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Colchester town center.jpg
Colchester city centre
Grid reference: TL997254
Location: 51°53’30"N, 0°54’11"E
Population: 104,390  (2001)
Post town: Colchester
Postcode: CO1 - CO7
Dialling code: 01206
Local Government
Council: Colchester

Colchester is a city in Essex with ancient roots. As the oldest recorded Roman town in Britain, Colchester claims to be the oldest town in Britain. It was for a time the capital of Roman Britain and also claims to have the United Kingdom's oldest recorded market.[1]

The city name appears to derive from the Latin colonia, with the Old English suffix ceaster, itself ultimately from the Latin castrum ("fortress"). The town was known in pre-Roman days as Camulodunon, to the Romans as Camulodunum or Colonia Victricensis ("Colony of the victors") and to the early English as Colneceaster.

At the time of the census in 2001, Colchester's population was measured at 104,390 but the population is rapidly increasing, and the town was named as one of Britain's fastest growing towns.[2][3][4]

In July 2010 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport confirmed that Camulodunum and Colonia Victricensis will be one of 38 sites seeking World Heritage Site status. An independent panel will consider all 38 applications and draw up a shortlist that will be submitted to UNESCO for consideration in 2011.[5]

In December 2011, Colchester Borough Council announced it was looking into applying for city status to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Year 2012, but the bid was unsuccessful. However, a subsequent application for Her Majesty's Platinum Jubilee in 2022 was successful, and the Letters Patent granting city status were granted on 5 September of that year.


Celtic origins

Colchester is said to be the oldest recorded town in Britain on the grounds that it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder, who died in AD 79.[6] Before the Roman conquest of Britain it was already a centre of power for Cunobelin, known to Shakespeare as Cymbeline, King of the Catuvellauni (c.5 BC - AD 40), who minted coins there.[7] Its Celtic name, Camulodunon, variously represented as CA, CAM, CAMV, CAMVL and CAMVLODVNO on the coins of Cunobelinus, means 'the fortress of (the war god) Camulos'.[8]

Roman Colchester

Soon after the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43, a Roman legionary fortress was established.[9] Later, when the Roman frontier moved outwards and the twentieth legion had moved to the west (c.AD 49), Camulodunum became a colonia named in a second-century inscription as Colonia Victricensis. This contained a large and elaborate Temple to the Divine Claudius.[10]

Camulodunum served as a provincial Roman capital of Britain, but was attacked and destroyed during Boudica's rebellion in AD 61.[11] Sometime after the destruction, London became the capital of the province of Britannia.[12] Colchester's town walls c. 3,000 yd. long were built c.65-80 A.D. when the Roman town was rebuilt after the Boudicca rebellion.[13] In 2004 Colchester Archaeological Trust discovered the remains of a Roman Circus (chariot race track) underneath the Garrison in Colchester, a unique find in Britain.[14]

Sub-Roman and Saxon Colchester

There is evidence of hasty re-organisation of Colchester's defences around AD 268-82, followed later, during the fourth century, by the blocking of the Balkerne Gate.[15] Dr John Morris (1913 - June 1977) the historian who specialised in the study of the institutions of the Roman Empire and the history of Sub-Roman Britain, suggested in his book "The Age of Arthur" (1973) that as the descendants of Romanised Britons looked back to a golden age of peace and prosperity under Rome the name "Camelot" of Arthurian legend was a reference to Camulodunum, the capital of Britannia in Roman times.[16]

The archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler was the first to propose that the lack of early Anglo-Saxon finds in a triangle between London, Colchester and St Albans could indicate a 'sub-Roman triangle' where British rule continued after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons.[17] Since then excavations have revealed some early Saxon occupation, including a fifth-century wooden hut built on the ruins of a Roman house in present-day Lion Walk. Archaeological excavations have shown that public buildings were abandoned, and is very doubtful whether Colchester survived as a settlement with any urban characteristics after the sixth century.[18]

The chronology of its revival is obscure. But the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, attributed to Nennius, mentions the town, which it calls Cair Colun, in a list of the thirty most important cities in Britain.[19] Colchester was in the area assigned to the Danelaw in c.880, and remained in Danish hands until 917 when it was besieged and recaptured by the army of Edward the Elder[20] The tenth-century Saxons called the town Colneceastre, which is directly equivalent to the Cair Colun of 'Nennius'.[21] The tower of Holy Trinity Church is late Saxon work.

