Constructed over the massive vaults of the ruined Temple of Claudius, Colchester Castle represents the largest Norman Keep in Europe. Measuring some 152ft x 112ft (46 x 34m) and built largely from stone and brick quarried from the old Roman town of Colchester, the castle is believed to be the work of Gundulph, Bishop of Rochester. Gundulph was responsible for the design of the White Tower (the central Keep of the Tower of London) which is the only building in Britain with the same ground plan.
Work on Colchester Castle is thought to have been started c1076 and completed some 50 years later. The basic structure consists of a rectangular block with projecting towers at each corner, and a semi-circular apse on the south end of the east elevation. A prominent feature is the outline of battlements at first floor level, which appear to have been added rather hastily during construction when threatened by an attack from the Danes. Colchester Castle originally stood four storeys high, but the upper two floors have since been lost.
Unusually, Colchester Castle does not seem to have experienced much action throughout history, with the exception of a brief period during the reign of King John. The castle was held for three months by a French garrison who had been assisting the English Barons in their struggle with the King in 1216, leading up to the signing of the Magna Carta. Eventually Colchester Castle was repossessed by the Crown.
By the 14th century Colchester Castle was obsolete, being used mainly as a prison and by 1637 the roof of the Great Hall had collapsed. During the Civil War Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle were held at Colchester Castle, having seized the town and declaring it a Royalist stronghold. Following a 12-week siege, Colchester Castle finally fell to Parliamentarian forces and the two men were subsequently executed in the grounds behind the castle in 1648. An obelisk now marks the spot.
Sold by the Crown in 1629, Colchester Castle was purchased by a local businessman, John Wheeler. His intention was to demolish the whole castle and sell off the raw materials to local builders but, having removed the upper two storeys, the project proved unprofitable and the destruction ceased.
In 1727 the castle was purchased as a wedding gift for Charles Gray, a local man who later became an MP for Colchester. Whilst he lived in the nearby Georgian mansion, he set about restoring the south front of Colchester Castle to a habitable state, adding the tiled roof and dome as well as a study and library. The crypt was opened to the public in 1860 as a museum, starting a trend that has continued to the present day. Further restoration took place in the 1930s after the local council had acquired the building and grounds, and in 1983 an extensive building project began to stabilise the old castle Keep. Work was completed in 1992 and is now home to the Colchester and Essex Museum.
Colchester is a fascinating town with a wealth of history and this awesome Keep in the town centre makes an ideal starting point for discovering how the town has evolved over 2000 years. Neatly contained in a pretty Victorian park, it makes for a really adventurous family day out.