A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1994.
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MEDIEVAL COLCHESTER INTRODUCTION
Archaeological evidence suggests some early Anglo-Saxon settlement inside the walls of Roman Colchester, but there is no documentary record of the town until 917 when Edward the Elder expelled the Danes from it. (fn. 1) In the early 8th century London was the chief town of the East Saxons, (fn. 2) and as a port and trading centre Colchester may also have been overshadowed by neighbouring Ipswich. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the survival of the Roman wall, and perhaps of usable Roman buildings, made Colchester attractive as an administrative, perhaps royal, centre for at least the eastern part of Essex. After its recapture and refortification by Edward the Elder, the town was certainly such a centre. Two kings, Athelstan in 931 and Edmund in 940, held councils there, Athelstan's being attended by at least 13 ealdormen, 37 thegns, and 15 bishops, including the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Chester le Street. (fn. 3) The bishop of London's soke, or estate with its own court, which he held in the town by the early 12th century, (fn. 4) may have originated as the bishop's residence in an East Saxon royal centre. At Old Heath, known as Old Hythe in the 12th century, c. 2 miles south-east of the town there was a harbour or beaching point for boats on the Colne, but it was probably always difficult to reach. Placename and topographical evidence suggests that Harwich may have been the main port for Colchester and north-east Essex before the Danish invasions, but no archaeological evidence of early settlement has been found and Harwich, which was in Dovercourt parish, was first recorded in 1229. (fn. 5) Colchester, like other Anglo-Saxon boroughs, presumably had a market, but the fact that there were no moneyers there until c. 991 indicates that the settlement was of little economic importance in the 10th century.
By the mid 10th century Colchester was the centre of an important and extensive group of estates held by the ealdormen of Essex. (fn. 6) Among those estates were four surrounding the walled town: Lexden, Greenstead, Donyland (including East Donyland), and Stanway. They may, with Colchester itself, have earlier formed a single, large estate, perhaps in the hands of a king or subking of the East Saxons. The ealdormanic estate was broken up in the late 10th century or the early 11th by Ealdorman Aelfgar's daughters Aethelflaed and Aelfflaed. Aethelflaed divided Donyland into four parts, at least one of which was outside the liberty of Colchester in 1086, and Aelflaed granted Stanway and Lexden to King Ethelred II. Part at least of Lexden, east of the Iron-Age dyke system, remained in Colchester, but Stanway, except for two or three detached parts, was outside the liberty in 1086. (fn. 7)
It was presumably the impressive Roman ruins, together with popular etymology, which, probably in the late Anglo-Saxon period, gave Colchester its mythical history of King Coel and his daughter St. Helen, wife of the Emperor Constantius, mother of the Emperor Constantine, and discoverer of the true cross. The story that Constantine was born in Britain to the concubine Helen was known c. 700. Helen's connexion with Colchester was known to Henry of Huntingdon who recorded c. 1133 that Constantius's wife Helen had been the daughter of a British king Coel, and had built the walls of Colchester and London. (fn. 8) Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing a few years after Henry, had a more elaborate story, telling how Coel duke of 'Kaelcolim' or Colchester killed a rival and became king of England. He made peace with Constantius who was threatening to invade the kingdom, but he died eight days later, whereupon Constantius married his daughter Helen. (fn. 9) The version of the myth known in 14th-century Colchester was that Coel, who later became king of Britain, founded the town in 219 A.D. Constantius, arriving in Britain from Spain in 260, besieged Colchester for three years before the conflict was ended by his marriage to Helen. Their son Constantine was born at Colchester the following year. The account continues with the story of Constantine's succession as emperor and Helen's journey to the Holy Land. (fn. 10) The myth of Coel and Helen was only one of the stories which gathered around Colchester's prominent ruins. Gaimar, writing about the same time as Geoffrey of Monmouth, had an entirely different story about a Danish king 'Adlebrit' and his conquest of Kair Koel or Colchester. (fn. 11) Walter Map in the 1180s knew that Colchester was St. Helen's birthplace, but his main interest in the town was as the site of a mythical battle fought between 'Gado and Offa' and the Romans. (fn. 12)