Middle Ages

Colchester Castle

Mediæval Colchester's main landmark is Colchester Castle, which is an 11th-century Norman keep, and built on top of the vaults of the old Roman Temple of Claudius. Notable mediæval ruins in Colchester include the surviving gateway of the Benedictine abbey of St. John the Baptist (known locally as "St. John's Abbey"), and the ruins of the Augustinian priory of St Botolph (known locally as "St Botolph's Priory"). Many of Colchester's parish churches date from this period.

In 1189, Colchester was granted its first royal charter by King Richard I. The charter was granted at Dover as the king was about to embark on one of his many journeys away from England. The borough celebrated the 800th anniversary of its charter in 1989.[22]

Colchester developed rapidly during the later fourteenth century as a centre of the woollen cloth industry, and became famous in many parts of Europe for its russets (grey-brown fabrics). This allowed the population to recover exceptionally rapidly from the effects of the Black Death, particularly by immigration into the town.[23]

By the 'New Constitutions' of 1372 a borough council was instituted; the two baillifs who represented the borough to the king were now expected to consult sixteen ordinary councillors and eight auditors (later called aldermen). Even though Colchester's fortunes were more mixed during the fifteenth century, it was still a more important place by the sixteenth century than it had been in the thirteenth. In 1334 it would not have ranked among England's wealthiest fifty towns, to judge from the taxation levied that year. By 1524, however, it ranked twelfth, as measured by its assessment to a lay subsidy.[23]

Tudor Colchester

Between 1550 and 1600, a large number of weavers and clothmakers from Flanders emigrated to Colchester and the surrounding areas. They were famed for the production of Bays and Says cloth. An area in Colchester city centre is still known as the Dutch Quarter and many buildings there date from the Tudor period. During this period Colchester was one of the most prosperous wool towns in England. The old Roman wall runs along Northgate Street in the Dutch Quarter.

17th century

The place of the execution

In 1648, during the Second English Civil War, a Royalist army led by Lord Goring entered the town. A pursuing Parliamentary army led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Henry Ireton surrounded the town for eleven and a half weeks, a period known as the Siege of Colchester. It started on the 13 June. The Royalists surrendered in the late summer (on the 27 August Lord Goring signed the surrender document in the Kings Head Inn) and Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle were executed in the grounds of Colchester Castle.[24] A small obelisk marks the spot where they fell.

Daniel Defoe mentions in A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain that the town lost 5259 people to the plague in 1665, "more in proportion than any of its neighbours, or than the city of London". By the time he wrote this in 1722, however, he estimated its population to be around 40,000 (including "out-villages").

Victorian Colchester

Colchester is noted for its Victorian architecture. Significant landmarks include the Colchester Town Hall and the Jumbo Water Tower.

In 1884 the town was struck by the Colchester earthquake, estimated to have been 4.7 on the Richter Scale causing extensive regional damage.

The Paxman diesels business has been associated with Colchester since 1865 when James Noah Paxman founded a partnership with the brothers Henry and Charles Davey ('Davey, Paxman, and Davey') and opened the Standard Ironworks. In 1925 Paxman produced its first spring injection oil engine and joined the English Electric Diesel Group in 1966 - later becoming part of the GEC Group. Since the 1930s the Paxman company's main business has been the production of diesel engines.

Big Society

Colchester and the surrounding area is currently undergoing significant regeneration,[25] including extremely controversial greenfield residential development in Mile End and Braiswick.[26]

Colchester Town Watch[27] was founded in 2001 to provide a ceremonial guard for the Mayor of Colchester and for civic events such as the Oyster Feast. The historic re-enactors wear a livery based on late Elizabethan dress. Colchester Town Watch is accompanied by the musicians of the Colchester Town Waits[28] - a musical tradition dating back to the 14th century.

