Monument record MCC7828 - Colchester - St Helens Chapel


Possibly pre-Norman in origin.


Grid reference TL 9975 2539 (point) (FCE)
Map sheet TL92NE


Type and Period (3)

Full Description

Possibly pre-Norman in origin. Present building mostly C13 with traces of C12 work, incorporating Roman brick. C14 chronicle of Colchester states that it was founded by Helen, mother of Constantine and refounded by Eudo Dapifer in 1076. Lower courses of N wall Roman construction. Roman foundations? <1> <2> In stone with bands of Roman brick and some C13 lancet windows. <3> On the N side under the walling are a few courses of septaria and Roman brick, not quite on the same alignment and either C12 or Roman in origin. A `modern' doorway has a pointed relieving arch in Roman brick. <4> The bottom 1m or so of the N wall is Roman construction. Above this the wall was extensively refaced in C19, therefore date of its core is uncertain. "There is very strong evidence of the personal association between the empress Helena and Colchester and it is by no means unlikely that the original St Helens Chapel was a Roman foundation but this is virtually incapable of proof.". <5> Colchester Museum has a mortar collected from `the continuation of the wall' in 1924. "In June 1940 part of a wall 1ft 2" wide running N-S near the NW corner of the chapel and 18 inches from it on the W side, a small pier (of tiles) 18 ins square were observed by Mr Rudsdale, who also reported that many fragments of thin slabs of finely finished Purbeck marble (or similar stone were found in the digging, all indicative that the site was of importance". Roman walls were seen under Maidenburgh Street in 1891. Hull suggests they could be remains from a theatre or amphitheatre (see ). <6> <7> <8> The Roman work under St Helens Chapel north wall contains brick courses and must therefore survive above its foundation level since in Colchester brick courses are invariably absent in Roman foundations. The alignment drifts from that of the building itself suggesting the chapel has been extensively rebuilt. The Colchester chronicle and the Roman wall are evidence for a possible Roman chapel though the association with St Helena is suspect. However, the Roman building need not have had a religious foundation. The walls recorded in 1891 may be associated (see ). <9> Excavations in 1981 and 1984 in Maidenburgh Street (see ) have shown that the Roman wall under the north wall was part of a theatre. The base of the E wall was also shown to be Roman and part of the theatre also. This proves the Colchester Chronicle right in saying that the building is Roman in origin. It is possible that the theatre had acquired an association in late Roman times with Christianity, hence the story of St Helena and here founding a church. The St Helena connection is surely fantasy however. <10> Small trench dug at the NW corner of the chapel to clarify alignment of Roman wall at the base of the N wall of the medieval chapel. As far as could be established the alignment of the Roman wall is similar to that of Chapel Way. A trench was dug at the SW corner of the chapel - no trace of a foundation found. A third trench was dug. 1m to the W - probing failed to produce any signs of Roman foundations. Thus, it is not certain if like N and E walls the S and W walls of the Chapel are built on Roman foundations or walls. <11>

Site Management: = Now part of Colchester Museum. <1>

Site Assessment = Many questions remain to be answered about the original Roman structure, its original function and later use. <5>

Sources/Archives (11)

  • <1> DESC TEXT: Priddy, DA. unknown. SMR.
  • <2> RECORD SHEET/FORM: Ordnance Survey. unknown. OS cards. TL92NE3.4, 1976.
  • <3> DESC TEXT: Pevsner, N. 1954. The Buildings of England, Essex. p129.
  • <4> DESC TEXT: RCHME. 1922. An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex - Volume 3. Vol 3, p.50.
  • <5> DESC TEXT: Rodwell, Warwick J with Rodwell, KA. 1977. CBA Research Report No. 19 Historic Churches - a wasting asset. pp37-38.
  • <6> DESC TEXT: Hull, MR. 1958. Roman Colcheter. p105.
  • <7> Artifact: Colchester Museum. unknown. ARTEFACT Col Mus. Acc No 6271.27.
  • <8> DESC TEXT: Journal of Roman Studies. unknown. J Roman Stud. Vol 9, p.162.
  • <9> DESC TEXT: Crummy, P. 1981. Aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Norman Colchester (Colchester Archaeological report 1). No 39 (Col Arch Trust Rep 1), p26, 27.
  • <10> DESC TEXT: Crummy, P. 1981. In Search of Colchester's Past. pp59-62.
  • <11> DESC TEXT: Crummy, P. unknown. Excavations at Culver St, Gilberd School & other sites in Colchester. No. 6 1992.

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Record last edited

Nov 3 2015 11:41AM

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