King Coel of Colchester is a back formation from the placename, perhaps reinforced by stories of an historical or semihistorical Coel who occurs in the Welsh genealogies and appears to have been active in the region between the Trent and Hadrian's wall about the early 5th century. (fn. 13) The legend of St. Helen's British birth may have arisen from a confusion between her and the supposedly British wife of Magnus Maximus, whom the Welsh sources call Helen, and the saintly empress's reputation was enhanced by a further confusion between her and a Celtic water spirit originally called Alauna. (fn. 14) The merging of the legends of St. Helen and of King Coel may have occurred in northern England or Wales, where the two legends were known independently, or in Colchester itself where something in the Roman ruins, perhaps a mosaic, may have suggested a connexion with St. Helen. (fn. 15) There was certainly a St. Helen's chapel in Colchester by the early 12th century, and by the late 14th she was supposed to have built it with her own hands. (fn. 16) The invocation is unusual in south-east England, (fn. 17) and suggests an early cult of the saint in Colchester, where there was also a St. Cross chapel by the early 13th century. There was a St. Helen's well, but, unlike the well at St. Anne's chapel on Harwich Road east of the town, it was not a holy well in the Middle Ages. (fn. 18) St. John's abbey, which owned St. Helen's chapel in the 12th and 13th centuries, seems to have made no attempt to exploit the legend or to encourage St. Helen's cult, but St. Helen appeared on the earliest known, 13th-century, borough seal and on its 15th-century replacement, as well as on the illuminated initial of Henry V's charter to the borough. (fn. 19) The story of Coel and Helen, which gained a wide currency in the later Middle Ages, probably developed as an origin myth in 10th- or 11th-century Colchester as the town grew in size and self awareness.
The Early Medieval Town
In 1086 Colchester and Maldon were the only boroughs in Essex, and Colchester was much the more important. It contained at least 419 houses, suggesting a population of c. 2,500 or more, and placing the town in the middle rank of English boroughs. It may have approached the size of Ipswich which had at least 538 burgesses in 1066 but only 210 in 1086. Unlike many other English towns, Colchester does not seem to have declined in the years after the Conquest and no waste was reported there in 1086. Indeed the town may even have prospered as its annual farm rose from £15 5s. 3d. in 1066 to a probably extortionate £80 in 1086. (fn. 20) The proportional increase was greater than that recorded for any other borough except Rochester, whose farm increased sixfold, and it placed Colchester's farm equal fourth with Wallingford's among known borough farms, behind only those of London (£300), York and Lincoln (£100 each), and Norwich (£90). (fn. 21) By 1130, however, the farm had been reduced to £40, and on the basis of aids paid to the king Colchester has been ranked only 27th of the provincial towns in the reign of Henry I. (fn. 22) Despite its comparative decline, Colchester like many other boroughs achieved self government in the course of the 12th century, although it was slow to develop a full hierarchy of borough officers. There seem to have been no financial officers and no council until 1372, and the two bailiffs remained the chief officers throughout the Middle Ages. (fn. 23)
At times in the early Middle Ages, Colchester assumed an importance as a centre for the defence of eastern England. The massive Norman castle, built on the foundations of the Roman temple of Claudius, was probably begun in the 1070s under the threat of Danish or Flemish invasion, and perhaps in response to a Danish attack on the town in 1071. (fn. 24) It was completed c. 1100 when Henry I was consolidating his hold on the kingdom, and Henry visited castle and town c. 1132. (fn. 25) Colchester seems to have played no part in the civil wars of Stephen's reign, although it was the centre in Essex of the honor of Boulogne which belonged to his queen, Maud. (fn. 26) Following his Whitsun crown-wearing at Bury St. Edmunds Henry II was in Colchester for a week in May 1157; his court there was attended by the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops of London, Lincoln, Chichester, and Exeter, the earls of Leicester and Salisbury, Warin FitzGerald, and the chancellor, Thomas Becket. (fn. 27) In 1173 a large contingent of the army to oppose Earl Hugh Bigod assembled at Colchester. (fn. 28) King John visited Colchester and its castle in 1204 and 1205, in the aftermath of his loss of Normandy, and again in 1209, 1212, and 1214. (fn. 29) The castle was besieged and captured by King John's army early in 1216, and John himself came to Colchester in March; later that year the town was ravaged by a baronial army. (fn. 30)
Henry III visited Colchester in 1242, presumably staying in the castle where his 'houses' or apartments had been repaired for him. At that visit, or another one before 1248, the townsmen promised him £10 for three palfreys. (fn. 31) In 1256 the king stayed for two days in Colchester on his way from Walsingham (Norf.) to London, again in the castle. (fn. 32) A Mile End man was later accused of having supported the baronial party against Henry III, (fn. 33) but otherwise Colchester escaped involvement in the troubles of the 1250s.