The town's football team, Colchester United, moved into a brand new stadium at Cuckoo Farm (known as the 'Weston Homes Community Stadium) in 2008. This stadium has a capacity of 10,000, and will soon be served by a new junction off the A12 (completed winter 2010/2011).

The Army

The military corrective training centre

Colchester has been an important military garrison since the Roman era. The Colchester Garrison is currently home to the 16th Air Assault Brigade.

The Army's only military corrective training centre, known colloquially within the forces and locally as "The Glasshouse" after the original military prison in Aldershot,[29] is in Berechurch Hall Road, on the outskirts of Colchester. The centre holds servicemen and women from all three services who are sentenced to serve periods of detention.

From 1998 to 2008 the garrison area of the town underwent massive redevelopment. A lot of the Ministry of Defence land was sold for private housing development and parts of the garrison were moved. Many parts of the garrison now stand empty awaiting the second phase of the development.

Since 2006, Colchester has been one of 12 places in the United Kingdom where Royal Salutes are fired to mark Royal anniversaries and visits by foreign heads of state. From 2009, these salutes have taken place in Castle Park.



The Mercury Theatre

Colchester houses several museums. The Castle Museum, found within Colchester Castle, features an extensive exhibit on Roman Colchester. Nearby are Hollytrees Museum, a social history museum with children's exhibits in the former home of Charles Gray (MP)|Charles Gray, and the town's Natural History Museum, located in the former All Saints' Church. Tymperley's Clock Museum, located in the town centre in a 15th-century timber-framed house, once home to William Gilbert, now houses the Bernard Mason clock collection.


Opened in 1972, the Mercury Theatre]] is one the region's leading repertory theatres. Next door is Colchester Arts Centre,[30] a multi-function arts venue located in the former St Mary-at-the-Walls church, and home of the Colchester Beer Festival. Headgate Theatre is also in Colchester.

firstsite is a contemporary art organisation, currently housed in the Minories, near the Castle. A new gallery, the Visual Arts Facility, designed by Rafael Viñoly, is under construction nearby, and due for completion in September 2011, after delays caused by a shortfall in funding. The total cost is predicted to be £25.5 million, £9 million more than the original estimate.[31]

Other than the Arts Centre, live music venues in Colchester include The Twist, Charter Hall, The Fat Cat (pub), and several others.

In 2009 an art collective called 'Slack Space' took up some of the closed-down shops in the town and converted them into art galleries with the hope of promoting art and design in the town. Art is rather prominent in Colchester due to the Colchester School of Art and Design which is based in Colchester Institute near the centre of the town.

In popular culture

Colchester is reputed by some to be the home of three of the best known English nursery rhymes: 'Old King Cole', 'Humpty Dumpty' and 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'.

  • Old King Cole, so local legend says ruled in Colchester. King Cole (or Coel) was a legendary ancient king of Britain. The name "Colchester" bears the suffix chester from castrum (fortress), and in folk etymology the name "Colchester" was taken to mean "Cole's Castle". In the legend Helena, the daughter of Cole, married the Roman senator Constantius Chlorus, who had been sent by Rome as an ambassador and was named as Cole's successor. Their son became the Emperor Constantine I. Helena was later canonised as Saint Helena of Constantinople and was named the patron saint of Colchester. Irksomely for local pride, scholarship and Welsh legend place Old King Cole, Coel Hen, in a later generation and ruling in the north of Britain.
  • Humpty Dumpty, according to the most widely credited stories about the rhyme, arose from events in Colchester. One tale is that Humpty Dumpty was the Royalist sniper One-Eyed Thompson, who sat in the belfry of the church of St Mary-at-the-Walls during the siege of Colchester, and that he was given the nickname "Humpty Dumpty" because of his size. Thompson was shot down and shortly afterwards the town was lost to the Parliamentarians. Another version says that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon placed on the top of the church, which fell and smashed when the church tower was hit by Roundhead artillery. The church of St Mary-at-the-Walls still retains its Norman tower until the top few feet, which are a Georgian repair.
  • 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, was written by Jane Taylor in the town's Dutch Quarter, and published in 1806 with the title "The Star". The tune was not hers but is much older and famously Mozart wrote a set of variations to it when but a child.

