Walls and gates

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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A P Baggs, Beryl Board, Philip Crummy, Claude Dove, Shirley Durgan, N R Goose, R B Pugh, Pamela Studd, C C Thornton, 'Walls and gates', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester, ed. Janet Cooper, C R Elrington( London, 1994), British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp248-251 [accessed 23 July 2024].

A P Baggs, Beryl Board, Philip Crummy, Claude Dove, Shirley Durgan, N R Goose, R B Pugh, Pamela Studd, C C Thornton, 'Walls and gates', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Edited by Janet Cooper, C R Elrington( London, 1994), British History Online, accessed July 23, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp248-251.

A P Baggs, Beryl Board, Philip Crummy, Claude Dove, Shirley Durgan, N R Goose, R B Pugh, Pamela Studd, C C Thornton. "Walls and gates". A History of the County of Essex: Volume 9, the Borough of Colchester. Ed. Janet Cooper, C R Elrington(London, 1994), , British History Online. Web. 23 July 2024. https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/essex/vol9/pp248-251.


Town walls c. 3,000 yd. long were built c. 65-80 A.D. when the Roman town was rebuilt after its destruction by Boudicca. The walls were originally 8-10 ft. thick, built with a core of layered septaria and mortar faced with coursed septaria and tile. A number of internal towers, c. 6 ft. wide and c. 18 ft. long, probably placed at the end of streets, served as look-out posts and as platforms for weapons. There was a ditch outside the wall, and in the later 2nd century the wall was strengthened by the construction of a rampart behind it. There were probably six gates. The exceptionally large Balkerne gate in the west wall seems to have been built as a free-standing structure about the time of the foundation of the Roman town, possibly as a triumphal monument; it had two large central arches for vehicular traffic, flanked by two smaller pedestrian arches with guardrooms on either side. The gate was closed in the 4th century when the town ditch was extended across it; it was later blocked with a rough masonry wall. The south-west gate, the later Head gate, seems to have had two large arches, and the east gate may have had a central arch flanked by two pedestrian arches. The surviving north-east gate comprises a single arch, 11 ft. wide, and the north-west gate, the medieval North gate, may have been similar. There is no evidence for the south-east gate, which may have been on the site of the medieval South or St. Botolph's gate. (fn. 1)

The Roman walls formed the basis of the medieval circuit. They were defended unsuccessfully by the Danes in 920, and were repaired by Edward the Elder in the same year; his work may have included the blocking of the Balkerne gate. (fn. 2) Excavation has revealed a mid 11th-century ditch on the south and east sides of the town, perhaps made in connexion with a strengthening of the defences at the time of the threatened invasion of Cnut of Denmark. (fn. 3) Major repairs, possibly amounting to rebuilding in places, were carried out in 1173-4, at the time of the rebellion of the young king, the burgesses being allowed at least part of the cost out of the farm of the town. (fn. 4) No further work seems to have been done in the 13th century, and by the early 14th century the walls were decayed, that at the East gate being undermined by gravel digging. Wallgavel was payable from a house outside Scheregate in the south wall in 1310, and from a moor in Moor (Priory) Street south-east of the town in 1312, as well as, presumably, from other land and houses in the borough. It was apparently insufficient for the maintenance of the wall, for in 1312 the borough levied a 'tallage' on the whole community for the repair of the walls and gates. (fn. 5) That money probably paid for extensive repairs, but by 1329 houses were being built against the wall and on the town waste adjoining it, and in the mid 14th century several people were accused of taking stones, one as many as six cartloads, from the wall. One man in 1346 removed part of the crenellation of the wall. (fn. 6)

The borough carried out extensive repairs between 1381 and c. 1413, removing at least one house which had been built against the wall. (fn. 7) By then part of the eastern end of the south wall had collapsed outwards, and a new wall was built on top of its remains; five regularly spaced bastions were added at the same time round the south-east corner of the wall, between East gate and Scheregate. (fn. 8) Some attempt seems to have been made to ensure the future maintenance of the wall: in 1392 three burgesses gave 2 houses, 4 a. of land, and the advowson of St. Cross hospital for the repair of the walls, and in 1394 a lease of land along the north wall from Ryegate to North bridge stipulated that the tenant should repair the wall. In 1398 another lease of land adjoining the wall reserved to the borough the right of access to the wall for its inspection and repair. (fn. 9) By 1423, however, the wall was again being undermined by sanddigging, and in 1470 stones were being removed by the cartload. Outhouses had been built against the south wall near Scheregate by 1436, and alderman Robert Leche removed the blocking from a Roman drain arch at the Balkerne gate to make a new postern in 1535. (fn. 10) In 1551 the chamberlain was accused of failing to repair the walls, the wall at Head gate being in danger of falling. The southern end of the east wall seems to have collapsed in the 16th century. (fn. 11) Sand-digging under the wall and the removal of stones from it continued, but in 1579 and 1586 the offenders were ordered to repair the wall. In 1619 a licence was granted to build on the wall provided that the holder maintained the wall on which he built. (fn. 12)

