Of all the places in the world you could visit, Colchester in the Land of the East Saxons is probably the least likely place that you would expect to be a hotbed of religious activity as well as a significant centre of the Great Roman Empire in Britannia and a frontline in bloody battles of the local populous against Viking invasion and between the Royalists and the Republicans in the English Civil War. Yet the Essex town of Colchester can rightly claim to be at the heart of many of the most significant moments in English history. In this post I’ll explore some of the most significant moments in the Saxon and Norman histories of Colchester and tell the story of the Kentish monk called Norman who founded a religious movement at St Botolph’s Priory in Colchester.
Saxon Life in Colchester
In AD410 Roman troops had departed Colchester and left the area defenceless. Incoming people from northern Germany and Denmark called Angles, Saxons and Jutes started to settle in the east of England and in Colchester there is evidence of settlers from Germany arriving in the early 5th century. Remains of their houses have been found inside the town walls as well as cemeteries for their dead just outside.
The Anglo Saxons are thought to have occupied Colchester from about AD450. Life was quite different than it had been during Roman times. The scattered settlement within the Roman walls amongst the ruins of the old Roman town was more like a village. The Saxons living here gave Colchester it’s name of Colne Ceaster (the Saxon word for a group of Roman buildings).
The Saxons were originally Pagan in their beliefs but began converting to Christianity around AD310. Among of the Pagan gods worshipped were Saxnot – God of the Family, Thunor – God of Thunder, Balder – God of Immortality, Frigg – Goddess of Love and Wade – God of the Sea. There was also a belief in supernatural entities such as elves and dragons. Pagans at that time also practiced the sacrifice of inanimate objects and animals as well as the cremation of their dead.
The Pope Sets About Crushing Paganism in England
In AD597 when the Pope sent a Benedictine monk called Augustine on a mission to England. Augustine landed on the Isle of Thanet and converted King Ethelbert of Kent and his Kingdom to Christainity. The Pope made Augustine the first Archbishop of Canterbury and Ethelbert allowed him to build a Church in Canterbury. Augustine is considered to be the “Apostille of the English” and a founder of the English Church.
The Viking Invasion
During the 860s Viking armies from Denmark (under the command of the terrifying Ivar the Boneless) conquered and occupied eastern England including Colchester. Ivar was reputed to be a berserker. Berserkers were Viking warriors who were said to have fought in an uncontrollable trance-like fury, later giving rise to the English word berserk. There is much debate to the meaning of Ivar’s epithet “the Boneless”, it has been suggested that it is a euphemism for impotence – that he had “no love lust in him” or even a snake metaphor, his brother Sigurd being known as Snake-in-the-Eye. However, it may simply have referred to a physical flexibility – a poem called Háttalykill inn forni” describes Ivar as being “without any bones at all”. In 869 King Edmund of East Anglia was defeated and killed by the Danes and Colchester and the East of England fell under Danish control.
The Saxons fight back
The armies of the Saxon King, Edward the Elder – Son of King Alfred the Great – travelled from the Kingdom of Wessex to attack Colchester in AD917 and drive out the Vikings. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says of this event “Went to Colchester and beset the town and fought thereon till they took it, and slew all the people and seized all that was therein; except those men who escaped therefrom over the wall”.
Edward established a new town, repaired the town walls and laid out new streets. He continued his father (King Alfred’s) system of burh’s or fortifications and over the next 150 years Colchester grew in size and importance to become a prosperous burh
A number of Saxon ports were established at Old Heath, Blackheath, Hythe from the old English “Hetha” (though these were over-shadowed by other more successful and better located ports such as Ipswich) and by the 10th century Colchester had it’s own mint and regular market.
Christianity under The Normans – Kings William I and II
After the Norman invasion of 1066, William The Conqueror looked to fortify his new land. In 1070/80 the Castle, as we know it today, was constructed on the site of the Roman Temple of Claudius. The Keep is the largest surviving example built by the Normans – constructed using stone mainly from the Roman ruins. His invasion had the approval of Pope Alexander II who gave him a banner to crusade under. However, William repaid the loyalty of the Church by ousting all the English born bishops and abbots and replacing them with Normans.
Less than 2 years after becoming King, William II lost his father William I’s advisor and confidant the Italian born Norman Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury. After Lanfranc’s death William delayed appointing a new Archbishop – draining the church of revenues in the interim. In panic owing to a serious illness, he nominated as Archbishop Norman-Italian Anslem. Anslem – considered to be the greatest theologian of his generation – and William II disagreed on a range of ecclesiastical issues leading the King to declare “Yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hate him with yet greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and thereafter I shall hate him continually with ever fiercer and bitter hatred”. In 1095 William tried to bring Anslem to heel at his council at Rockingham. 1097, Anslem went into exile taking his case to the Pope Urban II who at the time was involved in a major conflict with Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (who supported the anti-pope). Reluctant to make another enemy Urban came to an agreement with William II whereby William recognised Urban as Pope and Urban gave sanction to the ecclesiastical status quo. Ansleum stayed in exile and William was able to continue claiming Church revenues to the end of his reign.
