Colchester: England’s Oldest Recorded Town

Colchester is the oldest recorded town in England. The town was initially called Camulodunum, meaning the stronghold of Camulos—the deity of the Celts equated with Mars. The Roman invasion of Britain by Emperor Claudius in AD 41 led to the construction of the Temple of Claudius. It was the largest pagan temple in Roman Britain. The town itself was used as a Roman Legionary Base—a fortified military camp. The temple was dedicated to Claudius after his death. As an embodiment of the Roman rule in Great Britain, the town inevitably became a target for many rebels. The society that prospered under the Romans prioritized the riches and exploited the poor. The elites who cooperated with the Romans received more wealth and status. The lower-class citizens were forced to construct buildings and temples to boost the status of the upper-class. The discrepancy fueled dissent and turmoil, leading to a rebellion.

The open rebellion in AD 50 was led by Boudica, the queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe. Although the rebellion failed, the influence of Boudica herself remained until today. She became a figure that represents strong female empowerment, a freedom fighter, and a symbol of Britishness. In 2010, a hip hop group of female dancers were formed. They were called Boadicea, prizing themselves as “a sisterhood of strong females who aren’t afraid to fight as warriors.” A picture of the Boadicea group is displayed at the Colchester Castle museum, showing bold women from different diverse backgrounds. The brightness of their outfits and their unapologetic poses perfectly embodied the group’s name.

The upheaval and riots eventually destroyed the town but the temple itself, with its large doors and windowless rooms, provided refuge for the survivors. Throughout this tumultuous period, the temple was destroyed and rebuilt over and over again. During the Saxon period, the temple became known as the palace of King Coel, the grandfather of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. The Colchester Castle, later built by the Normans around 1100, stands on the remains of the infamous Temple of Claudius.

The Colchester Castle—captured, besieged, breached—became of different uses over the years. William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England, ordered the construction of this royal castle. However, it was not completed until 1100, thirteen years after he had died. Colchester prospered under Norman rule. In the First Baron’s War, King John captured the castle. In 1645, it became a county prison in which people suspected of witchcraft and paganism were interrogated and tortured. Walking around the castle, the small windows sparsely spaced along the side barely let in any sunlight, making it the perfect prison but also unfathomable to imagine it as a royal castle with its confining nature.

Since Colchester was one of the most important towns in medieval England—with its historical significance—Henry V issued the royal charter in 1413 to the town, allowing it to prosper and commemorate its Roman past and long history. The charter gave the town more control over its own affairs, providing more opportunities to revolutionize its wealth and status.

Walking around town, Colchester’s historical significance and embattled past are very much palpable. The remains of the town wall built by the Romans and the bullet holes on the sides of buildings turned a mere walk into a walk through history.

-Natty Maneerit ’18

Author: maneeritn

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