Britain’s oldest town – is it Colchester or Ipswich?

Ipswich oldest town claim: medieval buildings
Row of houses on Silent Street, Ipswich. Photo by Sumit Surai on Wikimedia Commons

A disagreement has been simmering for years between two East Anglia neighbours. The matter in question is which is Britain’s oldest town – is it Colchester or Ipswich? In 2013 the argument spilled over into a friendly feud between the two town councils over whose claim is the more legitimate. It was never resolved.

Colchester and Ipswich both sit on the A12 trunk road from London. These old towns are less than 20 miles apart, sitting either side of the Essex/Suffolk border. Because of their proximity, they have long been rivals.  That goes for everything from football to first city status.

So what of their respective rival claims of oldest town? Colchester says it’s the ‘earliest recorded town’ and Ipswich claims to be the ‘oldest English town’.  They can’t both be right. Or can they? Let’s examine their history.

Colchester’s early history

Transport yourself back nearly 2000 years. While walking along the bank of the River Colne, you would have been able to see Colchester from quite a distance, rising over 100ft from the river flood plain.  Before the Roman conquest in AD43, it was known by its Celtic name, Camulodunon. It was the base for the Catuvellauni tribe and their king, Cunobelin, who controlled much of what is now southeastern England.

The Romans decided Camulodunon was the perfect place to build their first legionary fortress. For a brief period, it was Britain’s Roman capital.  But less than 20 years later, the fortress was destroyed by Boudicca during her rebellion. A new Roman capital was established in Londinium and the town with its Romanised name, Camulodunum, was rebuilt, this time with sturdy walls. 

The ancient town continued to flourish for several centuries but eventually fell into decline. Following the collapse of the Roman empire, Colchester’s fortunes dramatically reversed.

Ipswich, the Anglo-Saxon town

It was about this time that Gipeswic, sitting on the Orwell estuary, was established.  It quickly grew to become an important trading port serving East Anglia. There’s no evidence of any large settlement until the early 7th century. At this time the region was under the rule of powerful Anglo-Saxon King Raedwald. It’s believed the ship burial and treasure found at nearby Sutton Hoo was his grave.

Replica of golden warrior helmet from Sutton Hoo near Ipswich
Replica of the golden warrior helmet from Sutton Hoo, Suffolk by the British Museum, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After his death, the town continued to grow and prosper, with immigrants from the Netherlands turning Ipswich into the most important pottery centre in Britain. Ipswich fell to the Vikings in the 9th century, and eventually came under Norman rule following William the Conqueror’s victory.

The town’s importance grew when it joined the network of North Sea and Baltic ports known as the Hanseatic League.  It traded in cloth and then in books as it became an important printing centre.  Through the centuries, Ipswich continued to grow and prosper, eventually becoming Suffolk’s county town.

So, does Colchester win?

On the face of it, Colchester was clearly established much earlier than Ipswich.  So that makes it the clear winner of ‘oldest town’, doesn’t it?  Well, not necessarily.  The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Colchester’s claim rests on it being a town that can easily date itself to at least the earliest days of Rome’s conquest of Britain.  Pliny the Elder mentioned Camulodunum in his writings in 77AD, making Colchester’s claim to be the earliest recorded town true.  Its town walls – the oldest in Britain – date back to this time.

However, between the fifth and ninth centuries, while there’s evidence of continued scattered settlement, evidence points to Colchester being largely abandoned.

Ipswich’s claim

The claim of oldest town that Ipswich makes, is in a very specific sense.  Ipswich describes itself as the ‘Oldest English Town’. By that, it means, established by the English, or rather the Anglo-Saxons. It was also a large enough settlement to be called a town.  There’s no question that it has been in continuous occupation ever since.  While there are other towns established by the Anglo-Saxons, being close to the east coast, it’s likely Ipswich was one of the first.

So that makes it a tie.  Colchester is the earliest recorded town and Ipswich is the earliest English town.  Which means they both win their respective categories.

But then, if we’re talking semantics, in 2011 a new contender joined the fray.  Downham Market in neighbouring Norfolk could also lay claim to be Britain’s oldest town – but not because of its ancient roots.  In the last census, Downham Market was found to have the highest average age of any district in the country.  So, Downham Market is the town with Britain’s oldest inhabitants.

Colchester and Ipswich, eat your heart out.

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