Camelot, the legendary seat of King Arthur, may have been Colchester, some have suggested. It had been the capital of Roman Britain and its ancient name of Camulodunum suggests "Camelot".

The first part of Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders was set in Colchester.

In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, thinks back to his childhood and his first memories of war, recalling: "Perhaps it was the time when the atomic bomb had fallen on Colchester." (Part 1, Chapter 3). Colchester was also a named line of lathe machinery.[32]


  1. "Markets and fairs". British History Online. Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  2. "Concerns over 'fast-growing' town". BBC News. 2010-04-16. 
  3. "Population to soar in Colchester above 200,000 (From Gazette)". 2010-05-31. Retrieved 2010-12-22. 
  4. "Colchester: Town the size of Portsmouth in eight years (From Essex County Standard)". 2010-06-04. Retrieved 2010-12-22. 
  5. "World Heritage applications". Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 7 July 2010. Retrieved 9 August 2010. 
  6. Pliny, Naturalis Historia, II, 187
  7. P. Salway, Roman Britain (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1981), pp. 55-6
  8. V. Watts, The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2004), p. 113; T. W. Potter, 'The Transformation of Britain', in P. Salway, ed., The Roman Era (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2002), p. 21
  9. J. Nelson, ed., The Victoria History of the County of Essex, IX (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1994), pp. 7-10
  10. Nelson, ed. V.C.H. Essex, IX, p. 10
  11. Salway, Roman Britain, pp. 89-90, 117-18
  12. Salway, Roman Britain, p. 530
  13. "Walls and Gates British History". Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  14. D. Mattingly, An Imperial Possession; Britain in the Roman Empire (Penguin Books: London, 2007), pp. 269-70
  15. J. Cooper, ed., The Victoria History of the County of Essex, IX: The Borough of Colchester (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1995), pp. 16-17, 248
  16. J. Morris, The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, 3 vols (Phillimore: Chichester, 1977), I, p. 138
  17. R. E. M. Wheeler, London and the Saxons (London, 1935)
  18. J. N. L. Myres, The English Settlements (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1986), p. 214
  19. Nennius, ed. J. Morris (Phillimore: London and Chichester, 1980); Watts, Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names, p. 149
  20. D, Hill, An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon History (Blackwell: Oxford, 1981), pp. 47, 56-8; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. G. N. Garmondsway, 2nd edition (Dent: London, 1954), p. 103; F, Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd edition, (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1947), pp. 324-5
  21. Watts, Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names, p. 149
  22. "Oyster Fayre - 1989 News Reports". 27 December 2002. Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 R.H. Britnell, Growth and Decline in Colchester, 1300-1525 (Cambridge, 1986, reprinted 2009)
  24. The English Civil War: a military history of the three civil wars, 1642-1651, Young, Peter and Holmes, Richard (1974) p.290. Available here [1]
  25. "Homepage — Colchester Borough Council". Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  26. "Home". Love Myland. Retrieved 2010-12-22. 
  27. "Colchester Town Watch". Colchester Town Watch. Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  28. "Colchester Waits op MySpace Music – Gratis gestreamde MP3's, foto's en Videoclips". Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  29. "The Glasshouse — The Aldershot Military Detention Barracks". Hampshire County Council. Retrieved 2008-11-07. 
  30. "Current Events". Colchester Arts Centre. Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  31. "Colchester: £2 m more to finish off new art gallery (From Gazette)". 2008-11-18. Retrieved 2010-01-17. 
  32. "As detailed here". Retrieved 2010-12-22. 

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