Exploring Roman Colchester, The Oldest City In England

Colchester city walls

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Colchester, in Essex, claims to be the oldest recorded town in England. It was certainly the first Roman colonia, built on the site of an earlier fortress. And you can still see quite a bit of Roman Colchester, or Camulodunum, as it was once known. Take a day trip from London, or explore as part of a tour around East Anglia.

The Roman Town Of Camulodunum

The Roman conquest of Britain began in 43 CE. It is not certain where they first landed but we know that the Romans built a legionary fortress in what is now Colchester, and six years later they created a colonia (permanent settlement of army veterans) here. They called the new town Camulodunum, meaning “fort of Camulos” (the Celtic god of war).

Roman wall in Colchester
A long stretch of the Roman walls

Camulodunum was the first capital of Roman Britain. However in 60 CE it was attacked by the Iceni, a local tribe led by the Celtic queen Boudica. Although the rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, large parts of Camulodunum were destroyed, and the capital moved to London.

The town was subsequently rebuilt and reinforced, and prospered as a Roman settlement for the next 300 years. Archaeological excavations, including that of the only known Roman circus in Britain, show that it remained an important town.

St Helena And Colchester

Roman Colchester is also important for its connection with St Helena (sometimes known as St Helen). She was an early Christian who took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and supposedly discovered fragments of the True Cross, subsequently ordering the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site. More importantly, she was the mother of the Emperor Constantine who introduced Christianity to the Roman empire.

According to legend St Helena was born in Colchester. Some accounts have her as being of lowly birth; others say that she was the daughter of Coel, King of the Britons (better known as Old King Cole). In reality, although Constantine ruled from the British city of York, Helena’s association with Colchester is unproven and rather unlikely. However she remains the patron saint of Colchester.

Exploring Roman Colchester

There are several places where you can see evidence of Roman Colchester today.

Town Walls Of Camulodunum

For the visitor the most impressive Roman structure in Colchester is the defensive wall. Built after the Boudican attack, the wall was almost 3 km long and 6 m high. It continued to protect the city for many centuries after the Romans departed. Bastions were added in the 15th century, and houses were later built into the fabric of the wall.

The Balkerne Gate
The Balkerne Gate

Today several long stretches of the wall remain, particularly along Balkerne Hill and behind the Castle Park. You can see fragments of two of the original five gateways: the Balkerne Gate and Duncan’s Gate. The Balkerne Gate was built as a monumental arch: it is now both the largest and the oldest surviving Roman gateway in Britain.

Colchester Castle And The Temple Of Claudius

Although the main fabric of the building is medieval rather than Roman, you will want to visit Colchester Castle, which is built upon the ruins of the Temple of Claudius. Dedicated to the Emperor Claudius, who was deified after his death in 54 CE, this was one of several romano-british temples in Camulodunum, and the largest temple of its type in Roman Britain. If you take a guided tour of the castle you can actually walk through the foundations of the Roman temple and see how solid they were.

The Norman castle is now a museum and the Roman Room displays artefacts from other sites in the city, including some particularly fine glassware. There are also mosaic floors and the Colchester Sphinx, a stone sculpture that once marked a grave.

Roman artefacts in the museum
The Colchester Sphinx and a Roman altar

In the gardens behind the castle you can see the outline of a Roman town house. And nearby, on Maidenburgh Street, is the site of a Roman theatre (it wasn’t open when I visited but I could peer through the window, and outside on the pavement the extent of the theatre has been marked out in darker brick).

Foundations of a Roman villa
The foundations of a Roman villa

The Chariot Circus

Just outside the city wall are two sites of interest. The first is the Roman chariot circus, the only such site known in Britain. Built in the 2nd century, it was a vast 450m circuit for chariot-racing, with seating for 8,000 spectators. Not much of it is visible today, but there is a visitor centre and you can see the starting blocks.

Not far from the Circus are the remains of a Roman church and cemeteries, dating from the 4th century. This is one of the few known churches from Roman Britain.

Remains of a Roman church
Roman church and cemetery

One mystery remains: where was the amphitheatre? It is very unlikely that a town of the size and importance of Camulodunum would not have had an amphitheatre, but its location has never been discovered.

A Walk Round Roman Colchester

You can find a walking trail of the Roman walls here. All the sites are well marked with information boards. As you walk look out for later buildings constructed from brick plundered from derelict Roman structures. A particularly good example is the 11th century St Botolph’s Priory.

St Botolph’s Priory
St Botolph’s Priory was built from Roman brick

Another example is St Helen’s Chapel, built on a corner of the Roman theatre. Although it is dedicated to St Helena, this chapel was also built in the 11th century, possibly on the site of a much earlier religious building.

Explore Roman Colchester By Video

If you’d like to explore Roman Colchester from home, have a look at my video tour on YouTube.

Pinnable image of Roman Colchester
Pinnable image of Roman Colchester

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.


6 thoughts on “Exploring Roman Colchester, The Oldest City In England”

  1. I am constantly amazed at the far reach of those Romans. And I so love discovering places like Colchester that continues to honor the ruins of their time there. Interesting tour you took me on today! Thanks.

  2. What a fascinating history and to think there was also a circus located there, I can’t imagine the types of Roman events that were happening.

  3. Fascinating read! I had no idea Colchester had such a rich history dating back to Roman times. I’ll definitely be adding it to my list of must-visit destinations in England.

  4. Neet and angel apk

    Great post! I’m intrigued by the history of Colchester and had no idea it was the oldest city in England. The photos and descriptions really brought the city to life. I’m definitely adding it to my bucket list for my next UK trip. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Fascinating blog post! I had no idea Colchester was the oldest city in England. Learned so much about its history and culture from this post. Thank you for sharing!

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…


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