Disputes between Colchester and the lords of neighbouring manors, probably often over grazing or other territorial rights, (fn. 34) seem to have caused more violence than civil wars and national upheavals in the 13th and 14th centuries, although at times in the early 14th century national events may have supplied the occasion for disturbances whose origins were really local. In 1319 as many as 174 Colchester men, including the leading burgesses Joseph of Colchester or Joseph Eleanor, Ellis son of John, Matthew Glasswright, Ralph Ode, and Hubert Bosse, were accused of attacking a tenant and servants of Hugh de Neville, lord of several Essex manors including Langham just north of Colchester, when they came to the town to get horses, wagons, and arms for the Scottish war. (fn. 35) Hubert Bosse and Ralph Ode were among the Colchester men who were alleged to have assaulted John Dagworth, lord of the manor of Bradwell by Coggeshall, who seems also to have held land in or near Colchester, as he made preparations at Colchester to go to Scotland in 1324. (fn. 36) Disturbances at Colchester in 1327 may have been associated with the deaths of William Drury of Colchester and William Christian of Cambridge at the time of St. John's fair that year and the earlier death of Henry Savary, (fn. 37) rather than with the deposition of Edward II.
Disagreements between St. John's abbey and the town erupted into violence in 1253 when up to 40 Colchester men including the leading burgesses Oliver and John sons of Ellis were accused of destroying the abbot's gallows and tumbrels at West Donyland and Greenstead, and cutting the ropes of his ships at 'Cryclynsoye', perhaps Brightlingsea. That and other disputes over Colchester market and over the abbot's jurisdiction and free warren in West Donyland were settled in 1255. (fn. 38)
In 1312 a number of townsmen, including the merchant Henry Denny, were said to have carried off the goods in Colchester of Robert FitzWalter of Lexden, broken his park at Lexden, and hunted there. (fn. 39) A series of disputes with the FitzWalters and their tenants over pasture rights, jurisdiction, and the liability of Lexden men to contribute with Colchester to subsidies, came to a head in 1342 and 1343. In May 1342 a Lexden man was killed in Mile End; John FitzWalter, Lord FitzWalter, objected to the inquest held by the borough coroner and brought in the county coroner, infringing the liberties of the borough. Neither inquest seems to have produced the desired verdict, and FitzWalter attacked members of the juries, finally extending his attacks to all Colchester men, including one found at Southminster and one on the road from Colchester to Maldon. The attacks developed into a siege of the town which lasted from 20 May to 22 July and ended only when the burgesses paid a fine of £40. There seems to have been a second siege, perhaps precipitated by another attack on FitzWalter's park at Lexden, from 7 April to 1 June 1343; that too ended with the burgesses paying £40. (fn. 40)
Lionel of Bradenham, lord of Langenhoe and a tenant of FitzWalter's, besieged Colchester from August to November 1350, damaging houses in the eastern suburb and taking grain and hay from Greenstead. The townsmen eventually bought him off for £20. The origins of the quarrel are not clear, but may have lain in a dispute over the fishery and obstruction of the river. When the burgesses brought legal proceedings against Bradenham in 1362 they accused him of having built six large weirs in 1349, although his worst offence, placing piles in arms of the Colne, was not committed until 1360. Disputes may also have arisen over access for Langenhoe men to Colchester market. (fn. 41)
Colchester remained the largest and in many respects the principal town in Essex throughout the Middle Ages. Its castle was the seat of the sheriff, and contained the county gaol until the mid 17th century, but royal justices sat at Chelmsford in 1202-3, and from 1218 the justices in eyre sat there regularly. In the course of the 14th century Chelmsford became the usual administrative centre for the county. (fn. 42) The choice of the bishop of London's new town for the role was no doubt dictated by its central position within the county, but Colchester's failure to develop as the county town may help to explain its relative stagnation or decline in the early 14th century.
