What Is The Oldest Recorded Town In Britain?

By Carly Dodd on August 5 2020 in History

Aerial view of Colchester Riverside suburban residential area, Colchester, Essex, England, UK. Image credit
Aerial view of Colchester Riverside suburban residential area, Colchester, Essex, England, UK. Image credit
  • There are a number of towns which have attempted to claim to be the oldest town in Britain, but none as successfully as Colchester.
  • Colchester is the oldest recorded town in Britain. Records of Colchester date back to 077AD.
  • Pliny the Elder was a roman writer and naturalist who lived from 023AD to 079AD. It is in his writings that we see a reference to what we now call Colchester.

Historically speaking, the oldest recorded town in Britain is that of Colchester. This historic market town resides in the county of Essex, north east of London, on the eastern coast of England. Dating back over 2,000 years, it was once thought to be the capital of Roman Britain. It is a town rich in history, and it displays its ancient sights with pride and pleasure. Colchester Castle and Roman walls are some of its most prominent historical attractions, and it pulls history from both Roman and Saxon rule.

A Historical Debate

Colchester Castle, completed c.1100 AD. Image credit: Alexis Ip/Wikimedia.org

It has long been debated which of Britain's oldest settlements or towns holds the claim of oldest town in the Britain, and depends greatly on what measure you use to determine this. From dating settlements in the Stonehenge area, to determining the oldest city, many parts of Britain look to take the title. It is generally acknowledged, however, that there are a few whose claims are more substantiated than others. For this reason, Colchester remains the town that holds the most clout, and seems to be given this accolade most readily by historians and travelers alike. While some towns pull on legend or false proofs, Colchester points firmly to proof of its early existence, and remains the most widely acknowledged oldest recorded town.

What Makes Colchester Stand Out?

It is important to note the distinction here of Colchester being the earliest recorded town, not simply earliest settlement. This means that the town has to have been found in writing or reference, and have been mentioned and recorded earlier than any other known British town. For this reason specifically, Colchester takes the title. Pliny the Elder was a roman writer and naturalist who lived from 023AD to 079AD. It is in his writings that we see a reference to what we now call Colchester. He published the encyclopedic Naturalis Historia , in AD77, in which he made references to various roman towns and geographies. Colchester is first mentioned here, in relation to Anglesey. The town was then named ‘Camulodunum’, and this is known to be the Roman name for Colchester. The presence of Colchester in this academic writing is what calls as proof to its early recorded existence, one that is documented and dated with distinction.

The history and age of the town has been further substantiated by archeological digs and artifacts which provide evidence to the presence of early settlements during both Roman times and the Bronze Age. While this does not pinpoint a specific date, it provides support to the claim that the town was alive and thriving many years ago. Colchester is very proud of this title, and generally refers to itself as the oldest town in terms of advertisement and tourism. This does not mean, however, that it does not spark debate or opposition from other historical British towns, some even in neighboring townships, who also wish to claim some of history.

Other Top Contenders

View of Ipswich from Christchurch Park c.1746-9 by Thomas Gainsborough RA (1727–88). Image credit: Thomas Gainsborough/Public domain

The town of Ipswich also holds claims to be one of Britain’s oldest towns, and its town signage even states ‘oldest Anglo-Saxon town’ in Britain– a designation which has sparked much debate between Ipswich and Colchester. Although the argument holds that there is a minor distinct there, the contention remains regarding the promotion of this oldest town claim. Throughout Britain, there are a number of towns which can date their history back to Anglo-Saxon times, but it is the specific Roman references to Colchester in 077AD that have most historians backing it as the oldest. Similarly, Thatcham, in turn takes a more technical standpoint, calling itself the oldest continually inhabited town. This is based on the assumption that other potentially older settlements do not warrant such titles as they were, at times, abandoned. Unfortunately for them, it is much easier to provide proof of inhabitants rather than abandonment. It is likely that even when in ruins, towns such as Colchester did indeed have settlers living amongst the town.

Despite these debates, and friendly competition between townships, it remains that Colchester is one of Britain’s earliest towns, and the one documented at the earliest date. Rich in Roman history and signs of early life, it is a well preserved window into early British architecture and culture.

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