The walls were refurbished during the Civil War. In 1642, on a petition from the inhabitants, parliament voted £1,500 for improving the defences of the town and the blockhouse, presumably the one at the entrance to the harbour; Sir Harbottle Grimston urged the mayor to take advantage of the grant and to raise more money in the town if necessary. (fn. 13) By 1643 there were several forts within the town, one of them near the postern by St. Mary's-atthe-Walls, another in High Street. They do not appear to have been substantial works, and some may have been little more than pits revetted with wood, like that excavated in the south-east corner of the town. (fn. 14) Nevertheless in 1648 the walls were weak, and there was a long gap in the north part of the circuit. When the royalist army took over the town that summer they filled such gaps with earth ramparts and strengthened other parts of the wall with 'works', perhaps including the major outwork at the north-east corner of the town. (fn. 15) The walls thus strengthened withstood the onslaught of the parliamentary cannon, although the tops of two old, ruined towers, presumably bastions, were demolished. After the surrender Fairfax ordered the demolition of the walls, an order repeated by the council of state in 1649 and apparently carried out in 1651. The south-west corner of the circuit, by the royalist battery in St. Mary's churchyard, seems to have been destroyed at that time, but most of the works destroyed were probably the ramparts and siege works built in 1648. (fn. 16)

Complaints of stone-digging in the wall and building against it continued in the later 17th century, (fn. 17) and no serious effort seems to have been made to maintain it. By 1694 the wall near Scheregate was level with the ground on the town side, and in 1711 the chamberlain was accused of endangering the lives of the inhabitants by failing to make a fence on the wall from Headgate to Scheregate. Further complaints about the state of the wall were made in 1717 and 1722, and by 1724 most of the north wall west of Ryegate had gone. (fn. 18) By 1748 the walls were being maintained only by those whose gardens adjoined them. (fn. 19) About 185 ft. of the wall near the top of Balkerne Hill collapsed into the road in 1795, and 125 ft. a little further north collapsed c. 1850. (fn. 20) By the 1890s two bastions had been incorporated into houses or workshops, and a third had been made into a Gothic summer house. (fn. 21)

In 1866 the corporation paid the improvement commissioners to carry out minor repairs to the wall, apparently on Balkerne Hill. (fn. 22) The corporation surveyed the walls in 1879, and considered repairing dangerous sections, but were deterred by doubts as to the ownership of the wall and consequent liability for its repair. (fn. 23) In 1887 the museum committee of the borough council assumed responsibility for the wall, (fn. 24) and thereafter it was regularly inspected and repaired at the borough's expense. The committee also took steps to prevent the demolition of parts of the wall, but gave permission for a breach on Balkerne Hill in 1901 and was unable to prevent a contractor removing a section of the wall at Headgate in 1909. After excavations in 1913 the foundations of the Balkerne gate were consolidated and the remaining portions of the gate and guardroom roofed over. (fn. 25) Between 1967 and 1976 the question of the ownership of the wall again caused difficulties, the town council maintaining that the wall was the responsibility of the owners of adjoining land, and the Department of the Environment being unable to prevent the demolition of parts of the wall because notice of scheduling had not been served on all owners. (fn. 26) Some repairs were carried out in 1980; in 1985 a 30-ft. section of the south wall was excavated and then demolished for the service road to the Culver shopping precinct; a major programme of restoration began in 1986. (fn. 27)

The town was surrounded by a ditch in Roman and presumably also in early medieval times, but by the 14th century much of the ditch on the north and south sides seems to have been filled in and built over. There was a curtilage under the north wall outside Ryegate before 1242, and houses outside Scheregate, presumably in the ditch, by 1337. The area between the south wall and St. John's Street was occupied by houses and gardens in 1443. (fn. 28) The western ditch survived as Balkerne Lane until the construction of the inner relief road in 1976-7. (fn. 29)