Topographical evidence confirms that Colchester grew during the later 12th and the 13th century. By 1312 there were at least 518 adult males, excluding paupers, in the liberty, suggesting a population of 3,000-4,000. That probably marked the peak of Colchester's early medieval growth; like many other towns and much of rural Essex, it seems to have stagnated or declined in the earlier 14th century. (fn. 43) Although the largest in Essex, the early 14th-century town was relatively small and unimportant. Even in comparison with other towns in the county, it was not exceptionally prosperous. In 1327 Colchester's subsidy assessment of £14 0s. 8d. was less than those of Barking and Waltham Holy Cross and only 6d. higher than that of Writtle. The number of subsidy payers was highest at Writtle, where 127 people contributed, compared with 125 at Colchester, 120 at Waltham Holy Cross, and 119 at Barking. (fn. 44) In Suffolk, Ipswich and Bury St. Edmunds both outranked Colchester in assessment and numbers. (fn. 45) In 1334 Colchester at c. £261 ranked fourth in Essex in assessment, behind Writtle as well as Barking and Waltham Holy Cross. Ipswich's assessment was more than double Colchester's. On a national scale, Colchester ranked about 46th among provincial towns. (fn. 46)
The Later Middle Ages
Colchester like other towns suffered severely from the Black Death. The plague probably arrived in the winter of 1348-9 and continued throughout the summer and possibly into the autumn of 1349. The abbot and probably also the prior of St. John's abbey were dead by August 1349, perhaps from plague. Nothing is known of the fate of other religious houses or of the parish clergy. Among the townspeople 111 wills were proved in the borough court between September 1348 and September 1349, and 25 in the year 1349-50, compared with an average of 2-3 a year in the decades before and after. (fn. 47) Those figures cannot, of course, be interpreted as indicating relative death-rates as no doubt extra care was taken to make and enrol wills in time of plague and confusion, but they do suggest an unusually high death rate. The number of those amerced for breach of the assize of ale, which probably reflected the consumption of ale in the town, dropped by c. 25 per cent, from 94 at Michaelmas 1345 to 70 at Michaelmas 1351, but the much smaller number of bakers amerced for breach of the assize of bread shows no such drop. Mortality in rural north central Essex has been estimated to have been as high as 45 per cent; (fn. 48) what little evidence there is suggests that Colchester's may have been slightly lower.
Whatever the town suffered in 1349, Colchester recovered rapidly in the 1350s. Recovery was due mainly to a flow of immigrants attracted by the town's growing cloth industry. In the 1340s on average c. 15 burgesses were admitted from outside the town each year; in the 1350s the average grew to c. 22, including, unusually, a few women. (fn. 49) The second plague of 1360-1 does not seem to have halted Colchester's physical or economic growth, and in 1377 a total of 2,951 people paid poll tax, making Colchester the eighth largest provincial town in England, and suggesting a total population of c. 4,500-5,000, higher than in 1312. (fn. 50) The evidence of the numbers involved in victualling trades suggests that Colchester continued to grow in the late 14th century and the first decade of the 15th, its medieval population reaching a peak c. 1410 when it may have been as much as a third higher than it had been in 1377. Numbers seem to have remained steady from then until c. 1450, and then to have fallen slowly until the early 16th century when the decline accelerated. By 1524 the population had probably been reduced to c. 4,000. Even then, Colchester ranked eleventh among English provincial towns on the basis of subsidy paid. (fn. 51) Both the growth and fall in population were governed by immigration, and the falling numbers of the later 15th century may reflect the decline in population of England as a whole as much as any economic decline in Colchester, which continued to attract immigrants from all parts of the country, and which showed few signs of serious economic or physical decay before 1500.
