Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plates 1.35-1.36: Colchester Castle

Plates: These two plates depict the ruins and architectural details of Colchester Castle, Essex. Both plates were engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) from a set of drawings with a somewhat complicated history. Some of these are still preserved at the Society of Antiquaries of London. Plate 1.35 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 1.36 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. 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 seventeenth-century drawing by "Boul," possibly Cornelis Bol (1589-1666) (Guy 2015, Berridge 2016). Isaac Whood’s (1689-1752) drawing is untraced. George Holmes (1662-1749) gave the Boul drawing to the Society in 1721 together with the architectural drawing used for Plate 1.36, which is signed “I. N. 1709.”

Object: 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 Castle is sometimes attributed to Gundulf as well. The prints show what appears to be a two-story structure lacking the roof. 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, Peter Berridge and others have pointed out that Colchester’s architecture echoes some Norman works on the Continent (2016, 55-56).

The construction of Colchester Castle began under the reign of William the Conqueror, between 1070 and 1076. The caption exaggerates in calling it “the Romans’ strongest fortress,” but many Roman bricks and other spolia 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, Wheely halted his demolition when this project turned out to be less profitable than he imagined. In 1920 the castle was presented to the Colchester Borough Council and given a new roof in renovations undertaken during the 1930s. The roof was again renovated during the castle’s most recent restoration in 2013.


Plate 1.35: CASTRI COLNCESTRENSIS, Arcis olim Romanorum munitissimæ, rudera ab ulterioribus temporis et bellorum vastationibus. Societas Antiq. Lond. ita conservari curavit A.D. [M]DCCXXXII.

Plate 1.36, Top Left: The EAST PROSPECT of the CASTLE
Plate 1.36, Bottom Left: The SOUTH PROSPECT of the CASTLE
Plate 1.36, Right: The Ground Plot of COLCHESTER CASTLE. [Scale of Feet.]
Plate 1.36, Bottom: Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ Lond.


Plate 1.35: Colchester Castle, once the Romans’ most secure fortress, its ruins after subsequent ravages of time and wars. The Society of Antiquaries, London, had it thus preserved in the year 1732.

Preparatory Drawings: Click here to see the Preparatory Drawings for Plates 1.35-1.36.

Commentary by Brian E. Rodriguez and Noah Heringman:

History of the Print

George Vertue’s large engraving of Colchester Castle depicts the east and north prospects of this Norman keep built on the remains of a Roman temple honoring Claudius. Roman materials were repurposed by the Norman builders, and the ruins of Roman city walls, built after the Boudician uprising in AD 60-61, may still be seen in Colchester today. The rounded walls of the castle’s southeast corner, which once secured the chapel and crypt, are a particularly distinctive feature, prominently displayed in Vertue’s engraving as well as in many modern illustrations and photographs. By virtue of its situation atop the Roman ruins, the ground floor is not at ground level (Crummy 1994, 5). Accordingly, Plate 1.35 shows steps ascending to the entrance at the south end of the east wall.1 Substantial portions of the Roman fabric survived as late as the Norman conquest, including the temple podium on which Colchester was built. There is some evidence that the site, including portions of the Roman fabric, was used in Saxon times (Drury 1982, 389-90). All the same, the decision to build the castle on these Roman ruins was not made primarily for architectural reasons (Fernie 2000, 67). Rather, Colchester was built atop the ancient site 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 (1882, 20). Indeed, the two plates dedicated to Colchester Castle in Vetusta Monumenta illustrate a number of antiquarian proclivities that were criticized by Victorian archaeologists even before Round. 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 closely follows a surviving mid-seventeenth-century drawing signed by "Boul" 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 (see, for example, Plates 1.6, 1.9-1.12, and 1.27). 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. 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 (1.36) 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 of the main floor that situates the castle in architecural space. 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 signed "Boul," have played the most significant role in reconstructing the history of the castle.

Neither of these surviving drawings (by Boul and I.N.) is mentioned in the minutes of the SAL, 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 1.35, “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 (1687-1765) in 1724 (SAL Minutes I.127), and Whood himself was elected to membership in the SAL in 1725 (I.164), two years before the Colchester drawing is first mentioned. No further mention of engraving an image of Colchester Castle was made until 22 January 1730, when Samuel Gale (1682-1754) exhibited what the minutes describe as Whood’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.Vertue depicts the castle without a roof, as Whood would have shown it, but in most other respects Plate 1.35 follows closely the undated (mid-seventeenth-century) drawing by Boul.

