It has a population of 104,390. As the oldest recorded Roman town, Colchester claims to be the oldest town in Britain. It was for a time the capital of Roman Britain and also claims to have the United Kingdom's oldest recorded market.
Colchester is claimed to be the oldest recorded town in Britain on the grounds that it was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in AD 77. Its Celtic name was Camulodunon, meaning 'the fortress of (the war god) Camulos'. Following the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43, a Roman legionary fortress was established and the name Camulodunon was modified to the Roman spelling of 'Camulodunum'. Camulodunum served as the first 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 but it would seem that the council of the provincial natives still met at Colchester, where the Temple to the Divine Claudius served as the seat of this council. Later, when the Roman frontier moved north (c. AD 49), Camulodunum became a colonia known as Colonia Claudia Victricensis.
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 descendents 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 the capital of Britannia (Camulodunum ) 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 however, excavations have revealed some early Saxon occupation, including a 5th-century wooden hut built on the ruins of a Roman house in present-day Lion Walk. The Saxons called the town Colne ceaster, the Roman fortress of 'Colonia'. The tower of Holy Trinity Church is late Saxon work. Vikings from East Anglia overran Colchester and most of Essex in the late 9th century; the town remained in Viking hands until 920 when it was besieged and recaptured by the army of Edward the Elder.
Medieval Colchester's main landmark is Colchester Castle, which is an 11th century Norman keep, and built atop 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 (know locally as "St. John's Abbey”), and the ruins of the Augustinian priory of St. Botolph (known locally as “St. Botolph's Priory").
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.
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 cloth. 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. The old Roman wall runs along Northgate Street in the Dutch Quarter.
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.
Colchester and the surrounding area is currently undergoing significant regeneration.
Colchester Town Watch was founded in 2001 to provide a ceremonial guard for the Mayor of Colchester and for civic events such as the Oyster Feast. The historic re-enactors wear a livery based on late Elizabethan dress. Colchester Town Watch is accompanied by the musicians of the Colchester Town Waits - a musical tradition dating back to the 14th century.
Colchester Borough Council is the local authority. Control of the borough council has passed between Tories and LibDems in recent years. The political composition of the council is (2008 election results):
Opened in 1972, the Mercury Theatre is one the region's leading repertory theatres. Next door is Colchester Arts Centre, a multi-function arts venue located in the former St Mary-at-the-Walls church, and home of the Colchester Beer Festival. Headgate Theatre is also in Colchester.
firstsite is a contemporary art organisation, currently housed in the Minories, near the Castle. A new gallery, designed by Rafael Viñoly, is currently under construction nearby.
Other than the Arts Centre, live music venues in Colchester include The Twist and Charter Hall.
Sports facilities in Colchester include the sports centre, Colchester Leisure World, Colchester Garrison Athletics Stadium (a co-operative facility used by both the army and civilian population), and a skatepark.
Colchester's twin towns are:
Local legend places Colchester as the seat of King Cole (or Coel) of the rhyme Old King Cole, a legendary ancient king of Britain. The name Colchester is from Old English: the place-name suffixes chester, cester, and caster derive from the Latin word castrum (fortified place). In folk etymology the name Colchester was thought of as meaning Cole's Castle, though it actually means the Roman fort 'Colonia'. In the legend Helena, the daughter of Cole, married the Roman senator Constantius Chlorus, who had been sent by Rome as an ambassador and was named as Cole's successor. Helena's son became Emperor Constantine I. Helena was canonised as Saint Helena of Constantinople and is credited with finding the true cross and the remains of the Magi. She is now the patron saint of Colchester. This is recognised in the emblem of Colchester: a cross and three crowns. A local secondary school – St Helena's – is named after her, and her statue is atop the town hall, although local legend is that it was originally a statue of Blessed Virgin Mary which was later fitted with a cross.
Colchester is also the most widely credited source of the rhyme Humpty Dumpty. During the siege of Colchester in the Civil War, a Royalist sniper known as One-Eyed Thompson sat in the belfry of the church of St Mary-at-the-Walls (Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall) and was given the nickname Humpty Dumpty, most likely because of his size, Humpty Dumpty being a common insult for the overweight. Thompson was shot down (Humpty Dumpty had a great fall) and, shortly after, the town was lost to the Parliamentarians (all the king's horses and all the king's men / couldn't put Humpty together again.) Another version says that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon on the top of the church. The church of St Mary-at-the-Walls still retains its Norman tower until the top few feet, which are a Georgian repair.
The third rhyme to come from Colchester is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which was written by Jane Taylor in the town's Dutch Quarter, and published in 1806 with the title "The Star".
Colchester has also been suggested as one of the potential sites of Camelot, on account of having been the capital of Roman Britain and its ancient name of Camulodunum.
In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, thinks back to his childhood and his first memories of war, recalling: "Perhaps it was the time when the atomic bomb had fallen on Colchester." (Part 1, Chapter 3).
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