A Brief History of St Botolph’s Church & Priory
The first St Botolph’s Church was built where the ruins of St Botolph’s Priory Church now stand. It was a Saxon Church with a tower construction similar to that of nearby Holy Trinity, and stood just outside the town’s Roman wall. Recent excavations have revealed the remains of a Roman house close to the site.
The Priory was granted a charter by William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, in C1100. It was the first House of the Augustinian Order in England, founded by two priests who served the Saxon Church. The Priory Church was about twice as long as the remaining portion and the recent excavations indicate a straight and not apsidal East end. The Main West doorway can still be seen with its five orders of typical Norman ornamentation. The monastic buildings were arranged in a square around an open cloister and the present Church stands on the site of the kitchens and refectory.
At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries the Priory suffered badly and in 1536 was largely demolished. Only the Church was left, which continued for another century to serve the parish, as well as the Mayor and Corporation, which used to attend ‘on Sundays and other public occasions’. Further serious damage was suffered during the Civil War at the time of the Siege of Colchester in 1648 and for many years little attempt was made to repair it. By the nineteenth century the interior of the ruin was used as a burial ground.
By the 1830s the need for Anglican accommodation in Colchester became acute and in the application for funding to the Incorporated Church Building Society in March 1835 concern was expressed about ‘the Parish Church being in ruins’. By December the same year the foundations had been begun and the new building, with its accommodation for 1080 people, was dedicated in 1837. The architect, William Mason (1810-97) was the son of an architect and builder, George Mason of Ipswich. William became a pupil of Edward Blore and practised for a few years in Ipswich before emigrating to New South Wales in 1838 and then to New Zealand where he had a successful career and became the Colony’s pioneer architect. The choice of Norman for the architecture may well have been prompted by the proximity of the priory ruins but it was a style that did enjoy widespread popularity from about 1835 to 1845 when Gothic became the style of choice for Anglican churches. The massive tower frames the end of St. Botolph’s Walk off St Botolph’s Street and is a landmark in the town.
The Church was nearly destroyed by fire during the 1943 air raids. It had its own team of fire watchers which dealt with several incendiary bombs, although one fell on a radiator and the resulting fire was extinguished by the escaping water!
In more recent years considerable reordering of the church interior has taken place. In the mid 1970’s the cast iron rood screen and pulpit were removed from the chancel to give a more open aspect. More improvements followed later on that decade with the removal of the fixed pews and provision of chairs. During 1988 the raised daises, left after the pews were taken out, were removed and the nave leveled. 1990 saw a dividing partition installed at the West end to give a separate welcome area and limited hospitality facilities. The church extension was opened in 2001 providing a hall, fully equipped kitchen, toilets and a vestry/meeting room all suitable for the disabled.
The Priory ruins and outside aspect of the church have also changed; most markedly with the demolition of the Britannia Engineering Works to the east of the site, which has enabled an archaeological dig and subsequent marking out of the original priory church. This has also opened up the vista at the East end of the site.