Some of the credit for these plates must go to George Holmes, who presented Boul’s remarkable drawing, along with the plans, to the SAL in 1721 (SAL Minutes I.38). The figures of the artist and the shepherd are present in this 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 the drawing) to this new location. It seems likely that these modifications are adopted from Whood, who may have redrawn and altered Boul's original drawing, as was common practice at the time. The original 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. A label beneath the drawing (in what appears to be Stukeley’s hand) states: “Drawn by Mr Boul a Fleming who lived many years in Italy—& came into England & drew abundance of Views” (SAL Drawings 2.2). Guy (2015) confidently identifies "Boul" as Cornelis Bol (1589-1666), but without giving any new evidence. [3] Berridge's detailed examination refers more tentatively to the same Bol (or Boel), born in Antwerp, as the "strongest candidate for the attribution "at present" (Berridge 2016, 67). (Since many questions about the artist remain unresoveld, we retain the spelling "Boul" here).

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 date much earlier thatn that of the print. Guy proposes a date between 1650 and 1665 (2015, 3), but Berridge cites a 1637 account of the castle’s roof having “lately fallen downe” (2016, 57) to assign a terminus ante quem for the drawing, which he calls “demonstrably accurate in all important details that can be directly verified today” (66). The most important point to Berridge is that Boul's drawing “provide[s] definitive evidence of the original height” of the castle (67). Both Guy and Berridge compare Boul's drawing favorably in terms of accuracy with a small sketch of the castle attributed to Wenceslaus Hollar and/or Daniel King (c. 1660), but this too confirms the heignt of the castle as two stories. As late as the 1980s, some 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.

History of the Castle

The history of Colchester Castle was largely shrouded in legend until Round–whose cousin owned the castle at the time–initiated a more rigorous approach to the castle’s history in his History and Antiquities of Colchester Castle (1882). 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–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 (Berridge 2016, 60; Clarke 1966, 19; Crummy 1994, 6-7).

The SAL minutes indicate a widespread belief that the castle was Roman (I.241), and the original audience for these prints would have been familiar with the medieval legends summarized in the first printed account of the castle, included in William Camden's Britannia (1586). One of the oldest, the "Colchester Legend," concernd a "King Coel" described by two twelfth-century chroniclers as the founder of Colchester and the grandfather, thorugh his daughter St. Helena, of Constantine the Great (Stephenson 1982; Heslop 2012)–thus establishing a connection not only to Rome but also to early Christianity. Philip Morant (1700-1770), 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 (1748, 8). The most widely accepted record today is an 1101 charter from William’s son Henry I granting the castle to Eudo. In 1629, the castle ceased to be a crown property and it was eventually used as a prison by local authorities. Royalist leaders were executed here after the city fell to the Parlimentary army in 1648, as depicted in Benjamin Strutt's historical painting of 1800, The Execution of Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle at Colchester. Boul's drawing shows the castle as it must have looked at this time. It was then condemned and was partly demolished in 1663, as detailed below. The reproduction of Boul's drawing of the castle in its former state thus served the cause of preservation that was a major motive behind the publication of Vetusta Monumenta.

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 acquired that year by the antiquary Charles Gray, FRS (1696-1782). 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. In 1753 Gray received a letter from Stukeley, printed by Round (1882, 153-54) in which Stukeley defended the theory of the castle's Roman origin. 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, drawing on material provided by Gray, became the main source for later eighteenth-century accounts by such prominent antiquaries as Joseph Strutt (1749-1802) and Francis Grose (1731-1791). 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).

Although the original height of the castle has been widely debated, Boul’s drawing, as noted by Berridge, clearly shows a two-story structure. The confusion over the height of castle has two primary causes: first, its unusual elevation, owing to the situation of the castle on the podium of the Roman temple, first recognized in 1920 (Wheeler and Laver 1919; Wheeler 1920); second, 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 (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 published in the first volume of Vetusta Monumenta. The next eight castles to appear (over nearly three decades) are all engraved from early modern drawings kept at the Lancaster Duchy Office, and hence are depicted as working fortresses. The depictions of Melbourne (Plate 1.40) and Pontefract (Plate 1.42) 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 SAL, as was customary, links the pleasure of the ruin firmly to reflection upon the castle’s Roman past. The Vistorian revival of the Roman origin theory drew authority from this caption, cited by Henry Jenkins along with more recent sources in his Colchester Castle shown to have once been The Templed Citadel whith the Roman Colonists raised to their Emperor Claudius (1861). At the same time, Vertue's prints entered the visual record as a more reliable source than many of the subsequent reconstructions, including the four-story castle plausibly illustrated in Nichols (1889,2).

