At the time of the census in 2001, it had a population of 104,390, marking a considerable rise from the previous census and with considerable development since 2001 and ongoing building plans; it has been named as one of Britain's fastest growing towns. As the oldest recorded Roman town in Britain, Colchester is claimed to be the oldest town in Britain. It was for a time the capital of Roman Britain, and is a member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network.
Colchester is northeast of London and is connected to the capital by the A12 road and the Great Eastern Main Line. It is seen as a popular town for commuters, and is less than away from Stansted Airport.
Colchester is said to be the oldest recorded town in Britain on the grounds that it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder, who died in AD 79. Before the Roman conquest of Britain it was already a centre of power for Cunobelin – known to Shakespeare as Cymbeline – king of the Catuvellauni (c.5 BC – AD 40), who minted coins there. Its Celtic name, Camulodunon, variously represented as CA, CAM, CAMV, CAMVL and CAMVLODVNO on the coins of Cunobelinus, means 'the fortress of [the war god] Camulos'.
Soon after the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43, a Roman legionary fortress was established. Later, when the Roman frontier moved outwards and the twentieth legion had moved to the west (c.AD 49), Camulodunum became a colonia named in a second-century inscription as Colonia Victricensis. This contained a large and elaborate Temple to the Divine Claudius.
Camulodunum served as a provincial Roman capital of Britain, but was attacked and destroyed during Boudica's rebellion in AD 61. Sometime after the destruction, London became the capital of the province of Britannia. Colchester's town walls c. 3,000 yd. long were built c.65–80 A.D. when the Roman town was rebuilt after the Boudicca rebellion. In 2004, Colchester Archaeological Trust discovered the remains of a Roman Circus (chariot race track) underneath the Garrison in Colchester, a unique find in Britain.
Sub-Roman and Saxon Colchester
There is evidence of hasty re-organisation of Colchester's defences around 268–82 AD, followed later, during the fourth century, by the blocking of the Balkerne Gate. Dr. John Morris (1913 – June 1977) the English historian who specialised in the study of the institutions of the Roman Empire and the history of Sub-Roman Britain, suggested in his book "The Age of Arthur" (1973) that as the descendants of Romanised Britons looked back to a golden age of peace and prosperity under Rome the name "Camelot" of Arthurian legend was probably a reference to Camulodunum, the capital of Britannia in Roman times.
The archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler was the first to propose that the lack of early Anglo-Saxon finds in a triangle between London, Colchester and St Albans could indicate a 'sub-Roman triangle' where British rule continued after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. Since then excavations have revealed some early Saxon occupation, including a fifth-century wooden hut built on the ruins of a Roman house in present-day Lion Walk. Archaeological excavations have shown that public buildings were abandoned, and is very doubtful whether Colchester survived as a settlement with any urban characteristics after the sixth century.
The chronology of its revival is obscure. But the ninth-century Historia Brittonum, attributed to Nennius, mentions the town, which it calls Cair Colun, in a list of the thirty most important cities in Britain. Colchester was in the area assigned to the Danelaw in c.880, and remained in Danish hands until 917 when it was besieged and recaptured by the army of Edward the Elder. The tenth-century Saxons called the town Colneceastre, which is directly equivalent to the Cair Colun of 'Nennius'. The tower of Holy Trinity Church is late Saxon work.
Medieval and Tudor periods
Medieval Colchester's main landmark is Colchester Castle, which is an 11th-century Norman keep, and built on top of the vaults of the old Roman temple. There are notable medieval ruins in Colchester, including the surviving gateway of the Benedictine abbey of St. John the Baptist (known locally as "St. John's Abbey"), and the ruins of the Augustinian priory of St. Botolph (known locally as "St. Botolph's Priory"). Many of Colchester's parish churches date from this period.
In 1189, Colchester was granted its first royal charter by King Richard I (Richard the Lionheart.) The charter was granted at Dover with the king about to embark on one of his many journeys away from England. The borough celebrated the 800th anniversary of its charter in 1989.
Colchester developed rapidly during the later 14th century as a centre of the woollen cloth industry, and became famous in many parts of Europe for its russets (fabrics of a grey-brown colour). This allowed the population to recover exceptionally rapidly from the effects of the Black Death, particularly by immigration into the town.
By the 'New Constitutions' of 1372, a borough council was instituted; the two baillifs who represented the borough to the king were now expected to consult sixteen ordinary councillors and eight auditors (later called aldermen). Even though Colchester's fortunes were more mixed during the 15th century, it was still a more important place by the 16th century than it had been in the 13th. In 1334 it would not have ranked among England's wealthiest fifty towns, to judge from the taxation levied that year. By 1524, however, it ranked twelfth, as measured by its assessment to a lay subsidy.
Between 1550 and 1600, a large number of weavers and clothmakers from Flanders emigrated to Colchester and the surrounding areas. They were famed for the production of "Bays and Says" cloths which were woven from wool and are normally associated with Baize and Serge although surviving examples show that they were rather different from their modern equivalents. An area in Colchester town centre is still known as the Dutch Quarter and many buildings there date from the Tudor period. During this period Colchester was one of the most prosperous wool towns in England, and was also famed for its oysters. The old Roman wall runs along Northgate Street in the Dutch Quarter.
In 1648, during the Second English Civil War, a Royalist army led by Lord Goring entered the town. A pursuing Parliamentary army led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Henry Ireton surrounded the town for eleven and a half weeks, a period known as the Siege of Colchester. It started on the 13 June. The Royalists surrendered in the late summer (on the 27 August Lord Goring signed the surrender document in the Kings Head Inn) and Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle were executed in the grounds of Colchester Castle. A small obelisk marks the spot where they fell.
Daniel Defoe mentions in A tour through England and Wales that the town lost 5259 people to the plague in 1665, "more in proportion than any of its neighbours, or than the city of London". By the time he wrote this in 1722, however, he estimated its population to be around 40,000 (including "out-villages").
The Paxman diesels business has been associated with Colchester since 1865 when James Noah Paxman founded a partnership with the brothers Henry and Charles Davey ('Davey, Paxman, and Davey') and opened the Standard Ironworks. In 1925, Paxman produced its first spring injection oil engine and joined the English Electric Diesel Group in 1966 – later becoming part of the GEC Group. Since the 1930s the Paxman company's main business has been the production of diesel engines.
In the early 20th century Colchester lobbied to be the seat for a new Church of England diocese for Essex, to be split off from the existing Diocese of Rochester. The bid was unsuccessful, with county town Chelmsford forming the seat of the new diocese. The University of Essex was established on the outskirts of the town at Wivenhoe Park in 1961. The £22.7M eight-mile A120 Colchester Eastern Bypass opened in June 1982.
Colchester and the surrounding area is currently undergoing significant regeneration, including controversial greenfield residential development in Mile End and Braiswick. The town's football team, Colchester United, moved into a brand new stadium at Cuckoo Farm in 2008.
Colchester, Camulodunum and Colonia Victricensis forms one of 38 sites seeking World Heritage Site status, with a shortlist to be submitted to UNESCO for consideration in 2011. The town was one of twenty-five across the UK that applied for city status to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 2012. It was unsuccessful.
In the 2012 New Year Honours, Colchester's MP, Bob Russell was given a Knighthood. He is now addressed as Sir Bob Russell.