History of medieval Colchester

Colchester and suburbs at the close of the Middle Ages

This is a clickable imagemap.


This map, based heavily on that of John Speed in 1610 (but showing a wider area), was in fact drawn up in 1648 to show the siege works and defensive provisions, when a Royalist force occupied the town and was besieged by a Parliamentary army; the 11-week siege saw a great deal of destruction to houses, churches, walls and gates. Here I have edited out features related to the siege. What remains is a picture of the town that was likely not so different from that ca.1500.




Crouched Friars
They established a friary here before 1272, perhaps taking over an earlier wayside hospital, to which function it had returned by the end of the Middle Ages (as well as serving as the meeting place for the Gild of Holy Cross).


St. John's Abbey
Founded 1095/96, to the south of the southern suburb of the town, the Benedictine abbey replaced a small pre-Conquest church. The original abbey was destroyed by fire (1133) and gradually rebuilt then expanded. After the Dissolution, the abbey came into the hands of the Lucas family (gentry). It, along with the rest of the Lucas property, was largely destroyed during the siege of Colchester in 1648, except for the 15th century gatehouse.


St. Giles
Probably built in the first half of the 12th century for the use of tenants and servants of the abbey, given its location within the abbey precinct and the fact that the boundaries of the parish lay largely within the abbey demesne. Possibly it succeeded an Anglo-Saxon wooden church, dedicated to St. John, that was on the northern part of the abbey site, just prior to the abbey's foundation. St. Giles was badly damaged during the siege of 1648.


St. Botolph's
The earliest ecclesiastical building on the site may perhaps have been a minster church dedicated to this saint, a 7th-century East Anglian abbot (after whom the coastal port of Boston was named); this strongly suggests an Anglo-Saxon origin for the structure. Churches with such dedications are not uncommonly found near the entrances to settlements, for the saint was a patron of travellers. The presence of a Roman cemetery around the site has even caused speculation that a church might have stood there in much earlier times. The first St. Botolph's probably functioned as the parish church of the southern suburb; it was then served by a small college of priests. In the last decade of the 11th century it became the Priory of St. Julian and St. Botolph, the first Augustinian priory established in England, and as such granted authority over all subsequent Augustinian foundations in England. Reverting to the role of parish church after the Dissolution (if indeed part of it had not continued in that role throughout the Middle Ages), when its conventual buildings were pulled down, the church itself was badly damaged during the siege of 1648.


St. Mary Magdalen
Founded as a hospital by Eudo the Steward, to support four leprous residents, its chapel became a parish church and (unlike the hospital per se) was able to survive the Dissolution. However, the medieval church was replaced by a Victorian building in the mid-19th century.


Magdalen Street
The road leading down to the port has been considerably foreshortened by the map-maker.


The Hythe
Perhaps the port for the Roman city; in the late Middle Ages it was referred to as New Hythe, a different haven (Old Hythe) having been used in the Saxon period. Building of a footbridge there was licensed in 1407, on condition it not block the passage of ships.


St. Leonard's
A good-sized church here served the parish around the port during the 12th century, but surviving fabric is no earlier than late medieval.


East Street
The road pasing through the East Gate, down to the East Bridge, led to routes into Suffolk (e.g. to Ipswich and Harwich).


North Bridge
There was a bridge here from Roman times. In the Middle Ages there was a suburb on the far side of the bridge. The bridge marked the boundary of the borough jurisdiction over the Colne fishery.


(site of) North Mill
A grain mill until the Black Death; in the second half of that century it was converted to fulling.


Middle Mill
A grain mill until the Black Death, after which it was converted to fulling, but rebuilt to handle grain at the beginning of the 15th century.


East Mill


Hythe Mill
There was a fulling mill somewhere near the Hythe in the late 14th century; a grain mill had been built before 1428 by the bailiffs and community. Both were derelict by the end of the Middle Ages.



This is a clickable imagemap.

St. Martin's
The tower and some minor elements date from the 12th century, while much of the rest of the fabric is late medieval. There are some reasons to think there may have been a church on the site in late Anglo-Saxon times, perhaps even as far back as the end of the Roman occupation.


St. Runwald's
Likely of late Saxon origin, judging from the dedication. Before it lay the main market of the borough, and the medieval shambles were adjacent. Its central placement within the High Street, without any surrounding churchyard, suggests it could have been an intrusion into an already built-up area, possibly built as a chapel serving the marketplace and only later acquiring parochial status and a detached cemetery. However, an alternative hypothesis is that the original street passed south of it but widening of the street to serve as a marketplace involved demolition of buildings adjacent to the church, leaving it isolated within an open area. It was itself demolished in 1878.


St. Helen's chapel
Local legend – perhaps inspired by the impressive Roman walls – had Helen as a daughter of the mythical King Coel, ruler of Colchester, and as the mother of the Emperor Constantine. Neither has historical foundation; but more significantly St. Helen became viewed as patron saint of the town – her image was featured on the community seal. The same medieval tradition had the chapel being restored in 1076 by Eudo the Steward; if true, this might suggest an Anglo-Saxon origin, and there is some indication the chapel was built atop the remains of a Roman structure. Eudo gave it to the Abbey as part of his foundation endowment and Henry II's grant of a fair and a fair site beside the chapel was probably to fund a chantry in the chapel. But in 1290 the Abbot was convicted of neglecting to provide a chaplain to celebrate in the chapel during part of each week. Perhaps in part because of the resulting impoverishment and decay of the chapel, ca. 1320 John de Colcestre, the rector of Tendring (apparently a member of a prominent burgess family), endowed a chantry there with numerous rents and land to support a chaplain, and made the bailiffs and community the effective patrons; they subsequently placed the chantry under the administration of the Gild of St. Helen's (a fraternity of which many leading townsmen, as well as some county dignitaries, were members) although retaining control over presentments. It is possible this history reflects two chapels of the same dedication: the earlier somewhere neighbouring the castle, the later (possibly originally envisaged as a hospital) just west of it on a site in Maidenburgh Street owned by St. Botolph's priory; yet it may be that the abbey, having lost interest in a chapel perhaps originally created to serve the castle but with inadequate or unrealizable financial endowment for an expanded function, simply conveyed it to the priory, opening the way for a refoundation.


