Celtic Colchester

Celtic Connections with the Colchester Region

1. Celtic Beginnings:

1.1 Background:

Colchester (Essex, England) was arguably the most important centre of Celtic power in ancient Britain and was home to a Celtic tribe known as the Trinovantes (possibly meaning “The Vigorous People” [Col 96]). The Romans referred to Colchester as Camulodunum which was based on the original British name Camulodunon meaning Fortress of Camulos (the Celtic god of war) [Cooper 94]. At the height of Colchester’s Celtic power, in the early part of the first century, the area based around what is now Essex, South Suffolk, Hertfordshire & Kent was ruled over by a Colchester based King called Cunobelin (Shakespeare’s inspiration for Cymbeline) [Edwards 94]. Colchester was opposite the Rhine and offered good communications to the rest of Britain, making it a strategic site. It was heavily fortified by means of a series of massive dykes (24Km), the largest of their kind in Britain bearing physical testament to the importance of Colchester. Such was the importance of Colchester in the Celtic world that the it was the prime objective of the Roman Invasion of A.D. 43 [Dunnett 75] which in turn led to Colchester becoming the Roman provincial capital & colonia (a chartered town enjoying special rights and privileges under Roman law), boasting the famed Colchester Roman Chariot Circus (the only one found in Britain) and featuring many other facilities such as Colchester’s Roman public baths (one of the many ongoing discoveries being unearthed as Colchester is redeveloped).  The importance of Colchester at the time of the Roman invasion is, perhaps, well illustrated by historical records that show that the Romans referred to Cunobelin (ruler of this region) as Rex Britannorum (King of the Britans) [Col 96] .

1.2 Battles:

The Celtic people of this region were involved in two major battles with Rome, the first being the 43 invasion of Britain (which occurred shortly after Cunobelin’s death in 42) [Caesar] resulting in the death of one of Cunobelin’s sons, Togodumnus, whilst another son, Caratacus, fled with a number of fellow Celts to join the Silures in Wales. The second major battle was the Boudiccan revolt of 61 [Webster 78] in which the Iceni queen, Boudica (from the Celtic word meaning Victor or Victory) led both the Inceni (from the Norfolk area) and Trinovantes against the Romans destroying Colchester, London & St Albans before being defeated somewhere near the junction of the Foss-Way and Watling Street (although it should be added that the lack of proof leaves the siting of this battle open to much discussion). It is conjectured by some that both of these incidents must have greatly depleted the Trinovante population and put them in serious disfavour with Rome!!! In addition, had the Trinovantes somehow survived the Romans, another potential threat would have been the massive influx of Germanic Tribes which occurred around the time of the termination of Roman government in Britain (AD 410). This Saxon infusion led to land of the Trinovantes becoming known as the Kingdom of the East Saxons (in abbreviated form; Essex) and Camulodunum assuming a Saxon name, Colchester (possibly meaning Colne Stronghold/Fortress or perhaps Colonia Fortress) [Martin 58].

1.3 A Remaining Mystery:

Rosalind Niblett (formerly Dunnett) raises an interesting question regarding the fate of the Trinovantes [Dunnett 75]. She notes that after the Boudiccan revolt there was no further historical reference to the Trinovantes. Also, so far, and as an exception to all other known Celtic tribes of Britain, no cantonal capital has been identified for the Trinovantes in Roman Britain. She points out that the Trinovantes seem to have disappeared so completely that the Celtic language has left fewer traces here than anywhere in Britain. She even raises the question as to whether the Trinovantes survived at all; were they driven out, did they flee or were they exterminated ? Whatever the Trinovantes fate, their impressive fortifications, graves and trinkets remain as a reminder of their past domination of this region.

1.4 Virtual Celts:

Gosbeck, a sacred place of exceptional importance spanning the Celtic and Roman periods, is one of the two largest and original Celtic centres within the massive dyke defence systems in the Colchester area (the other being Sheepen 1Km west of the Roman and mediaeval town of Colchester and 3Km NE of Gosbeck) [Dunnett 75]. In more recent years there have been various proposals aimed at providing a facility for visitors to “see and experience” this fascinating period of Celtic history. For example, a £10.5 million Hi-Tech scheme  was considered by Colchester Borough Council (a tier of UK local government) to recreate a 2,000-year-old temple at Gosbecks Archaeological Park (SW outskirts of Colchester) using advanced mixed-reality systems. Since some people regard scientists & engineers as the modern guardians of “wizardry” and “knowledge” (the “new Druids”!) then perhaps it could be argued that they would be fitting people to be at the focus of a new Celtic venture. Sadly, to-date, none of these schemes have come to fruition leaving Colchester and Essex deprived of what could be a major cultural and  tourist gem, capable of rivaling the best in the UK.

2. Celts in Modern Colchester:

Whilst in the period described above there was a movement of Celts from East to West, more recent history has witnessed a small flow in the opposite direction.

Circa 1860 approximately one third of the British Army was raised in Ireland. Colchester was home to the Munster & Leinster Regiments who were barracked here before going on to various military campaigns. Records show that in the early 19th century large numbers of Irish soldiers arrived in Colchester as part of the Napoleonic and Crimean campaigns [Cooper 94], many settling in the town after these wars (figures for 1856 show as many as 800 soldiers and members of their family in Colchester barracks). One such Irish soldier was the Waterford-born hero, Colour Sergeant Edmund Fowler, who was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) in the Zulu War in South Africa in 1879 when he was just 18 years old, and is buried in Colchester Cemetery (the grave was recently restored thanks to Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell and local resident Joan Soole who works with the Victoria Cross Trust and the Colchester Military Heritage Community).  St James the Less church in Priory Street (www.colchestercc.co.uk) bears testament to presence of those Irish solders in that during 1861 the church was modified to accommodate up to 100 soldiers. A “Pieta” was also presented to the church after the Irish Regiments were disbanded (circa 1917).

