|Vaulted Chapel, Colchester Castle -|
used as the original room for the Museum
New insights to the history of Colchester Castle were given by Philip Wise, Curatorial and Collections Manager, when members of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History visited the building on 6 April 2013. The visit presented a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to view the building empty of its museum artefacts: the Castle is closed for redevelopment now until Easter 2014.
Colchester Castle was built in two phases: the first dates from the 1070s according to an entry in the Colchester Chronicle; the second phase was constructed after 1101, being the earliest reliable date when King Henry I granted the Castle to one Eudo Dapifer, the Constable of the Castle. At that time the forebuilding and at least a second storey was added.
Colchester Castle as seen today is unique for three reasons. Firstly, it is the largest Norman Keep ever to have been built in England, and perhaps Europe, on account of the fact that it rests on the footprint foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius which survived only a few years after the Roman occupation until the town’s destruction by Boudicca in 61AD. Secondly, it was built in distinct building phases, perhaps on account of a threatened Viking invasion. Thirdly, that the Castle was partly destroyed by John Wheely who received a contract to demolish the building in 1683. It has been a matter of conjecture how much building material Wheely removed.
|Interior showing distinct building materials and phases|
The building did not have a basement area so, unusually, the ground floor was the storage area and the first floor the Great Hall. It was originally divided into three portions with two sturdy walls, one of which was destroyed by Wheely. The walls were required because the size could not be spanned with a whole roof in timber. Examining the position of the missing wall at ground level there is evidence that it was once arcaded, contained arches to let more light into what was a large and dingy space: the spring of the first arch survives.
There was a prison on the ground floor, used until 1835. Among those held there were Dutch sailors and protestant martyrs.
The interior shows a ground floor constructed of brick and septaria, found in north east Essex, whilst the first floor contains Roman tiles built in herring-bone fashion. The quantity of recycled Roman material is enormous, so much so that many historians, even as late as the Victorian era, thought the building itself to be Roman. The walls would have been plastered over and perhaps elaborately painted.
|Capital on Norman south doorway|
One third of first floor formed private accommodation: a private audience chamber, a garderobe, and the Royal bedchamber. The bedchamber was the only access on this floor into a vaulted crypt or chapel, which seems inconvenient for all other than the King, and has been the subject of recent debate. Originally it was thought that a separate staircase entered the chapel but this has now been dismissed, so it is thought that this was a private chapel and that others used the chapel in the bailey, which was exposed in an archaeological dig in the 1930s, and whose remains can be seen to the south side of the building. If then the vaulted space referred to is a chapel not a crypt, then the roofed room above was not a chapel at all but merely a roof-space or further floor.
The opportunity for historians to visit the empty shell of the building, and to compare it to other examples, has led to a view that Colchester Castle originally had no more than two storeys. Double height Great Halls were rare and any walkway which surrounded the room would have been interrupted by the Y-shaped flues.
The importance of the Castle building to the history of Colchester is of such merit that when reopened much of the story of the building will also be told as part of the Museum’s interpretation of the town’s 2000 year history.
|Colchester Museum, 1909|
For more information on the historians’ Study Day at Colchester Castle on 12 March, follow this link: http://www.cimuseums.org.uk/castle/news/friday-15-march-2013.html