Colchester was one of the most important Iron Age settlements in Britain. Founded on the banks of the River Colne it was a major pre-Roman power, from which King Cunobelin ruled over the Celtic tribes of the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes . After the Roman invasion of AD43 the settlement was established as a Colonia for retired military officers, a status that it retained until the Roman withdrawal from Britain early in the 5 th century. In AD77 the noted Roman literary figure Pliny the Elder, on describing the location of the Isle of Anglesey, referred to it as being ‘about 200-miles from Camulodunum , a town in Britain'. This was the Roman name for Colchester and is the earliest known reference to a fixed settlement in Britain - hence the proud claim that Colchester is Britain's oldest recorded town.
After their invasion of Britain in AD43 the Romans quickly occupied the Celtic tribal settlement at Colchester, constructing a legionary fortress on North Hill in AD44, now under the western half of the present town. Within five years the function of the fortress had changed, for as Roman occupation of Britain moved north and west it was planned to replace the military base with the civilian township of Camulodunum. The site became a colonia, inhabited by military veterans at first, and was later recognised as Britain's first ever civitas or city. In AD54 a vast classical-style temple was built , dedicated to the Emperor Claudius, and within stood a life-size bronze statue of the emperor of which the head still survives.
In AD60 Prasutagus, King of the Iceni tribe, died with no son to succeed him and the Romans refused to recognise his wife Queen Boudica or his daughters as heirs; instead they assaulted the women. Boudica exacted terrible revenge in AD60 uniting other tribes to her cause; the Iceni Queen destroyed Colchester, St Albans and London leading a huge revolt against Roman rule before her final demise. When Camulodunum was rebuilt, it was encircled by a heavily fortified defensive wall of which about two-thirds can still be seen today.
This symbol of imperial domination, together with alleged rapacity of the local Roman financial administration and arrogant maltreatment of Britons by the colonists, fanned the simmering flames of tribal revolt, and in AD60/1 the full wrath of Queen Boudicca and her Iceni warriors was turned upon Camulodunum. The inhabitants took refuge in the huge temple but were slaughtered to a man, the temple destroyed and the wooden-built township fired.
After the rebellion was crushed Roman Colchester was slow to recover and a defensive stone wall with ramparts was not erected until early in the 2nd century. This wall incorporated an earlier monumental arch built to commemorate the Claudian conquest of Britain, becoming a feature of the city's western gate; impressive remains of wall and gate still stand near the mighty Balkerne
Gate. Camulodunum developed into a large and important town and port with a significant population of 10/12000 inhabitants, becoming the first recorded city in England in AD77.
Many of the splendid artefacts that remain to us from Roman Colchester may be viewed in the museum, situated in the Norman castle built directly upon the foundations of the Claudian Temple. Best among these are some notable mosaics, bronze statuettes, the gladiator vase and a funerary monument called the Colchester Sphinx, produced by local craftsmen working in clay, stone, glass, bone and bronze. Tiles and bricks were also manufactured in the Roman town. Most impressive among these remains however, are two famous military tombstones from the early years of occupation. One is of a Roman centurion of the 20th Legion, containing a superbly detailed full-length portrait of the dead soldier in full uniform. The other tombstone is of an auxiliary cavalryman from Bulgaria, wearing a metal-plated jerkin.
Little is recorded of British history after the Roman departure in about AD410 until the Norman invasion in the 11 th century - hence the term Dark Ages. It has been suggested that Colchester may have been the centre of a loosely controlled British Kingdom during the 5 th & 6 th centuries, and claims are made for it being the original Camelot where the fabled King Arthur held court. The name Camelot may well be a derivation of the Roman Camelod -unum, but unfortunately there is no evidence to substantiate this.
When the Normans arrived in 1066 they found Colchester to be a busy port and market town but vulnerable, they felt, to possible Danish invasion. Almost immediately work started on the construction of a stone castle built on the site of the former Temple of Claudius; remains of the temple foundations still lie beneath the castle and can be visited on a guided-tour. One of England's first stone-built castles, its construction is associated with Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, William the Conqueror's great builder-priest. Work began about 1080 and the walls were fortified in 1085 to counter the expected Scandinavian invasion. When the latter failed to materialise work continued on the mighty castle keep, the largest ever built by the Normans predating the Tower of London. It was raised to a height of three storeys and its inner and outer baileys, ditches and ramparts were probably complete by the early 12 th century.
The castle remained the gift of the monarch to a succession of stewards, being too sombre an edifice for royal residency. Since the 16 th century Colchester Castle has been a ruin, a library and a prison for witches. In 1931 the main building was roofed to provide galleries for the town's extensive collection of Romano-British artefacts; it is an award-winning museum fostering local interest in the site and featuring many hands-on displays. In addition to the castle which, having seen very little military action, remains in excellent condition, there are two major religious sites contemporary in time - St Botolph's Priory, the first Augustinian house in England, and St John's Abbey, the gatehouse of which still survives.
In the Stuart Period Colchester played an important role during the English Civil War (1642-9) when in 1648 its Royalist garrison came under heavy siege. At the rear of the castle is a monument marking the spot where two Royalist commanders, Lucas and Lisle, were executed by a Parliamentarian firing squad when the town eventually fell. The citizens of Colchester, having suffered extreme deprivation during the siege were later to have the Great Plague visited upon them, in which half the population, over 4000 people, died from its effects.
Another historic section of the city is the ‘Dutch Quarter', named after the large number of Flemish refugees who fled Flanders for Colchester around 1575 after a failed rebellion against Catholic Spain. Elizabeth I's Protestant England was a safe haven to which these Dutch emigrants fled, many of whom were skilled weavers who established their renowned community at Colchester where they lived, worked and flourished. Many of their timber-framed houses still remain in their original unspoilt state. Tymperleys Clock Museum is housed in such a timber-framed building, but dates back to the early Tudor Period of about 1500. The Siege House pub still retains bullet holes in its walls from the famous 1648 Siege of Colchester.
The Town Hall, built in 1902 with its imposing 164ft high clock tower, is topped by a statue of St Helena, patron saint of Colchester; she is represented on the town's Borough Arms, which first appeared in 1413, on a charter granted to Colchester borough by Henry V. Another notable town landmark is the enormous and imposing Victorian water tower built in 1882, familiarly known as ‘Jumbo'. It stands near to the Balkerne Gate, believed to be the original main entrance into Roman Camulodunum .