Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments

Plates XXXV-XXXVI: Distant View of Colchester Castle, Essex and Ground Plan, South and East Prospects of Colchester Castle


Plate XXXV: CASTRI COLNCESTRENSIS, Arcis olim Romanorum munitissimae, rudera ab ulterioribus temporis et bellorum vastationibus. Societas Antiq. Lond. ita conservari curavit A.D. CD DCCXXXII.
Plate XXXVI: Right: The Ground Plot of Colchester Castle; Top Left: The East Prospect of the Castle; Top Right: The South Prospect the Castle


Plate XXXV: Colchester Castle, which was once the Romans’ most secure fortress. [It was] ruined by time and the ravages of wars. The Society of Antiquaries, London, thus undertook its preservation, in the year 1732.


These two plates depict the ruins and architectural details of Colchester Castle, Essex. Both plates were engraved by George Vertue from a set of drawings with a somewhat complicated history. Some of these are still preserved at the Society of Antiquaries.  Plate 35 presents an east-northeast view of the ruins, including a landscape with a flock of sheep and four human figures, among them the shepherd and the artist himself in the foreground.  Plate 36 represents three drawings in a more austerely architectural style: the east prospect, the south prospect, and a ground plot of the castle.  The first plate includes the signature of a draftsman, “I. Whood,” presumably the Mr. [Isaac] Wood to whom the drawing is attributed in the Minute Book (SAL Minutes I.207, 241).  Yet the plate corresponds very closely to a surviving 17thcentury drawing by Boul, while Whood’s drawing is untraced.  George Holmes gave the Boul drawing to the Society in 1721 together with the architectural drawing used for Plate 36, which is signed “I. N. 1709.” 


Colchester Castle is a Norman keep built upon the ruins of an ancient Roman temple to Claudius. The castle’s design is unusual for a Norman keep, and its closest relative is London’s White Tower, designed by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester.  Colchester is sometimes attributed to Gundulf as well. The prints show what appears to be two-story structure lacking the roof.  Although the original height of the castle has been widely debated, Boul’s drawing clearly shows a two-story structure with the roof intact.  The original height of the building and the history of its partial demolition in the late seventeenth century have been subjects of scholarly debate since at least the mid-eighteenth century (Morant 1748).  More recently, Philip Berridge and others have pointed out that Colchester’s architecture echoes some Norman works on the Continent (Berridge 2016: 55-56).

Provenance and Location

The construction of Colchester Castle began under the reign of William the Conqueror, between 1070 and 1076.  There is no evidence to support the caption’s statement that this castle was “the Romans’ strongest fortress.”  The ruins of Roman city walls, built after the Boudician uprising in AD 60-61, may be seen in Colchester today, and many Roman bricks and other spoglia were used in the construction of the Norman keep.  The castle was used intermittently as a prison from the thirteenth through the nineteenth centuries.  It was alienated from the Crown by Charles I in 1629, and in 1683 John Wheely purchased Colchester Castle to sell its materials for profit. However, he quickly abandoned the project when it turned out to be less profitable than imagined.  In 1920 the castle was presented to the Colchester Borough Council, and was given a new roof in renovations undertaken during the 1930s. The roof was again renovated during the castle’s most recent restoration in 2013.