In the Middle Ages there were four main gates, Head gate and South or St. Botolph's gate in the south wall, North gate, and East gate. All, except perhaps South gate, were Roman in origin, although Head gate, the principal medieval gate, may have been just north of the site of the Roman gate: in 1635 there was a house in the corner formed by the wall on the south and the gate on the east, and no trace of medieval work has been seen in the small portion of the Roman gate which has been examined. (fn. 30) South gate, if not Roman, was in existence by 1197. (fn. 31) In addition to the main gates there were two pedestrian gates, Scheregate in the south wall, and King's Scherde or Ryegate in the north wall. The north postern was recorded in 1240 and was called King's Scherde before 1242; it or Scheregate, which was in existence in the 13th century, had given rise to the surname de la Scherde before 1254. (fn. 32) A postern in the west wall near St. Mary's-atthe-Walls, an enlarged Roman drain arch, was recorded from 1473, and another in St. Peter's parish, presumably that made by Robert Leche in 1535, in 1681. (fn. 33)

North gate, Head gate, and South gate each comprised a single large arched or squareheaded gateway, (fn. 34) suggesting that they had been rebuilt in the Middle Ages; there is no evidence for the appearance of the East gate. A house or rooms had been built over the south gate by c. 1338 and was still there in 1604. (fn. 35) In 1358 the bailiffs and community of the town leased the north gate to a shoemaker, giving him permission to build over the gate and on an adjoining plot of land on condition that he repair the wooden gates. (fn. 36) The borough was leasing the rooms over the north gate in 1531 and in 1736, and the gate seems to have had two storeys of building above it in 1724. (fn. 37) Head gate too seems to have had a house or rooms above it, possibly the house whose foundations had been built into the wall at the gate by 1473, and a house extended over Scheregate by the late 15th century. (fn. 38) John Ellis, by will dated 1485, provided for statues of St. Helen, St. Margaret, and St. John the Baptist to be placed on the East gate. (fn. 39)

The chamberlain was accused in 1447 of failing to repair East gate and Head gate; in 1470 South gate was in ruins, and in 1474 chains at East gate and Head gate needed repair. South gate still needed repair in 1534, and in 1540 one of the aldermen was accused of selling 'the town gate at St. Botolph's', (fn. 40) perhaps part of the wooden gate at South gate. St. Botolph's gate was repaired in 1609. (fn. 41) All the gates were still standing and defensible in 1648, and withstood the siege that year. Part of East gate fell down in 1652, and more of it was pulled down as dangerous in 1676, but part of the Roman guard house on the south side of the gate survived in 1813, and that or another part of the gate was demolished by the improvement commissioners in 1819. (fn. 42) Head gate was demolished in 1753. (fn. 43) The top was taken off North gate in 1774, but the sides of the gate, incorporated into the adjoining houses, were not demolished until 1823. (fn. 44) St. Botolph's gate was demolished by the improvement commissioners in 1814. (fn. 45) Ryegate was sold, presumably for its materials, in 1659, but a staircase and the west part of the gate survived in 1671, incorporated into the adjoining house. (fn. 46) Scheregate presumably disappeared with its adjoining wall in the later 17th century, although its position was marked by Scheregate steps in 1990.


