BY R. E. M. W H E E L E R , M.C., M.A., D . L i t .
Being the Report of an Investigation undertaken by the Morant Club.
A L T H O U G H unique amongst survivals of Romano-British architecture, the Balkerne G a t e at Colchester has received scant attention
from the archaeologist, and until recent years no effective attempt
was made to reconstruct either its shape or its history. Set astride
the great R o m a n road which branched westward towards the
midlands and southward to London, this gate, on the crest of the
Balkerne hill, must at one time have been the dominating feature of
the town wall. Its importance, however, appears to have deserted
it with its builders.
T h e London road was diverted to a newer
entrance in the south wall, and the old gate, now largely walled up,
served its former uses only as a postern for the occasional footpassenger. By the time of Richard II., its origin was obscured in
myth, and it survived, as C o l k y n g ' s Castle, to form merely one of
the works of defence on the walls. As such, it played a part in the
siege of Fairfax in 1648, and doubtless suffered considerably during
both the actual operations and the systematic destruction which
followed the capture of the town.
In his History of Colchester, Morant merely refers to the gate as a
fort on the walls, and omits it from his list of the gates of the town.
Cromwell, in his history of the town, published in 1825, also
describes it simply as a fort, and it was not until the publication of
C. Roach Smith's report in vol. ii. of the Journal of the British
Archaological Association, 1846, that the real character of the remains
was recognised. Neither Roach Smith nor D r . P. M. Duncan, who
followed him in vol. i. of the Transactions of the Essex Archaeological
Society, correctly estimated the original extent of the gate, and the
plan published by Dr. Duncan is entirely inaccurate. Mr. John
W a r d , F . S . A . (Scot.), writing in the Essex County Standard, April
23rd, 1910, was the first to propound the theory that the gate had
originally four passages, and published a conjectural plan of the
remains by Mr. A. G. W r i g h t , Curator of the Colchester Museum.
In 1913, on the initiative of the Morant C l u b , excavations were
begun under the direction of Dr. H e n r y L a v e r , F . S . A . , and
Mr. Ernest N. Mason. T h e faces of the two northern piers, which
had hitherto been covered, were carefully laid bare, and it was at
once apparent that Mr. W a r d ' s theory was in the main correct.
It was also seen that the gate had at some period been partially
rebuilt, but further excavations were found impossible at the time.
Unfortunately, Mr. Mason, who had most zealously undertaken the
executive part of the operations, died suddenly before a report on
the work could be prepared, and the whole matter fell into abeyance.
During 1917, digging was resumed by the present writer under
somewhat difficult conditions, as access could only be obtained by
renewed tunnelling under the foundations of the K i n g ' s Head public
house, which covers the greater part of the site.
T h e s e tunnels
have revealed all the coherent fragments of wall which are now
accessible from the front, and have penetrated for a short distance
into the fallen rubble and other debris which represent the rear part
of the structure. As the evidence afforded by such indications is
necessarily of an extremely difficult and uncertain character, continued
tunnelling would probably result rather in damaging remains than in
revealing them, and for this reason—and also in the interests of the
stability of the public house—further excavation under present
conditions was abandoned.
T h e lower courses of the western or front ends of the piers owe
their relatively complete preservation to the protection afforded by
the wall which was later built across them, but the rest of the
foundations appear to have been removed by time and the builder.
F o r purposes of description, the surviving walls may be distributed
over three periods.
First Period.—The original proportions of the gateway can now be
traced with the exception of the extent of the central pier. T h e
character of the structure is precisely similar to that of the town
wall, and no satisfactory architectural evidence has been brought
forward in support of the theory that the gate is a subsequent
addition. T h e foundations are of septaria and occasional flint,
grouted together with loose sandy mortar. T h e core of the walls is
of the same material, but the mortar is of better quality and contains
powdered tile. T h e walls are faced with 4 -inch courses of roughly
squared septaria and some tufa, the latter material being used
principally as a facing for the front of the piers.
E v e r y fourth
course of stone is surmounted by a quadruple lacing-course of brick.
T h e lowest lacing-course is carried through the core of the wall,
whereas the higher courses are merely superficial; this method of
construction may be contrasted with that adopted in the Roman
wall of London, where the upper brick courses are carried through
the structure and the lowest course serves only to level the facingstones.
T h e average dimensions of the individual bricks are 1
inches by 11 inches by 8 inches, and the average thickness of the
mortar joints is
Between the original ground-level and
the springing of the vault over the footway are four of these
quadruple lacing-courses.
