Colchester Castle was built just after the Norman Conquest. It has a huge, largely intact early Norman keep with a similar design to the Tower of London’s White Tower.
Colchester, or Camulodunum as it was then, was the capital of Roman Britain. It was a city for veterans of the Roman army with a city centre dominated by a temple dedicated to Emperor Claudius.
The town was still important in the early medieval period. William the Conqueror raised Colchester Castle shortly after the Norman Conquest around 1071.
The castle was constructed over the remains of the Roman temple. The keep covers a huge area measuring 46m by 34m (152 by 112 feet). It is the largest keep by ground area in England.
The keep bears a striking similarity to the Tower of London’s White Tower. Colchester has the same basic rectangular design with an apsidal projection on its south east wall and it is thought that Bishop Gundulf of Rochester was responsible for the design of both.
This part of England was subject to a number of Danish raids at around this time and it seems that construction of the keep was halted at least once by a raid or threat of a raid. Part way up the wall, just below first floor level there is clear evidence of an embattled parapet which was probably a temporary measure in the face of a threatened Danish invasion in 1083.
The keep uses the foundations from the ancient Roman temple as a base and its structure incorporates Roman bricks and clays from the town as well as local stone. The final height of the keep is unknown, though it is believed to have been two or three stories high with its principal residential apartments in the upper floors.
There isn’t anything left of the castle’s curtain wall. Though there is evidence of a forebuilding and barbican with flanking turrets at the front. The outer bailey’s walls probably extended out to join on to the town walls at some point.
Colchester Castle has only been besieged once in its history. In 1215 a number of barons rebelled against the unpopular King John I of England. They invited Prince Louis of France (later King Louis VIII) to take the English throne. In 1216 Colchester was held by Louis’ supporters and King John was forced to besiege and capture it.
The castle remained in royal hands, but by the 13th Century it had become a county gaol. It continued in the role, but did gradually become more ruinous until in 1683 John Wheely, a local ironmonger, was licensed to pull it down to use the stone for building material. Fortunately the task proved too much for him and he stopped after the first couple of stories.
In the early 18th Century it changed hands into private ownership in the Gray family. In the 1740s Charles Gray extensively renovated and restored the building, adding a library and study and landscaping a private park around it.
In 1922 the castle and its parkland were gifted to the town. In the 1930s the current roof was installed and it was converted to a public museum.
The castle is still home to the Colchester Castle Museum. It was extensively refurbished in 2013-14. It showcases international quality archaeological exhibits from 2,500 years of Essex and Cochester’s history.
The museum runs a range of events throughout the year and can be hired as a wedding or corporate event venue. The museum has won awards and is recognised as one of the most popular visitor attractions in the East of England.
Facilities available at the castle include toilets, nearby parking, a gift shop and vending machines for drinks and snacks. From April to November there is also a cafe open in the park. Unusually for an early medieval castle, disabled access is good with two accessible lifts, accessible toilets and disabled parking close by.
Owner: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service
Tel: +44 (0)1206 282939
Opening Times: Daily Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm Sunday 11am to 5pm
South east corner with the apse on the east wall
The front entrance to the castle