More recently the University of Essex has welcomed Irish students who come to study at the University of Essex. No doubt the spirits of early Celtic inhabitants smile kindly on their descendants returning to the sites of their earlier epic escapades! In this respect, Essex is fortunate in having its own airport (Stanstead) with excellent connections to Ireland.

Of course, Colchester and East Anglia is only one tiny part of the world that the Irish Celts have visited as is witnessed by the global spread of the Irish diaspora  which was estimated at the time of writing (1998) to be some 85 million people, with the UK being home to some 875,000 Irish-born people, and 1.7 million people with one or two Irish-born parents. So strong is the kinship of this diaspora that they have their own newspapers and have even proposed a flag, see below.

Brian Whelan's Irish Diaspora FlagBrian Whelan’s Irish Diaspora Flag (see the original letter to the Irish Post from this well known Norfolk artist that created the design).

Note (April 19): Since writing the above section, a most interesting article appeared in the Colchester Gazzette (better known as The Daily Gazette), written by the  Andrea Collitt entitled  ‘The oldest church in Britain is right here in Colchester – but it’s being overlooked‘. It described  a somewhat neglected remains of a building excavated when Southway (a cross-town carriageway built in the 1970s)  which turned out to be  “The remains of arguably the oldest Christian church in Britain, almost 1,700 years old, are in Colchester …… The foundations date from AD:320 to AD:340, towards the end of the Roman era. The church would probably have been used for about 100 years. It was to be another 200 years before Christianity returned to Essex in AD:653 when Cedd (later St Cedd) came ashore at Bradwell-on-Sea and built St Peter’s Chapel which still stands today” (about 300 years later than the Colchester church) [Andrea Collitt 2017]. As Andrea Collitt’s article argues, its rather curious that Colchester doesn’t make more of hosting such significant remains (she explained there is no signage and little mention of it in the Colchester tourism literature), It seems that, for reasons best known to those charged with promoting the image of Colchester to the world, they have chosen not to publicise this important historical remains, leaving it as a somewhat hidden historical gem for the more inquisitive and determined tourists to discover.

3. Destiny:

Although we know the names the Greeks and Romans used to refer to the Celts as Keltoi & Galli, respectively [Eluere 92]); what name did the collection of tribes that history labels Celts use to describe themselves? Among the extremely diverse replies to this question is the rather charming, if wishful, suggestion based on the Welsh Celtic word “Cymru” meaning “The Companions” (or more simply “The People“). An ancient Celtic dream was that of Inisfallen, the Island of Destiny. Some have undoubtedly found their island and companions; for others the journey is far from over as Celtic descendants have in significant numbers down the years found themselves forging out new lives far from their birthplace, family and friends (the Irish Diaspora was estimated at some 85 million people in 1998!). However, though separated from their roots by numerous generations, an intangible feeling of belonging to a Celtic family haunts their descendants, forming a seemingly indestructible bond to the past and an allegiance to distant and unknown Celtic cousins.

Until the centuries bring all “Companions” together in their own Inisfallen; slainte !

Victor Callaghan

Essex University, June 1996 (minor revisions made in September 2014,  April 2019 & June 2021)

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The following people have contributed information for this page: Victor Callaghan, Denis Collins & Gillian Kearney.

Further Reading:
[Caesar] Julius Caesar “Gallic Wars” Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn see http://classics.mit.edu/Caesar/
[Collitt 2017] Andrea Collitt “The oldest church in Britain is right here in Colchester – but it’s being overlooked”, Daily Gazette, 3rd January 2017
[Cooper 94] Janet COOPER, “The Borough of Colchester” A History of the County of Essex – Vol. 9, Oxford University Press, 1994
[Col 96] Colchester Castle Museum, “Celtic Era Display”, Colchester Borough Council
[Crummy 97] Philip Crummy, “City of Victory”, Colchester Archaeological Trust, 1997
[Dunnett 75] Rosalind DUNNETT, “The Trinovantes”, Duckworth, 1975
[ECS 96] Essex County Standard, “£10M Will Bring History to Life”, Essex County Standard, 13th Dec 1996, p10
[Eluere 92] Christiane ELUERE, “The Celts, First Masters of Europe”, Thames & Hudson, 1992
[Edwards 94] A EDWARDS, “A History of Essex” (5th Edition), Phillimore & Co. Ltd, 1994
[Martin 58] Geoffrey MARTIN, “A Guide To Colchester”, Benham Newspapers Ltd, 1958
[Webster 78] Graham WEBSTER, “Boudica”, BT Batsford Ltd, 1978

Further Information:

If this page has induced a curiosity to know more about this intriguing era and area, then one of the best places to start looking for more information is by emailing the Colchester Archaeological Trust (CAT) (or contacting them at: Colchester Archaeological Trust, 12 Lexden Road, Colchester, CO3 3NF, UK – Tel: +44 1206 541051). They produce regular publications, give presentations and offer the opportunity to participate in their “digs”. The CAT Web Site contains more information. If you are in the Colchester area we strongly recommend you visit Colchester Castle Museum where there are a number of interesting displays from this period. Understandably, the sparseness of reliable and detailed historical records for the period described results in marked differences of interpretation by historians. In this respect, we wish to point out that the authors of this web page are only interested amateurs; thus for those with a serious interest in this topic we strongly recommend that you refer to the work of professional historians and archaeologists (such as the Colchester Archaeological Trust and those publications listed above).

Keywords: Colchester Essex England Celtic Celts History Irish Ireland Shakespeare Kings Queens Boudica Boadicea Battles Roman Cunobelin Trinovantes
Date Created: June 1996, Last Modified: August 2019

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