by Brian E. Rodriguez and Noah Heringman

Vertue’s large engraving of Colchester Castle (plate 35) depicts the east and north prospects of this Norman keep built on the ruins of a Roman temple honoring Claudius. The rounded walls of the castle’s southeast corner, which once secured the chapel and crypt, are the building’s most identifiable feature and are prominently displayed in Vertue’s engraving, as well as in many modern illustrations and photographs. Owing to the castle being built atop Roman ruins, the ground floor is not at ground level (Crummy 1994: 5).  Accordingly, the print shows steps ascending to the entrance at the south end of the east wall.  (This is not an original entrance and has been closed up, but present-day photographs show that the corresponding embrasure in the center section of this wall has been opened and provided with an exterior wooden stair.)  The decision to build the castle on a podium of Roman ruins was not made for architectural reasons, as the ruins provide no architectural advantage (Fernie 2000: 67). Rather, Colchester was built atop a heap of Roman rubble to connect Norman rule symbolically with the Roman past.
The same desire to connect Britain with ancient Rome is apparent in the presentation of Colchester Castle in Vetusta Monumenta. The evidence for this lies in the text beneath Vertue’s engraving: “Colchester Castle, which was once the Romans’ most secure fortress.” As J. H. Round pointed out in 1882, early members of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) advanced the theory that Colchester was a fully Roman building, and did not clearly distinguish between the Roman and Norman provenances that combine in the castle’s history. According to Round, the rejection of this view marks the difference between the “scientific archaeologist” and the antiquarian (Round 1882: 20). Indeed, the two plates dedicated to Colchester Castle in Vetusta Monumenta illustrate a number of antiquarian proclivities. These proclivities can be generally categorized as the antiquarian effort to combine the scientific with the aesthetic, the artist with the archaeologist.  
Vertue’s highly finished landscape view of the ruins follows the source material closely in its depiction of the castle, but alters the topography and the perspective for picturesque effect.  The detailed clouds and vegetation follow the conventions of topographical engraving more closely than any other engraving up to this point in the series, as a comparison with similar prints will show (1.6, 12, 27).  The figure of the artist calls attention to the ruins as an aesthetic object, while the shepherd and his nearby flock add a pastoral note.  These two figures are present in Vertue’s primary source, the Boul drawing, but Vertue increases their distance from the ruins, adds two new figures, possibly tourists, in the middle distance, and moves the dog (the shepherd’s dog in Boul’s drawing) to this new location.  What Round later called “scientific” interest is evident in the architectural detail characterizing the ruins.  Both the east and north prospects of the castle (though the latter is in shadow) are delineated with an architectural eye, depicting the castle’s foundations, windows, and two stories with great accuracy.
The second plate (36) features three images, based on a set of more recent (1709) architectural drawings signed I.N.: the south elevation, including the castle’s only surviving Norman entrance; the east elevation, including a more stylized representation of the modern aperture depicted in the first plate as a ragged breach in the wall; and a scaled ground plan (main floor).  Vertue lends aesthetic appeal even to these more sober drawings by showing the curled edges of the three sheets as they lie unrolled on an imaginary tabletop, labeling  them with non-naturalistic banners that underscore this trompe l’oeil effect (of rendering the drawings as real sheets).  These three images help satiate the antiquarian’s interest in technical detail and continue to be a valuable resource for modern archaeology.  Recently, however, the first plate, and especially the preparatory drawing by Boul, have played the most significant role in reconstructing the history of the castle.
Two preparatory drawings survive, but neither of these is the drawing referred to in the minutes, which record that it was first “Ballotted & Ordered that the Remains of the Castle of Colchester drawn by Mr Wood, be Engraved” on 12 April 1727 (SAL Minutes I.207).  Since the name “I. Whood” is included as the delineator’s signature on plate 35, “Mr Wood” may refer to the portrait painter Isaac Whood (1689-1752).  Whood was also known for his drawings, some of which were exhibited to the SAL by William Stukeley in 1724 (SAL Minutes I.127), and Whood himself was elected to membership in the Society in 1725 (I.164), two years before the Colchester drawing is first mentioned.   No further mention of it is made until 22 January 1730, when Samuel Gale exhibited what is now described as Wood’s drawing of “the Roman Castle at Colchester,” confirming the widespread belief that the castle is Roman, which persisted through the late nineteenth century (I.241).  Vertue, as was customary, waited for a third ballot (19 February) before going to work and then brought his first proofs of both plates on 4 November 1731 (I.275).  Since the two prints follow the earlier, surviving drawings so closely, it may be inferred that Whood’s lost drawing was consulted for topical evidence of the castle in its present state of deterioration.[1]  Vertue depicts the castle without a roof, as Whood would have shown it, but in most other respects Plate 35 follows closely the undated drawing by Boul, whose first name is not recorded (Berridge 2016: 66).
Some of the credit for these plates must go to George Holmes, who presented Boul’s remarkable drawing, along with the plans, to the Society in 1721 (SAL Minutes I.38).  Boul’s drawing has played a significant role in the scholarship on Colchester Castle since F. M. Nichols’s 1882 archaeological survey, never more so than in Peter Berridge’s revisionist history of the castle in 2016.  All that is known of Boul himself, despite Berridge’s research efforts, is what is written beneath the drawing (in what appears to be Stukeley’s hand): “Drawn by Mr Boul a Fleming who lived many years in Italy--& came into England & drew abundance of Views” (Ants MS 197Hv2: 3).  Vertue’s landscape view owes many particulars to this drawing, but Boul depicts the castle’s roofing intact, as well as smoke billowing from the chimneys, suggesting a much earlier date.  Berridge cites a 1637 account of the castle’s roof having “lately fallen downe” (Berridge 2016: 57) to assign an early seventeenth-century date for the Boul image, which he calls “demonstrably accurate in all important details that can be directly verified today” (66).  The most important point to Berridge is that this drawing “provide[s] definitive evidence of the original height” of the castle (67).  As late as the 1980s, archaeologists argued that the castle was originally four stories high and remained so until the abortive demolition work of the 1680s, but Berridge points out that none of the earliest depictions (from 1588 onward) show the castle towering over the rest of the town as a four-story structure would.  Boul’s drawing of the castle, with its roof intact, clinches the point.
