Medieval Colchester

Colchester in the Middle Ages

The Medieval Period, or Middle Ages, lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD until around the 15th century. During this time Colchester saw an Anglo-Saxon settlement, Viking and Norman Invasion, and a thriving cloth and weaving industry become established. Colchester regained its position as one of the most important towns in the country, receiving its royal charter in 1189

Many of Colchester's most notable and important historic buildings were built during this period, including Colchester Castle, St Botolph's Priory, St John's Abbey, as well as settlement in the Dutch Quarter and town centre in general.

Today there is much to explore from this fascinating period in Colchester's history.

Construction of Colchester Castle - Peter Froste

Anglo-Saxon Colchester

Saxon Doorway on Holy Trinity Church
Saxon Doorway built using Roman tiles - Holy Trinity Church

Although there are no written records regarding life in Colchester in the 500 years after the end of the Roman rule, the Saxons established the kingdom of Essex around AD 527 and probably gave 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 AD 1000 and is the earliest surviving medieval building in Colchester, built using brick and tile of the town's Roman remains.

In the late 9th century Colchester came under Viking control and 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 Normans in Colchester

Colchester Castle Museum
Built on the ruins of a Roman Temple in the late 1060s, Colchester Castle was one of the first stone castles in the country, and largest Norman Keep in Europe. Its design is similar to the White Tower at the Tower of London, although Colchester Castle is both larger, and in fact pre-dates it.

It has seen 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.
St Botolph's Priory
Founded in 1099 before eventually being closed by Henry VIII in 1536 and then severely damaged during the Siege of Colchester in 1648, St Botolph's Priory was once headquarters for the Augustinians in the country.

Located in Colchester town centre, just a stone's throw from the Castle, the priory is today maintained by English Heritage. Entry and access to the photogenic ruins is free of charge.
St Helen's Chapel
Older than both the Castle and the Priory, St Helen's Chapel can be found in Colchester's historic Dutch Quarter. Like the Castle it is built on Roman foundations, however in the chapel's case on the corner of the Roman Theatre.

Named after St Helena, the patron saint of Colchester, St Helen's Chapel is now home to the Greek Orthodox Church in Colchester and is usually open to look around.

Medieval 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.

Medieval Sites in Colchester

St Botolph's Priory, Colchester

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.

Colchester Castle Museum

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.

Holy Trinity Church

Colchester's only surviving Saxon building which has an arrowhead (triangle arches) doorway in the tower and features re-used Roman bricks.

Dutch Quarter

Located just north of the High Street and includes: Maidenburgh Street, West Stockwell Street, East Stockwell Street, Stockwell Street, St Helen's Lane, Northgate Street and Nunn's Road.

St John's Abbey Gate

Dating from the 15th century this fine flint flushwork gatehouse just off St John's Green has a vaulted interior. It was the entrance to St John's Abbey precinct (demolished during the 16th century Reformation).