St. Nicholas
In existence at least by the 12th century, but rebuilt in the 14th, and again in the 1870s, finally to be demolished in 1955. Parts of the church had Roman walls for their foundation, although the Roman structure was probably secular, not ecclesiastical. The position of the church, close to the centre of the walled borough and at one end of the High Street marketplace (the dedication being to a patron saint of traders) could suggest an early origin, perhaps around the tenth or eleventh century when the High Street seems to have re-emerged as the socio-economic focus of the town.


All Saints
There remains minor evidence of Norman work in the church, although it is not impossible that there was an even earlier church, given the location and the incorporation of brickwork from an even earlier Roman structure (this part of town being the forum/basilica). It was expanded in the 14th and 15th century, with a tower and other additions.


St. Mary's-at-the-Wall
Built on the site of a Roman house, with the original church perhaps of Saxon date (judging from burials in the vicinity), it may have been created as, or come to be, the private church of an estate of the Bishop of London (a soke outside the jurisdiction of borough authorities). Joseph Elianore obtained royal licence in 1338 to found a chantry there which during the 1340s he endowed with numerous lands and rents. The earliest known school in Colchester was located here in the 15th century. The church's proximity to the wall made it a defensive position, and target for the besiegers, in 1648. It was ruinous when rebuilt in the next century, to be demolished (except for its tower) in 1872.


St. James
A church stood here from at least the 12th century (although that may have been a rebuilding of an earlier structure). There was further and substantial rebuilding in the 15th century.


St. Peter's
The only Colchester church mentioned by name in Domesday, when evidently already well-endowed with lands. Its key position near the junction of two major streets also indicates its importance in the town. The surviving medieval fabric is, however, 15th century. The depiction in 1648 still reflects the medieval cruciform plan of the church, with a prominent tower (replaced in the 18th century) at the centre.


Holy Trinity
It still has its Saxon tower, dating to ca.1000, constructed in part from brick and tile from Roman structures; there is evidence that part of the church dates even earlier. Parts were rebuilt in 14th and 15th centuries.


Grey Friars
This Franciscan priory, whose grounds occupied the north-east corner of the land within the walls, was founded before 1279, and possibly by 1237. Little has been found by way of remains.


East Gate
Badly damaged during the siege of 1648, the remains were torn down a few decades later.


Botolph's Gate
Destroyed in 1823.


Schere Gate
A postern.


Head Gate
Removed 1756.


Balkerne Gate
The western entrance to the walled city during Roman times (remains of the Roman gateway still stand), it fell out of use towards the end of the Roman period and was subsequently blocked; the road leading there from East Gate was thereafter stopped at North Hill, with traffic being diverted to the Head Gate as an exit to roads leading westwards and to London. The Balkerne gate was in later times thought to have been a fort. It was once thought that a postern gate existed further south in the western stretch of wall near St. Mary's, and may have been used as entrance/exit during medieval times; but this was subsequently discovered to have been only an opening for a drain to pass through the wall. We can therefore conclude that the map's creator is depicting the Balkerne.


North Gate


North Schere Gate


High Street
This east-west route was the main one through the town; it ran along the crest of a ridge and follows quite closely one of the streets of the Roman fort/colonia, except that the east end was diverted slightly when the Norman castle was built. As the centre of the town, it was the location of various markets specializing in particular goods. The point marked by the "R" was the site of the medieval corn market.


East Street


Botolph Street
Site of the fair held at the opening of oyster season.


St. Martin's Lane
The Jewish quarter was primarily focused here, nearby market and castle.


It is curious that this is not identified on Speed's map. Though our earliest mention of it is in 1277, it had been built probably as early as the mid-twelfth century, as a two-storey stone building facing onto the High Street marketplace, with a hall placed above an undercroft that was partially above-ground. The hall must have served as the court-house. Alterations in 1373, which included converting the undercroft into a wool market, extended the front (southern face) of the building into the marketplace, with the addition of steps up to the entrance, a roofed porch, and shops on either side of the porch. The building extended northwards with a rear yard where market stalls could be put up, as well as housing for council-chamber, bureaucratic offices, and gaol – though whether these were original features or later additions is unclear. The moothall was demolished in 1843, borough administration having long outgrown the building's facilities. At that time a Norman doorway and flanking windows, elaborately decorated, were discovered therein (sketched before being pulled down). The architectural and decorative styles reflect a French influence evidenced elsewhere in England by ca. 1160; one of the carved figures might just possibly have represented King Solomon, whose reputation as a wise judge would have been an appropriate reminder to officials presiding over the borough court. After the moothall's demolition, a new town hall was built on the site.


Medieval tradition held that the castle had been built atop the foundations of King Coel's castle. It has been suggested that this might reflect the former occupation on part of the site by the residence of an ealdorman or even an East Essex king.


Created: January 16, 1999. Last update: January 8, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 1999-2019