The Founding of a New Religious Movement at St Botolph’s Priory
Who was St Botolph? St Botolph and his brother Adoph were young Saxon nobles living in the 7th century. Both nobles were sent for an education at a Benedictine Abbey in France and on Botolph’s return he was given some land said to be where the present day town of Boston stands on which to build a monastery. St Botolph died after a long life of religious endeavour but the monastery lived on before being destroyed by the Danes in 870AD. King Edgar (936-967AD) ordered that the remains of the Saint be divided into three parts: the head to be taken to Ely, the middle to Thorney and the remainder to Westminster Abbey in Middlesex. The relics were brought through four city gates in Middlesex – Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Billingsgate with churches at these entrances named after Botoloph. As Botolph’s remains were carried from place to place he became known as the Patron Saint of Travellers.
The Church’s conversion to Augustinian Priory
There are a number of churches in Colchester thought to be of Saxon origin and one of these was thought to have been built in honour of St Augustus on the site of St Botolph’s Priory.
The church’s conversion to Augustinian Priory began with a priest called Norman from Kent, who had studied under Anslem – Archbishop of Canterbury – in excile in France before returning to England and settling in Colchester. There he joined a college of secular priests at the Church of St Botolph who had decided to join a religious order, and whose leader Ainulf turned to Norman for advice as to which direction the order should take. When Norman suggested the Augustinian order which at that time had no houses in England, Ainulf and his followers agreed sending him back to Anslem who gave Norman at letter of recommendation to take to the Abbot of Mont Saint Eloi. Norman and a companion took this letter to the France, first to Chartres and then to Beauvais, where they learned the Rule of St Augustine before returning to Colchester. There they founded the Priory of St Julian and St Botolph’s, with Ainulf as its first prior; this must have occurred sometime between when Anselm consecrated the undertaking in 1093, and King William II‘s granting of a charter of protection to the canons of the Priory, which was before his death in 1100.
It may be that Ansleum looked upon the training and return of the young monk to Colchester as a way of keeping his religious principles alive in Britain during his exile and estrangement from King William II. The idea of spreading the word of Augustine may have inspired Norman to leave Colchester and St Botolphs Priory in 1108 to travel to the Land of the Middlesaxons with the Ainulf’s blessing to become the first prior of Holy Trinity Priory in Aldgate, Middlesex. Although he may have been missed in Colchester his departure did not stop St Botolph’s becoming established the first Augustinian institution in England in 1103.
My Visit to Colchester
During my visit to Colchester on a pleasant summer’s day in June, I hoped to learn something about life in the town during the Saxon and Norman occupation of this area. The castle museum seemed as good a place as any to start. The nearest station for the Castle is Colchester Town – just head towards the High Street/Ryegate Street.
The Castle Museum is set next to the remains of a chapel thought to be constructed by the Saxons but then rebuilt by the Normans soon after the Castle was erected. The chapel was richly decorated and fragments are on display in the museum.
The Museum reveals the fascinating history of Colchester from the first Iron Age occupation of the area, through to the occupation of the Romans, the Saxons and Normans, Medieval and Post-Medieval times right up until the modern age. Whilst the majority of the remains in the museum come from the Roman period rather than any period there are still many Saxon findings of interest.
Animal bones from
funeral feasts – a
Pagan practice –
held at Christian
Church, Butt Road
Saxon bone comb
Gold Saxon coinage
Seal of the Port of Colchester
A Tale of Modern Day Neglect
St Botolph’s Priory is an opportunity wasted by Colchester council as it could really be quite a major tourist attraction if only it was better sign posted. I actually had trouble finding this site of great historical significance it as it is quite hidden away behind a row of rather non-descript shops. Only the directions of the Tourist Office (who assured me it was worth a visit) saved me from giving up. The Priory was peaceful during my late week visit seemingly only used as a student hangout and short cut for the locals from the shops to the station car park. There were a few discarded beer cans by the wooden benches overlooking the site adding to the neglected feel. Sadly it was a dull overcast day, but I think with the right light there could be a beautiful view from the small hill alongside and the place does have a special feel to it.
Colchester needs to promote the priory as much as it’s revamped museum and other better known attractions
Views of St Botolph’s Priory
Middx Explorer at St Botolph’s Priory