The increase in size and wealth in the later 14th century was not accompanied by any increase in Colchester's administrative functions. The castle was allowed to fall into decay, and seems to have been used only as a prison. Royal visits to the town were infrequent and usually for a single night. Edward III seems to have been at Colchester for a day in 1354 when his chancery was there, and Henry VI was in the town in 1445. (fn. 52) The chancery, and presumably Henry VII, was at Colchester briefly in 1487, and the king visited the town in 1491. When Humphrey duke of Gloucester visited Colchester in 1423 he was received by a party of burgesses in gowns and red hoods, presumably the bailiffs and aldermen in their liveries. (fn. 53)
There were fewer disturbances in Colchester than in some other Essex towns during the rising of 1381, even though at least one of the leaders of the revolt had probably lived there. One Kent jury described Wat Tyler as 'of Colchester' and others said he was from Essex, but other evidence suggests he was a Kentishman. John Ball described himself as 'sometime St. Mary priest of York and now of Colchester'. (fn. 54) He was certainly in London diocese when in 1364 he was excommunicated there, and in 1367 he was still preaching erroneous and scandalous sermons in Bocking deanery. He was in the area again in 1376 when two Colchester men were among those ordered to apprehend him. (fn. 55) Several men surnamed Ball were recorded in Colchester in the late 14th century, including at least three called John; one of them, a chaplain living in lodgings in East Street in 1377, may have been the peasants' leader. (fn. 56) At the outbreak of the revolt, however, Ball was in Kent, imprisoned at Maidstone. (fn. 57)
A group of rebels from the town and surrounding countryside seem to have gathered at Colchester about 13 June, when the bailiff of Tendring allegedly sent men to join them there before they left for Mile End in Stepney (Mdx.) on 14 June. (fn. 58) Other rebels were apparently at Colchester on 15 June, but the main disturbances there were on 16 June, when the moot hall and St. John's abbey were attacked. The attackers threatened to burn the borough muniments, but seem not to have done so although the court rolls were removed, presumably for safe-keeping, so that no courts could be held for five weeks. At St. John's the rioters, who included at least two Brightlingsea men, did carry off and burn court rolls, including those for Greenstead and West Donyland. On 17 June men from Stanway carried off muniments from St. Cross chapel in Crouch Street, which was in Stanway parish. (fn. 59) Rebels fleeing from their defeat at Billericay at the end of June failed to stir up further trouble in the borough, but some disorder, directed mainly against Flemings, apparently lasted from May to November 1381. (fn. 60) The decision to repair the town walls in 1381 was presumably a reaction to the revolt, suggesting that the town authorities saw it as a threat from outside the borough. St. John's abbey too strengthened its defences after 1381. (fn. 61)
An affray outside 'King Coel's castle' (Balkerne gate) in 1391 involving 12 armed retainers of the abbot of St. John's may have arisen from a dispute with the town, or perhaps with St. Botolph's priory, over rights of common on Balkerne field. The following year a violent dispute between the abbot and his monks spilt into St. John's green and terrorized the town. (fn. 62)
Colchester was one of the towns which in 1398 received a quarter of the traitor Henry Roper, who had been involved in an abortive uprising in Oxfordshire. (fn. 63) The election as bailiff in 1398 of the wealthy merchant Thomas Godstone, a newcomer who had held no other borough office, suggests that the borough was looking for a powerful leader in uncertain times. Godstone was a Surrey landowner who had served Richard II in Picardy and in Essex. (fn. 64) His loyalty to Richard II was shown in 1404 when he was involved, with three other prominent Colchester men, John Beche and his sons Richard and John, in a conspiracy led by the countess of Oxford and the abbots of St. John's and St. Osyth's to depose Henry IV and restore Richard II to the throne. All four Colchester men seem to have escaped punishment, although the countess and the abbots were arrested. (fn. 65) The involvement of the abbot of St. John's seems to have emboldened the town to make an unusual number of complaints against him in the borough lawhundred in 1405, (fn. 66) complaints which were repeated at intervals in the earlier 15th century even after a formal pacification and agreement had been made in 1415. (fn. 67)
Although Colchester was a centre of Lollardy, only one man, Thomas at Brook, cobbler, joined Oldcastle's rising; he may have been the same as the Thomas Pelle, cordwainer of Colchester, who was later accused of treason for his part in the uprising. (fn. 68) Roger Wyke of Colchester was involved in a planned rebellion in Kent in 1449. There were two men of that name, but the rebel was probably the Roger Wyke, fuller, who in 1453 was ordered to appear before the justices with 92 other men, all probably involved in disturbances in the aftermath of Cade's rebellion. He was related to the Roger Wyke who was bailiff of the town in 1446 and 1448. (fn. 69) In 1450 proclamations against riotous meetings were issued at Colchester and Sudbury as well as other places in south-east England. (fn. 70) Colchester does not seem to have been affected by Cade's rebellion in May that year, but in September over 100 men took up arms claiming that Cade was still alive. They broke the town gaol and threatened to kill Nicholas Peek, one of the bailiffs. (fn. 71)
At least three Colchester men joined the earl of Oxford and his brother Thomas Vere in supporting the restoration of Henry VI in 1470 and 1471, (fn. 72) but otherwise the town escaped any involvment in the Wars of the Roses. Plans were made to include Colchester in a rising against Henry VII in favour of the earl of Warwick in 1489, but there is no evidence that they received any support in the town. (fn. 73)