There are no written records to shed light on life in Colchester in the 500 years after the end of the Roman rule. The next documented event was in 917 when the Wessex King Edward the Elder, son of Alfred the Great, expelled a Danish garrison that was occupying the town. Edward repaired Colchester's walls and effectively re-established the town.
The Saxons may have given Colchester its modern name, which derives from Colneceaster, meaning ‘Fortress on the Colne'. Only one of their buildings, the tower of Holy Trinity Church, still stands. This dates from about 1000 and is the earliest surviving medieval building in Colchester, built using brick and tile of the town's Roman remains.
The Normans in Colchester
The victory of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 brought Anglo-Saxon England to an abrupt end. The Normans found a busy port and market town in Colchester, and chose it as the site for one of the first stone castles in England. Construction of Colchester Castle began within ten years of the conquest, pre-dating both the Tower of London and Norwich Castle.
The massive foundations of the ruined Temple of Claudius formed a convenient base for the castle keep, which is consequently the largest ever built by the Normans. Its purpose was both to control the town and surrounding area and to act as a defence against seaborne invasion from Scandinavia. In practice it saw military action only once, in 1216 when King John besieged the castle and recaptured it from French mercenary troops sent to aid his rebellious barons.
The long entry for Colchester in the Doomsday Book catalogues a small but wealthy town. A new port was established at the Hythe before 1200, thriving on international trade, and in 1189 the town received the first Royal Charter from King Richard I. This gave wealthier citizens various rights to manage local affairs, including markets, the Colne fisheries and judicial arrangements. These privileges were confirmed and extended by successive charters throughout the Medieval period.
Medieval sites in Colchester today
Medieval Colchester had a number of religious foundations, including St. Botolph's Priory, the first Augustinian house in England, and St John's Abbey. Today the impressive ruins of the great church at St Botolph's only hint at the scale of the medieval priory, while at St John's Abbey some long sections of the precinct wall and the later Tudor gatehouse survive.
In 1348 at least a quarter of Colchester's population died of the plague as the Black Death swept through Western Europe. The town not only survived the crisis but soon experienced a new golden age as trade recovered and the local cloth industry boomed.
Colchester Castle today is a museum displaying the riches of Colchester's past, within the walls of the largest Norman keep ever built. Colchester Town Centre itself has many historic sites to explore, and you can download the Ancient Colchester App to see these sites comes to life.
Colchester Castle is the largest Norman Keep in Europe. Constructed on the foundations of the Temple of Claudius. The Castle Museum today reveals many fascinating layers of history to visitors.
The first English Augustinian priory church, founded at the end of the eleventh century from the Anglo-Saxon minster community of Colchester. Only the ruined remains of the nave survive today, under the care of English Heritage.