Students Staff

10 January 2013

Britain’s oldest recorded town is rethinking its past

A major series of talks at firstsite is set to provide new perspectives on the history of Colchester – Britain’s oldest recorded town and first capital of Roman Britain.

Colchester’s Avatars: the historical figures on Colchester’s Town Hall, organised by Professor John Gillies from the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex, will reflect on the historical figures depicted in the statues featured on Colchester’s iconic Victorian Town Hall. The first talk will be on Thursday 24 January.

Those represented on the Town Hall’s exterior often played important roles in the history of Colchester, England and even Europe.

Some remain well-known although they are still the source of historical debate, such as Boudicca – who burnt Colchester to the ground during the revolt she led against the Romans.

Meanwhile, others are at risk of being forgotten despite their historical significance, for example, William Gilberd – the Colchester-born physicist who was one of the most influential scientific thinkers of 16th century Europe.

The talks will ask: Who are these people? Why and when and by whom were they chosen? Were they the right people to be chosen and are their other more appropriate candidates who would be chosen now?

Speakers will include leading University of Essex academics alongside local and architectural historians who have conducted research into the area’s heritage.

Professor Gillies said: “We are asking who are the historic figures featured on the Town Hall? Why and when and by whom were they chosen? Are there other figures who deserve to be up there?”

The first talk is on Thursday 24 January and titled The Building and the Figures. The speakers will be architectural historian James Bettley and Colchester historian and Visiting Fellow at the Department of History Andrew Phillips.

Future talks include ‘Thomas Audley and Samuel Harsnett’ with Professor James Raven and Professor Gillies, ‘Edward the Elder and St Helena’ with Andrew Phillips, ‘Boudicca and Eudo Dapifer’ with Philip Crummy and ‘William Gilberd’ with Professor David Tilley, Peter Noakes and Ken Rickwood.

The statues depicted on Colchester Town Hall are:

  • Boudicca - Queen of the Iceni tribe who led an uprising against Roman rule, which saw Colchester burnt to the ground.
  • St Helena - Colchester's patron saint who is said to have been the daughter of King Coel, wife of the Roman Emperor Constantius and mother of the Emperor Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity.
  • Edward the Elder - Anglo-Saxon king who ousted the Danes from Essex.
  • Eudo Dapifer - Steward to William the Conqueror who oversaw the building of Colchester Castle.
  • Thomas, Lord Audley – Lord Chancellor under King Henry VIII.
  • William Gilberd - Eminent scientist, father of electrical engineering, author of De Magnete and physician to the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
  • Samuel Harsnett - Leading cleric during the early part of the Stuart period and Archbishop of York under King Charles I.

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