  • 1. Colch. Arch. Rep. vi. 16-18, 64-5; M. R. Hull, Roman Colch. 14-63, summarized in V.C.H. Essex, iii. 92-6; Colch. Archaeologist, no. 1, 16-17; no. 2, 6-10.
  • 2. A.-S. Chron. ed. D. Whitelock, 65-6; V.C.H. Essex, iii. 94.
  • 3. Colch. Arch. Rep. i. 52-3.
  • 4. Pipe R. 1174 (P.R.S. xxi), 75.
  • 5. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr1, rot. 6; Cr2, rott. 11d., 12d.; Colch. Cart. ii. 639; Cal. Letters from Mayor and Corp. Lond. c. 1350-70, ed. R. R. Sharpe, pp. 74-5.
  • 6. E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, ff. 29v., 32, 33, 34; D/B 5 Cr3, rot. 1d.; Cr7, rot. 10d.; Cr9, rot. 6; Cr10, rot. 10d.; Cr12, rot. 11d.
  • 7. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr21, rot. 37; Cal. Pat. 1381-5, 214; 1385-9, 505; 1391-6, 379; 1401-5, 355; 1408-13, 199; 1413- 16, 23.
  • 8. Hull, Roman Colch. 51-3.
  • 9. Cal. Pat. 1391-6, 154; E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, ff. 64, 66.
  • 10. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr43, rot. 19d.; Cr74, rot. 2; Cr104, rot. 3; Colch. Arch. Rep. vi. 326-7.
  • 11. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr118, rot. 8; Hull, Roman Colch. 46.
  • 12. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr141, rot. 3; Cr147, rott. 34d., 36; D/B 5 Gb2, f. 184.
  • 13. Ibid. D/Y 2/8, pp. 44-5.
  • 14. Ibid. D/B 5 Sb2/7, f. 306; D/B 5 Gb2, f. 237; Great and Bloody Fight at Colch. (1648), 3: copy in E.C.L. Colch.; Hull, Roman Colch. 46.
  • 15. Hist. MSS. Com. 27, 12th Rep. IX, Beaufort, p. 25; Bodl. MS. Tanner 57/1, f. 249; M. Carter, True Relation of the Expedition to Kent, Essex and Colch. 1648, 60: copy in E.R.O.; above, fig. 8.
  • 16. Morant, Colch. 60-1, 65-6, 68; E.R.O., D/Y 2/2, p. 241; Cal. S.P. Dom. 1649-50, 181; 1651, 90, 108, 281; V.C.H. Essex, iii. 95.
  • 17. e.g. E.R.O., D/B 5 Gb5, ff. 224-5.
  • 18. Ibid. D/B 5 Sr59, rot. 8; Sr95, rot. 19; Sr115, rot. 6; Sr132, rot. 40; J. Pryer, New and Exact Prospect of Colch. (1724).
  • 19. Morant, Colch. 7.
  • 20. Hull, Roman Colch. 22.
  • 21. E.R.O., Boro. Mun., Mus. Mun. and Libr. Cttee. Min. Bk. 1882-94, p. 196.
  • 22. Ibid. Boro. Mun., Council Min. Bk. 1863-71, p. 84; ibid. Acc. C210, J. B. Harvey Colln. vi, p. 3.
  • 23. Ibid. Boro. Mun., Council Min. Bk. 1871-7, p. 392; 1877-80, pp. 76, 208, 234-5, 237, 276, 288.
  • 24. Ibid. Acc. C210, J. B. Harvey Colln. vi, extra pp. 101-2; ibid. Boro. Mun., Mus. Mun. and Libr. Cttee. Min. Bk. 1882-94, p. 39.
  • 25. Ibid. Boro. Mun., Mus. and Mun. Cttee. Min. Bks. 1882-1952, passim.
  • 26. Colch. Gaz. 21 Nov. 1967; E.C.S. 11 June 1973; 4 June 1976.
  • 27. E.C.S. 22 Feb. 1980; 4 Oct. 1985; 21 Nov. 1986.
  • 28. Colch. Cart. ii. 323-4; E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr5, rot. 6d.; Cr61, rot. 22; and see, D/B 5 R1, ff. 32, 33, 38v., 84 and v., 88.
  • 29. Colch. Gaz. 4 Apr. 1973; Colch. Charter 800 Assn. Colch. 800, 37.
  • 30. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cb1/10, f. 169; Colch. Archaeologist, no. 2, 8.
  • 31. Pipe R. 1197 (P.R.S. N.S. viii), 73.
  • 32. P.R.O., JUST 1/233, rot. 35d.; Colch. Cart. ii. 323-6, 437-8.
  • 33. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr75, rot. 2; D/B 5 Gb5, f. 180.
  • 34. Speed, Map (1610); Pryer, Prospect of Colch. (1724).
  • 35. E.R.O., D/B 5 R1, f. 70; D/B 5 Cb1/5, f. 390.
  • 36. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, f. 253.
  • 37. Ibid. Acc. C47, CPL 1184, no. 18; ibid. D/Y 2/1, p. 123; Pryer, Prospect of Colch. (1724).
  • 38. E.R.O., D/B 5 Cr75, rot. 23; Bodl. MS. Rolls Essex 2.
  • 39. E.R.O., D/B 5 R2, f. 187.
  • 40. Ibid. D/B 5 Cr61, rot. 18; Cr74, rot. 2; Cr75, rot. 23; Cr104, rot. 3d.; Cr110, rot. 2.
  • 41. Ibid. D/B 5 Ab1/7, f. 13.
  • 42. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb4, f. 68v.; Gb5, f. 115; ibid. Acc. C424; Hull, Roman Colch. 44 and pl. ix.
  • 43. Contemporary plaque on site.
  • 44. Chelm. Chron. 11 Nov. 1774; T. Cromwell, Colch. 176.
  • 45. E.R.O., Boro. Mun., Improvement Com. Mins. 1811-33, pp. 51-2.
  • 46. Ibid. D/B 5 Gb5, f. 64.