re Colchester’s remarkable Romano-British church

Yesterday (4th January), an article was posted on the Colchester Daily Gazette/Essex County Standard web-site titled ‘ “The oldest church in Britain is right here in Colchester – but it’s being overlooked” ‘ and written by Sir Bob Russell, at www.gazette-news.co.uk/news/local/14997928-The-oldest-church . The Heritage Trust posted the link to this on Twitter but, in a later Tweet, a Tweeter observed that it isn’t definitely a church and it wouldn’t be the earliest church in Britain, anyway…

The remains of the probable Romano-British (Christian) church in Colchester stand in a small area of public open space next to the police station, on the Maldon Road roundabout, and are permanently exposed for viewing with an information panel produced by the Trust. The Trust conducted excavations on the site of the police station in 1976-79 and again in 1988 ahead of its construction in that year. We investigated the remains of the church in 1976-79 and excavated them fully in 1988. (The remains had already been investigated in 1935 and 1965.) The remains of the church are so important that the police station was built in a different position on the site to preserve the remains.

Trust director Philip identifies the building as a probable church – a Romano-British cemetery church – and we date its construction to AD 320-340: it seems to have been in use until at least AD 400. (The Roman emperor Constantine granted freedom of worship to Christians within the Roman empire, including Britain, in AD 313.) The archaeological evidence shows that the probable church was a rectangular building constructed of tile and stone with an apsidal (curved) east end. It was 24.8 metres long and 7.4 metres wide. It stood on the edge of a large, extra-mural Roman cemetery (the ‘Butt Road cemetery’) outside the walled town, and it was orientated east-west. Inside, the building was divided into two parts by a wooden screen, and the eastern end included two aisles defined by timber posts. The floor was of soil or sand and we excavated three probale burials inside the church. The church was protected by a tiled roof and its external walls may have been whitewashed. The church site produced a large number of Roman coins and five Roman lamps. (Several current Trust archaeologists worked on our Butt Road excavations, ie Howard Brooks, Don Shimmin and Steve Benfield, as well as the late Carl Crossan.)

This is a complicated building. It may have been a pagan temple or a mithraeum, or even a hall for funerary feasts, which pre-dated AD 320-340, or a building which was altered and re-used as a church. However, it is associated with two cemeteries, one of which was pagan and one of which was a large cemetery which is interpreted as Christian. This is also a complicated subject, but there is evidence for a number of possible Romano-British churches in Britain. These include intra-mural churches, as at Silchester (dated to about AD 200), Richborough, Lincoln, and St Albans, and extra-mural cemetery churches at St Albans, Canterbury, Dorchester, and Icklingham, as well as at Colchester (see Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 500 by Charles Thomas, 1985). The possible Romano-British church at Colchester was identified in this study even before we fully excavated it in 1988. So the possible Romano-British church at Colchester, which we identify as a probable church based on the excavated evidence, is one of the earliest in Britain…

In 1988, the Trust consolidated the exposed remains of the church and laid out the site as a public monument with a grant from Essex County Council and additional assistance from Colchester Borough Council. We also produced a booklet – Secrets of the grave – to mark the official opening of the remains as a monument. Recently, in 2016, we re-created the information panel for the remains of the church and it was printed and then re-installed on site by a generous private donor (the original panel had degraded and was unreadable).
Do go and have a look!

You can read the archaeological evidence for the probable church in Colchester Archaeological Report 9, ‘Chapter 3: The excavation of the Roman church at Butt Road’, in our online archive at  http://cat.essex.ac.uk/ . See also the Trust’s popular book City of Victory – the story of Colchester, Britain’s first Roman town and Secrets of the grave.

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The images show a plan of the church and cemetery; the remains of the church in 1988; the remains now, next to the police station in Colchester (January 2017); the new information panel; and a reconstruction painting of the church in about AD 350 (by Peter Froste). Two of these images are from City of Victory. [Image to follow.]
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