The history of Colchester Castle was largely shrouded in legend until Round (1882)—also the owner of the castle—initiated a more rigorous approach to the castle’s history.  Round rejected the hypothesis of the castle’s Roman origins, which had been revived by some of his contemporaries.  Following Round and F. M Nichols, modern scholarship has accepted the evidence for a medieval date, including “evidence of previous use” showing on the Roman bricks and septaria used for the decorative courses on the castle’s exterior (Nichols 1889: 21-22).  Ironically, however, the evidence used by other Victorian archaeologists to claim a Roman origin—such as the modern creation of a walkway for tourists on top of the wall (Buckler 1876, qtd. in Berridge 2016: 60)—was forgotten, so even late twentieth-century archaeologists continued to support the legend of a castle that was originally three or even four stories high (Clarke 1966: 19; Crummy 1994: 6-7).  The SAL Minutes indicate a widespread belief that the castle was Roman, and the original audience for these prints would have been steeped in other stories passed down since William Camden’s account of the castle in his Britannia.  One of the most notorious of these legends was that the district of Colchester was named after a “King Coel” who built the castle.  Philip Morant, in the first substantive account of Colchester Castle, presented evidence that it was constructed under the supervision of Eudo Dapifer, a steward of William the Conqueror (Morant 1748: 8).  The most widely accepted record today is an 1101 charter from William’s son  Henry I granting the castle to Eudo.
Vertue’s prints of Colchester Castle mark the beginning of an antiquarian revival that reached a high-water mark with Morant’s History and influenced numerous accounts of the castle in the later eighteenth century.  The date of 1727, when these engravings were first proposed, is significant in the history of the castle itself, which was inherited that year by the antiquary Charles Gray, FRS.  Gray, a trustee of the British Museum and MP for Colchester, began an ambitious program of restoration in 1750 and is likely responsible for the walkway or viewing platform that later created controversy in the architectural history of the castle.  Many of Gray’s imaginative restorations, such as the tiled roof meant to simulate a Roman structure, may still be seen today. Morant’s History, which grew out of a collaboration with Gray, became the main source for later eighteenth-century accounts by such prominent antiquaries as Joseph Strutt and Francis Grose.  As noted by Berridge (2016: 56-570, who thoroughly reviews the eighteenth-century sources, Strutt conducted more independent research and initiated the controversy over the height of the castle that carried on right through the transition that supposedly divided antiquarianism from “scientific” archaeology (Round 1882: 20).  
The confusion over the height of castle has two primary causes: the first being the unusual elevation of the castle due to its siting on the podium of the Roman temple, first recognized in 1920 (Drury 1984), and the second being the uncertain extent of the castle’s demolition under the ownership of John Wheely.  Morant writes that during Wheely’s ownership, beginning in 1683, “the tops of the towers and walls were forced down with screws, or blown up with gunpowder, and thrown upon the heads of the arched vaults below” (Morant 1748: 115).  Both the unusual elevation of the castle and the knowledge that the “tops of the towers and walls” were demolished, together with a whole array of symptoms that indicate an interruption and/or incompletion in the original building work, have  prompted antiquaries and archaeologists alike to differ concerning the height of the castle. Berridge, however, adduces records of the castle’s many uses to argue that it quickly became “apparent to Wheely that he could earn more from the castle as a standing building than as a source of building material,” and that the extent of the demolition has been exaggerated (Berridge 2016: 66-67).   The antiquarian legacy associated with the Vetusta Monumenta prints, particularly the Boul drawing, seems more persuasive now than much of the intervening scholarship.
Vertue’s engravings of Colchester Castle differ markedly from all the other views of castles engraved for volume one of Vetusta Monumenta.  The next eight castles to appear (over nearly three decades) are all engraved from early modern drawings of castles kept at the Lancaster Duchy Office, and hence are depicted as working fortresses.  The depictions of Pontefract (1.42) and Melbourne (1.40) castles, for example, seem busy and cluttered when seen beside the serene and meditative depiction of Colchester.  Colchester—recorded some time before Gray began his restoration efforts—offers the aesthetic pleasure of a ruin.  The tenor of the caption, quite possibly added at the proof stage by the director or other officers of the society, as was customary, links the pleasure of the ruin firmly to reflection upon the castle’s Roman past.  Among modern contributions to scholarship on this “rude” and “singular” monument, that of P. J. Drury (1982; 1984) stands out for reiterating the importance of Colchester’s link to the ancient world, now settled on firmer foundations.  Drury’s research suggests that the castle be seen as both Roman and Norman due to the nature of the site as well as the prominence of recycled building material.  Nichols already attributed the quality of these materials to its construction at an early point when builders had “the first choice among the ruins” (Nichols 1889: 22).  This use of spoglia links Colchester Castle to the Romanesque architecture of Italy, and provides another avenue for asserting the prestige of British antiquities vis-à-vis those of the ancient Mediterranean world.  The long historical view of this castle, as encouraged by these prints, also reveals the foundations of modern archaeological interest in the passionate antiquarian endeavors of the eighteenth century.

