1. 1st to 13th Century – The Romans to the friars

A town is developed

Before the Romans, the original Celtic place name for the area was Camuldunon, meaning ‘The Fortress of Camulos”, who was the Celtic War God whose name means ‘powerful’. The area belonged to the Trinovantes tribe. The Romans must have been comfortable with this as they simply Romanised the name to Camulodunum. Modern-day Gosbeck’s Farm (to the south-west, on the Maldon Road) was the site of the royal palace of Cunobelin. The Romans had allowed Cunobelin to ‘rule’ the south-eastern corner of Britain until the Celtic surrender to the might of Claudius’s forces in AD43 when the full invasion took place. This area was later developed to include a large temple and a theatre.

The colony (or ‘colonia’) set up where Colchester’s town centre now stands, must once have been something of a rather quiet, semi-rural scene. It had been open and undefended since its establishment, developed from a military base which had been set up circa AD43 in a commanding position on the top of a rise. The Temple of Claudius was built just outside the fortress, in the north-east portion of the colonia circa AD44, adjacent to the area which was to become Grey Friars. It was basically a civilian development, forming the first capital of the province. The inhabitants’ tranquillity was shattered in AD60 when, as a result of Rome’s insulting and barbaric treatment of her tribe and family, Boudicca (the Iceni queen) led her forces to destroy the defenceless colonia.

Following this devastating destruction (the attack on the Temple of Claudius is depicted above by Peter Froste, courtesy Colchester Archaeological Trust) the inadequate previous boundaries were transformed into full military defences with banks, foundations, interval towers and monumental gateways. Thus, for the first time, the area later to become Grey Friars was enclosed within the north-east corner of the walls, between East Gate and Duncan’s Gate.

Around AD70 saw the completion of the rebuilding of the town, a restored temple, the first city wall in Britain, a number of important religious sites and many public facilities. Unfortunately, Londinium (also recovering from an attack by Boudicca) became the capital, but the town retained cult status (as ‘Colonia Victricensis’) until the collapse of Roman rule circa AD420.

The area later to become the Grey Friars site had its shape dictated partly by the position of the Roman wall to the north and east, and the main Roman street to the south. Its western boundary has never been accurately located.

Roman street pattern, courtesy Colchester Archaeological Trust. Grey Friars site is situated in top right-hand corner (NE corner) of the town wall, between Duncan’s Gate and East Gate.

The street leading south from Duncan’s Gate, however, may give an indication of the western boundary. If we assume that pre-existing features, such as earthworks and roads are often used as convenient markers for later boundaries, the fact that the street can be seen to divert slightly to the west gives us a clue. For in later plans and drawings of the area, this anomaly can be seen, with, variously, hedges, paths and boundaries shown with the same divergence to the west (see section 3 of this book). What we can be sure of, however, is that the majority of the Grey Friars site was eventually to be located within the north-east corner of the town wall, and its western boundary was somewhere between the eastern wall and the castle earthworks, later to be built around the position of the Temple of Claudius.

Little is known of the site during the period between the end of the Roman occupation and the arrival of the Normans in around 1066 (the ‘Dark Ages’ when few details were recorded). The Normans found a busy port and market town, at risk from Scandinavian predators, and decided to build a fortress. Circa 1069, the foundations for the castle, as ordered by William the Conqueror, were constructed around the remains of the temple. The Roman temple’s podium, still existing, was retained as part of the floor. The castle was then erected reusing much material to be found in the vicinity. It was one of the first built in England and its keep is the largest, the dimensions determined by the remaining Temple of Claudius foundations. At around 1076 its completion predates the White Tower at the Tower of London. Throughout the Middle Ages the castle and much surrounding land, especially to the north and to the east, was held by the Crown. It fell into ruin from the C15th, but was used for many years as a prison. In 1645 Matthew Hopkins, the ‘Witchfinder General’ used the castle to imprison and question suspected witches. However, although there was a threat from King Cnut of Denmark and later, in 1216, from King John, the castle saw comparatively little military action in its lifetime and it remains relatively well-preserved. The remains of the Temple of Claudius below the castle may be seen as part of a guided tour.


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