Building record MCC374 - St Helen's Chapel, Maidenburgh Street, Colchester


13th century chapel of possible Anglo-Saxon origin.


Grid reference Centred TL 99758 25388 (14m by 6m)
Map sheet TL92NE
County ESSEX


Type and Period (1)

Full Description

13th century chapel. A single celled structure attached to the end of a row of houses in Maidenburgh Street.<11>

The present building has no architectural features earlier than 13th century, although it incorporates part of the remains of the town's Roman theatre. The 14th century Colchester Chronicle states that the chapel was repaired by Eudo Dapifer in 1076, making an Anglo-Saxon foundation highly likely.<1><2>

DOE survey of St Helen's Chapel. Grade II. Rebuilt in c.1290 but probably of C12 or earlier origin. Built of rubble with bonding courses of flat bricks. It has been much restored and partly rebuilt in modern times. There are some C13 windows. Used for storage purposes.<3>

Survey by RCHME of St Helen's Chapel in Maidenburgh Street. The Chapel is 33 1/4ft by 14 1/2ft has an east window all modern except the late 13th century chamfered rear arch and part of the jambs. In the north wall are two late 13th century windows each of one pointed light; the western window has been partly restored. In the south wall is a similar window, now blocked. In the west wall are a modern doorway and window; above the doorway is a pointed relieving arch of Roman brick.<10>

A short length of ancient walling, of septaria surmounted by a triple course of Roman tile, is visible under the north wall of St Helen's Chapel, of which it forms the foundation. In June 1940 part of a wall 3ft 2" wide running N-S near the NW corner of the chapel, and 18" from it, on the west side, a small pier (of tiles) 18" square, was 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.<4>

The bottom 1m or so of the north wall is Roman construction. Above this the wall was extensively refaced in C19, therefore the date of the core is uncertain. Drury and Drury (1977, p.38) state, "There is a 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> According to Rodwell there are no architectural features pre C13 (save the Roman wall). "The chapel has had a chequered history since Eudo's restoration: it must have been restored again in the C13, when the present windows were inserted; it fell into disuse early in the C14; it then became a chantry, which was suppressed in due course; subsequently it became a Quakers Meeting House; then a furniture store; and now it is a store for archaeological finds in the care of Colchester Museum…The restoration of 1883-6 by William Butterfield was undertaken with customary thoroughness. The interior walls are all covered with C19 plaster and there is a ceiling of similar date which hides the roof timbers; the wood block floor is modern".<5>

The museum has mortar collected from 'the continuation of the wall' of St Helen's Chapel, collected in 1924 (COLEM 1927.6271).<4><6>

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.<8> (See ECC193) The chronicle also says that the chapel was dedicated in 1239 in favour of St Katherine and St Helena, on St Katherine's days, by the Bishop of London.<7>

In 1984 a small trial trench was dug at the north-west corner of St Helens Chapel in an attempt to clarify the alignment of the Roman wall at the base of the north wall of the medieval chapel. A second trial trench was dug by the south-west corner if the chapel. This failed to reveal traces of the foundations. A third trench was dug about 1 metre to the west but also failed to produce any traces of Roman masonry.<8>

Excavations in 1981 and 1984 have shown that the wall under the north wall was part of a Roman theatre. The base of the east wall was also shown to be Roman and also part of the theatre. This proves the Colchester Chronicle right in saying 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 her founding a church.<9> REFS. To these investigations

St Helen's Chapel was purchased by the Quakers in 1683 and used for smaller meetings. Adjacent land was used for burials until the Chapel was sold in 1800.

Sources/Archives (11)

  • <1> Index: Essex County Council. 1972. Colchester SMR (computer). SMR 1253.
  • <2> Index: Ordnance Survey. 1876. Ordnance Survey Cards. TL92 NE3.4.
  • <3> LIST: Department of the Environment. 1971. List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest: Borough of Colchester (Essex). TL 9925 SE 5/157.
  • <4> Monograph: Hull, M.R.. 1958. Roman Colchester: Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London. No. XX. p.105.
  • <5> Monograph: Rodwell, Warwick J with Rodwell, KA. 1977. Historic Churches: a wasting asset. pp.37-38.
  • <6> LIST: Colchester Museums. 1926-1930. Colchester Museum Accession Register 1926-1930. COLEM 1927.6271.
  • <7> Monograph: Crummy, Philip. 1981. CAR 1: Aspects of Anglo-Saxon and Norman Colchester. 1. pp.26-27.
  • <8> Monograph: Crummy, Philip. 1992. CAR 6: Excavations at Culver Street, the Gilberd School, and other sites in Colchester 1971-85. 6. p.1037.
  • <9> Monograph: Crummy, Philip. 1981. In Search of Colchester's Past. pp.59-62.
  • <10> Monograph: Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. 1922. Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (England): Essex, (North-East). Volume III. p.50.
  • <11> Monograph: Gascoyne, Adrian and Radford, David. 2013. Colchester. Fortress of the War God. An Archaeological Assessment. p.197.

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Record last edited

Jan 31 2017 9:23AM

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