was the industrial centre of Canulodunum situated next to the River Colne for easy access to the sea.


Roman Invasion


Claudius became Emperor of Rome in AD 41 following the assassination of his nephew, Caligula. Allegedly a frail individual with no previous military experience, Claudius sought an easy victory both to forge his credentials with the army and to secure his political position. The invasion of Britain, previously attacked by Julius Caesar in 55 BC and 54 BC, seemed the obvious choice. Despite a mutiny threatening to stop the invasion before it started, the initial attack was entirely successful. Four Legions, under the command of Aulus Plautius, landed at Richborough and advanced into the interior fighting battles near the Rivers Medway and Thames as they advanced towards Camulodunum. Prior to his assault on this settlement, Plautius halted and called for the Emperor, who duly arrived with his Praetorian guard and war-elephants, to take the lion's share of the glory for its subsequent capture. There eleven native Kings, one from as far afield as the Orkney Islands, submitted to Claudius. After just sixteen days in Britain, he departed fully able to claim he had achieved the submission of the whole of Britannia. However, for the Roman Army the military campaign was only just beginning.


An Initial Fort?


The initial Roman base was probably about 1 mile to the west of the site of Colchester near a series of earthwork dykes. However a fort was established at Gosbecks and possibly also at Colchester itself; in 1960 archaeological evidence found traces of a ditch and rampart within the perimeter of the Legionary fortress and seemingly pre-dating it. Based on this discovery, it seems plausible that this fort was built in late AD 43 perhaps to support a small garrison throughout the Winter of that year or to house a detachment that was assigned to work on construction of a more substantial fortress.


The Legionary Fortress


Work started on the Legionary fortress in AD 44 on the site of modern day Colchester with the intent it would become the base for the Twentieth Legion (Legio XX Valeria Victrix). Built upon a ridge of high ground overlooking the River Colne, it enclosed 50 acres but, almost immediately, was augmented with a large annexe that added a third as much space again. The reason for the latter is unknown although is generally presumed to have provided additional secure space for storage and workshops. Both fortress and annexe were protected by a V-shaped ditch and a turf rampart built upon a timber base and fronted with blocks of sun-dried clay.


The fortress was built to a standardised plan with a Headquarters Building, the Principia, in the centre and the remainder of the site dominated by barracks and workshops. Accommodation for the Officers, including a dedicated Commanding Officer's House, plus Granaries and a hospital would also have been found within the walls. A bath house would also have been found on the site, perhaps within the annexe. Based on archaeological excavation to date, the buildings within the fortress seems to have been unusually compact; perhaps indicative of the requirement for the base to provide facilities for a substantially enhanced garrison or extra administrative staff to manage the new province.


The fortress was probably not completed when it was abandoned around AD 49. The Roman conquest was struggling against a determined opposition led by Caratacus, an original native of Colchester. He had mustered a force centred on modern day Wales and accordingly the Twentieth Legion was moved to a new base at Gloucester.


The City of Victory


The abandoned military facilities of Canulodunum were recycled as a colony (colonia) - a settlement for retiring Roman soldiers who had completed their term of service with the army. Known as Colonia Victricensis, many of the barracks and buildings of the former fort were simply converted for use by the new occupants. As part of the new settlement, a Temple was constructed to honour Emperor Claudius and the goddess Roma. A substantial building that stood over 20 metres tall - higher than the remains of the Norman castle - it was constructed from stone with a tiled roof. Eight columns dominated the facade.


Boudica


Despite having emerged from the Legionary fortress, Colonia Victricensis had no defences as the ditches and ramparts of the former fort had been flattened as the settlement expanded. This proved disastrous when in AD 60, whilst a large portion of the military forces in Britannia were engaged in North Wales, the Iceni tribe of Norfolk rebelled. Ignited by Roman mismanagement, the rebellion quickly spread under the leadership of Boudica. A half hearted attempt to deal with the situation by sending a small force of military logisticians ended with their annihilation at the hands of the rebels. A detachment of the veteran Ninth Legion (Legio IX Hispana) was then deployed. With around 1,500 troops and supported by a mounted element, this force was expected to have been sufficient to deal with any small scale uprising. However en route they were ambushed, overwhelmed and massacred with only a few of the mounted troops escaping with their lives. Boudica’s amassed force then descended upon Camulodunum.


The destruction wrought on the unfortunate inhabitants by the vengeful Britons is clearly evident in archaeology. A thick burnt layer visible in any dig across the town is indicative of total destruction. The residents sought sanctuary in the Temple of Claudius, hopeful that its thick stone walls that stood over 20 metres tall, would provide shelter. However the rebels were able to climb onto the roof, smash through and set fire to the building. The massacre sent shockwaves through the Roman community of Britannia but Boudica was not done - she next targeted the Roman port at Londinium (London) and then the Romano-British settlement at Verulamium (St Albans).


Under the command of Suetonius Paulinus, the Romans now amassed their forces to deal with the uprising. All forces in the province were ordered to rendezvous on Watling Street, the Roman road running between Richborough and Chester. The assembled force numbered around 10,000 men drawn from the Fourteenth Legion (Legio XIV Germina) supported by elements of the Ninth (Legion IX Hispana) and Twentieth (Legio XX Valeria Victrix) along with supporting auxiliaries. Somewhere along Watling Street the Romans engaged Boudica and, despite being significantly outnumbered, massacred the rebels. The province was then brutally stabilised by Paulinus who launched a punitive assault on the native populace. Such was the level of his retaliation that, to prevent further war, he was recalled to Rome and replaced by Julius Classicianus who led a more conciliatory administration (his tombstone was later found as part of the rubble core inside one of the fourth century AD towers).