Works Cited
Berridge, Peter. 2016. “Colchester Castle: ‘Some tyme strong and statelye, as the ruynes do shewe.’” In Castles and the Anglo-Norman World. Ed. John A. Davies, Angela Riley, Jean-Marie Levesque and Charlotte Lapiche. 55-68. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Camden, William. 1722. Britannia, or A Chorographical Description of Great Britain and Ireland. Trans. Edmund Gibson. 2 vols. London.
Clarke, David. 1966. Colchester Castle: A history, description and guide. Colchester: Bentham and Company Limited.
Crummy, P.J. 1994. “The Castle that Eudo Built.” Colchester Archaeologist 7: 1-7.
Drury, P. J. 1982. “Aspects of the origins and development of Colchester castle,” Archaeological Journal 139: 302-419
Drury, P. J. 1984. “The Temple of Claudius at Colchester Reconsidered.” Britannia 15: 7-50.
Fernie, E. 2000. The Architecture of Norman England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Morant, Philip. 1748. The History and Antiquities of the Most Ancient Town and Borough of Colchester in the County of Essex. London: Printed by W. Bowyer.
Nichols, F. M. 1889 [1882]. “Colchester Castle.” Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society III (NS): 1-36.
Round, J. H. 1882. The History and Antiquities of Colchester Castle. Colchester: Bentham & Co.
Society of Antiquaries of London.  Antiquarian Society MS 197, vol. 2. 
Society of Antiquaries of London.  1718- Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

Further Reading
Buckler, George. 1876-82. Colchester Castle a Roman Building. Colchester: Bentham and Harrison.
Grose, Francis. 1783. Antiquities of England and Wales. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. London: Printed for H. Hooper. 113-18.

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