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Thursday, 3 October 2013

Essex Society for Archaeology and History: Visit to Colchester Castle, 6 April 2013

Vaulted Chapel, Colchester Castle -
used as the original room for the Museum
Society visit to Colchester Castle: 6 April 2013

New insights to the history of Colchester Castle were given by Philip Wise, Curatorial and Collections Manager, when members of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History visited the building on 6 April 2013.  The visit presented a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to view the building empty of its museum artefacts: the Castle is closed for redevelopment now until Easter 2014.

Colchester Castle was built in two phases: the first dates from the 1070s according to an entry in the Colchester Chronicle; the second phase was constructed after 1101, being the earliest reliable date when King Henry I granted the Castle to one Eudo Dapifer, the Constable of the Castle.  At that time the forebuilding and at least a second storey was added.

Colchester Castle as seen today is unique for three reasons.  Firstly, it is the largest Norman Keep ever to have been built in England, and perhaps Europe, on account of the fact that it rests on the footprint foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius which survived only a few years after the Roman occupation until the town’s destruction by Boudicca in 61AD.  Secondly, it was built in distinct building phases, perhaps on account of a threatened Viking invasion.  Thirdly, that the Castle was partly destroyed by John Wheely who received a contract to demolish the building in 1683.  It has been a matter of conjecture how much building material Wheely removed.

Interior showing distinct building materials and phases
The Castle was always said to be the sister building to the White Tower in London.  However the medieval document attributed to Bishop Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester (1077-1108), is now considered to be a fake.  (Gundulf was the architect of the keep at Rochester Castle and the White Tower of London.)  This opens the possibility that Colchester Castle did not originally have four floors, which seems extraordinarily tall given its elevated position compared to the Tower of London standing sentinel by the River Thames guarding the City.

The building did not have a basement area so, unusually, the ground floor was the storage area and the first floor the Great Hall.  It was originally divided into three portions with two sturdy walls, one of which was destroyed by Wheely.  The walls were required because the size could not be spanned with a whole roof in timber.  Examining the position of the missing wall at ground level there is evidence that it was once arcaded, contained arches to let more light into what was a large and dingy space: the spring of the first arch survives. 

There was a prison on the ground floor, used until 1835.  Among those held there were Dutch sailors and protestant martyrs.

The interior shows a ground floor constructed of brick and septaria, found in north east Essex, whilst the first floor contains Roman tiles built in herring-bone fashion.  The quantity of recycled Roman material is enormous, so much so that many historians, even as late as the Victorian era, thought the building itself to be Roman.  The walls would have been plastered over and perhaps elaborately painted.

Capital on Norman south doorway
The external doorway is indisputably Norman having capitals on either side similar to Durham and Lincoln Cathedrals.  Visitors would enter and ascend the staircase immediately on the left to the first floor, under what is now a later-built turret on the south-west corner.  This is the largest surviving stone staircase from Norman England.  At the top was a waiting room with two garderobes for convenience.  The later designed Charles Gray room, so named after the eighteenth century owner who lived at the adjacent Hollytrees house and had the Castle in his private gardens as a genuine ‘folly’, has a fireplace where there was an original Norman one.  Then there is the Great Hall, a vast space, into which visitors would come before the King.  The room has Y-shaped chimneys running from the hearths and at the north-west corner there is a grand entrance, where the King would ascend a separate set of stairs (once covered) through a ‘presentation doorway’ to meet his subjects.  Henry I, Stephen, Henry II and King John all visited Colchester Castle.

One third of first floor formed private accommodation: a private audience chamber, a garderobe, and the Royal bedchamber.  The bedchamber was the only access on this floor into a vaulted crypt or chapel, which seems inconvenient for all other than the King, and has been the subject of recent debate.  Originally it was thought that a separate staircase entered the chapel but this has now been dismissed, so it is thought that this was a private chapel and that others used the chapel in the bailey, which was exposed in an archaeological dig in the 1930s, and whose remains can be seen to the south side of the building.  If then the vaulted space referred to is a chapel not a crypt, then the roofed room above was not a chapel at all but merely a roof-space or further floor. 

The opportunity for historians to visit the empty shell of the building, and to compare it to other examples, has led to a view that Colchester Castle originally had no more than two storeys.  Double height Great Halls were rare and any walkway which surrounded the room would have been interrupted by the Y-shaped flues.

The importance of the Castle building to the history of Colchester is of such merit that when reopened much of the story of the building will also be told as part of the Museum’s interpretation of the town’s 2000 year history.

Colchester Museum, 1909
The Essex Society for Archaeology and History can claim a long association with the Museum at Colchester Castle.  The Society was formed in 1852 with an aim to establish a Museum in the town.  In 1860 that goal was achieved through its opening at the Castle, in what is now called the chapel, in joint ownership with Colchester Corporation.  The Society met frequently at the Castle in its early years.  The Society amalgamated ownership of its artefacts in 1926 and had representatives on the museum’s management committee until 1986.  Such was the growth of the museum in the inter-war years that a separate museum was created at Hollytrees.  The Castle was entirely roofed over in the mid-1930s; itself a necessity, because the foundations were showing alarming cracks and urgent repairs were required.  Today the Essex Society for Archaeology and History has the ownership of a Library, originally started by Charles Gray and added to since its formation.  The Library collection was transferred to Hollytrees when it opened as a Museum in 1929 but is now held separately at the Albert Sloman Library, University of Essex.  The Society still has a Librarian’s Office at Hollytrees which is in regular use.

For more information on the historians’ Study Day at Colchester Castle on 12 March, follow this link: http://www.cimuseums.org.uk/castle/news/friday-15-march-2013.html


Andrew Smith

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