Rebuilding With A Defensive Wall


Work on rebuilding Colchester, albeit on a smaller scale than previously, started almost immediately. This time the settlement was a recipient of a defensive wall that permanently established the line of defences that we know today and the original Iron Age dyke system was restored to provide additional protection. The Temple of Claudius was also refurbished.


After The Romans


It is unlikely Colchester was ever completely abandoned following the end of Roman rule in Britain in the early fifth century AD although its population would have been a fraction of that in its heyday. In the decades that followed, its proximity to the sea and the east coast made it ripe for Saxon settlers who established their own distinct types of houses amongst the Roman ruins. By the early sixth century Colchester had become part of the Kingdom of Essex which was annexed by Mercia in the mid-eighth century. In AD 825 the last King of Essex, Sigered, ceded Essex to King Egbert of Wessex.


Vikings


The eighth and ninth centuries saw England increasingly come under attack from Vikings - Norwegians and Danes who raided coastal locations for booty. By the mid-ninth century raiding had turned into invasion with the great Kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia falling under their control. In AD 877 the Danes defeated Mercia taking control of its eastern lands and this included the former Kingdom of Essex, now part of the Wessex. This was the time of King Alfred the Great who established fortified burhs and he managed to check the Danish advance. However, it would be his son - Edward the Elder of Wessex - along with Aethelfaed of Mercia, who would start the re-conquest of England. In AD 917 their armies arrived at Colchester and drove out the Danes. The town was rebuilt and the Roman defences restored converting it into a fortified burh. By AD 920 everything south of the Humber was back in Saxon hands.


The Normans


At the time of the Norman Invasion, East Anglia was one of the most populous areas of the country. Colchester was retained by William the Conqueror and seemingly heavily taxed although no known castle was built at this time. Following a Danish attack, believed to be around 1069, Colchester was granted to Eudo Dapifer, High Steward of Normandy. It was he who started to build the castle re-using the podium of the Claudian Temple - a factor that determined the size of the new fortification meaning it was built on a scale far bigger than any other contemporary Norman Keep.


The castle was originally intended to be four storeys tall with the Great Hall and Chapel dominating the top two floors. Work started around 1071 but had to halt when a rebellion broke out in 1075. William I had refused to endorse a marriage between Ralph de Guader, Earl of East Anglia and Emma FitzOsbern prompting a revolt that was supported by William FitzOsbern, Earl of Hereford and Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria. At this time the castle only stood one storey tall so battlements were added at that level. Work resumed in 1076 once the rebellion had been suppressed but the plans for its design had to be scaled back. Re-using the Roman base, which forced the castle to be so large, proved just too much for the Norman military machine. The revised castle was only three storeys high with the Great Hall being installed on the first and second floors. An ornate entrance was installed on the ground floor albeit still elevated due to the castle being built upon the temple's podium. Work completed on the castle around 1080.

 

King John


Colchester Castle was besieged in January 1216 by Savari de Mauléon on behalf of King John during the First Barons War. The castle had been taken over by French forces acting in support of Prince Louis, whom the rebel Barons had invited to become King. The arrival of John in March 1216 led to Colchester's surrender albeit it was placed briefly back in French hands in 1217 as part of peace negotiations.


The castle was soon back in English hands and was predominantly used thereafter as a prison. The first recorded use in this role was in 1226, although it can be assumed it was being used in this capacity much earlier, and in 1350 it was converted into a single role prison facility.


The Second Civil War


The Second Civil War started in May 1648 when Colonel Poyer, Governor of Pembroke Castle, declared himself a Royalist. As Cromwell moved elements of the New Model Army into Wales to deal with this threat, a significant rebellion started in Kent with 10,000 men appointing George Goring, Earl of Norwich as their commander. To deal with this uprising Sir Thomas Fairfax had around 7,000 men but the force proved sufficient and he was able to pursue Norwich's force into Colchester.


Fairfax immediately commenced siege works and what followed was a particularly savage blockade which included the navy barring access to the River Colne - Colchester was cut off from support from the continent or Kent. Fairfax burnt all buildings in the unprotected suburbs forcing the residents into the walled town aiming to deplete the food stocks as quickly as possible and end the siege. When the defenders sent their women and children out, Fairfax had them stripped and drove them back. Royalist hopes for relief hinged upon the Marquis of Hamilton who was invading England from the north. When he was defeated at the Battle of Preston (1648), there was no hope of the siege of Colchester being lifted. The town was surrendered on 27 August 1649 with some of the Royalist leaders court marshaled and shot for breaching parole granted at the end of the First Civil War.


Partial Demolition


John Wheeley acquired the castle in 1683 with the intention of demolishing it to salvage the building materials. His labour force destroyed the upper part but eventually found the lower levels too well built and the project was abandoned. It remained an abandoned ruin until it was given as a wedding present to Charles Gray, a local lawyer and antiquarian. He "restored" parts of the building into the strange and unusual structure that stands today. He also created the park around the ruined Castle which was eventually sold to the corporation of Colchester.

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