Among modern contributions to scholarship on this “rude” and “singular” monument, that of P. J. Drury stands out for reiterating the importance of Colchester’s link to the ancient world, now settled on firmer foundations (1982; 1984). The ground plan of the castle has now been linked more firmly to contemporaneous structures, including the White Tower in London (Harris 2008) and the slightly earlier Château d'Ivry-la-Bataille in Normandy (Impev 2008; see Berridge 2016, 55-56, for an overview). It's Norman provenance notwithstanding, the castle's Roman affiliations are preserved in the profile of the site and in the recycled building material included in the fabric. As T.A. Heslop puts it, the castle has both “a Roman fabric and a quasi-Roman appearance” (2012, 168). Nichols long ago recognized the quality of the Roman components of the fabric, citing its construction at an early point when builders had “the first choice among the ruins” (1889, 22). This use of spolia 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.


The authors would like to thank our two anonymous peer reviews for their thoroughness and erudition. We were able to correct several errors and consult numerous additional sources thanks to these reviews.

[1]: 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.

[2]: The same cache at the SAL contains four additional drawings of Colchester Castle (SAL MS 197H, 2.ff. 3-6), but these drawings, signed by J. Morley, are dated 1745, too late to have been used for the Vetusta Monumnets prints.

[3]: The dates and biographical details given by Jeffree (2003) for Cornelis Boll (II) match the information given by Guy for Cornelis Bol (IV); Jeffree also adds a relevant reference to Walpole's Anecdotes to Painting, which quotes favorable comments by Vertue himself on a set of view paintings by this Bol, one of which survies at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Works Cited:

Berridge, Peter. 2016. “Colchester Castle: ‘Some Tyme Strong and Statelye, as the Ruynes do Shewe.’” In Castles and the Anglo-Norman World, edited by 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, together with the adjacent islands. Translated by Edmund Gibson. 2 vols. London: Mary Matthews.

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.

------. 1984. “The Temple of Claudius at Colchester Reconsidered.” Britannia 15: 7-50.

Fernie, Eric. 2000. The Architecture of Norman England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Guy, Neil. 2015. "Daniel King, Cornelis Bol, and Colchester's Great Keep." Castle Studies Group Bulletin 20 (September): 3-6.

Harris, Roland G. 2008. "The Structural History of the White Tower, 1066-1200." In The White Tower edited by Edward Impev, 29-93. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Heslop, T. A. 2012. “Constantine and Helena: The Roman in English Romanesque.” In Architecture and Interpretation, edited by Jill A. Franklin, T. A. Heslop, and Christine Stevenson, 163-175. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer.

Impev, Edward. 2008. "The Ancestry of the White Tower." In The White Tower, edited by Edward Impev, 227-41. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jeffree, Richard. 2003. "Bol, Cornelis (ii)."Grove Art Online.Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 1861. Colchester Castle shown to have once been the Templed Citadel which the Roman Colonists raised to their Emperor Claudius. London: Printed for John Russell Smith.

Morant, Philip. 1748. The History and Antiquities of the Most Ancient Town and Borough of Colchester in the County of Essex. London: W. Bowyer.

Nichols, F. M. (1882)1889. “Colchester Castle.” Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society (NS) III: 1-36.

Round, J. H. 1882. The History and Antiquities of Colchester Castle. Colchester: Bentham & Co.

Society of Antiquaries of London. Drawings Volume 2 [197h]

------. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

Stephenson, D. 1982. "The Colchester Chronicle and the Early History of Colchester Castle: A Preliminary Analysis." Archaeological Journal139:409-13.

Wheeler, R.E.M., and P.G. Laver. 1919. "Roman Colchester." Journal of Roman Studies 9:136-39.

Wheeler, R.E.M. 1920. "The Vaults under Colchester Castle: A Further Note." Journal of Roman Studies 10:87-9.