T h e gate consisted of two broad carriage-ways, each 17 feet wide,
Hanked by two footways, each about 6 feet wide. T h e whole gate
projects 30 feet in front of the town wall, and the total extent of the
frontage is 107 feet.
T h e angles between the outer walls of the
footways and the town wall are enclosed to form guardrooms or
towers, roughly quadrant-shaped in plan. T h e s e towers were entered
from the town by a vaulted passage about 12 feet long and between
5 and 6 feet wide. T h e northern tower still stands to a height of
15 feet, but it is filled in and overbuilt; owing to the slope of the
ground it probably stood somewhat higher above its footings than
the southern tower.
T h e latter, which is cleared almost to the
Roman level, stands to a height of 12 feet. T h e southern footway
is 32 feet long, and retains the original brick vault for the greater
part of its length.
Near the western end of its southern wall, there
are traces of a small pilaster buttress or vaulting-rib, and this wall
is carried through to form a slight projection beyond the face of
the tower.
T h e carriage-ways are divided centrally by a pier which, has been
wholly or largely rebuilt. Of this pier only three courses of masonry
remain above the rubble foundations, and both masonry and
foundations are broken a w a y 24 feet back from the outer face. T h e
former extent of the pier is thus left indeterminate, but it doubtless
extended to the same depth as the surviving south pier.
It is clear
from the plan that a pier originally stood on the site of the existing
one, and the rubble foundations which survive are clearly part of
the original work. T h e courses of ashlar which remain, however,
are of the next period. T h e y contain some tufa, doubtless re-used
from the first building, but much of the facing is of an earthy limestone from the London clay, a stone rarely used in the earlier work.
The hard pink mortar of the first period is replaced by a yellowish
sandy mortar of poorer quality.
T h e pier which originally divided the northern carriage and
footways is broken away, like the central pier, a few feet back from
It w a s c l e a r e d out s o m e y e a r s a g o , and D r . P h i l i p L a v e r tells me that a small o v e n w a s
d i s c o v e r e d d u r i n g the d i g g i n g i n t h e R o m a n s t r a t a o f t h e t o w e r f l o o r .
the face, but it cannot be doubted that the first plan was symmetrical.
T h e outer face of this pier is stepped to bring it down to the level of
the ground, which slopes downward from south to north.
Most of the interior of the northern tower or guardroom is
inaccessible. Mr. Mason sank a small shaft into it in 1913 and
temporarily revealed part of the inner face of the walls.
T h e minor objects found during the excavations are of no intrinsic
value, and include little beyond a few fragments of pottery. These
finds, however, though meagre, are suggestive. In the angle between
the northern tower and the town wall, in the sand close to the foundations, Mr. Mason found a good Samian bowl (Dragendorff 29) of the
period 70-90 A . D . In the original foundation-sand and road-metal
of the northern footway were found, during the recent excavations,
fragments of a plate with the quarter round moulding and of a bowl
(Drag. 24), both of which are safely dated to the first century.
W i t h them was found a black rim of a type which occurred in
Flavian deposits at Corbridge and elsewhere. L o w down in the
road-metal by the foundations of the central pier, which are in all
probability original, were recently found pieces of Samian bowl
N o . 29 and of " t r a n s i t i o n a l " N o . 37, and a fragment of micaceous
ware ; and pieces of other Samian bowls of about the period of
Vespasian are identified by Mr. Mason, junior, as having been found
by his father in the same layer. Unfortunately the pottery found by
Mr. Mason was not classified, but during the recent excavations no
pottery of later date than the first century has been traced to these
The Second Period saw the rebuilding of most of the northern half
of the gate and probably the blocking of the northern footway.
T h e central pier, as described above, was rebuilt on the site, and
probably on the foundations, of its predecessor. T h e yellowish
sandy mortar distinguishes this work very markedly from the
earlier structure.
T h e northern pier must at the same time have been replaced by
the new pier which now stands along its southern side.
foundations of this new pier contain much burnt septaria, a fact
which suggests that the earlier structure was destroyed by fire.
T h e recent excavations revealed the inner or eastern end of this
pier, showing that it extended nearly the full depth of the original
work, but much of the middle portion of it has been removed. T h e
shell of the ruined pier, as indicated on the plan, was, however,
T h i s b l o c k i n g i s s h e w n o n p l a n a s p a r t o f the l a t e r w a l l ( T h i r d P e r i o d ) , b u t m a y e q u a l l y
w e l l date from the S e c o n d P e r i o d .
preserved by the hard Roman road-metal, which was clearly distinguished from the loose black earth filling that occupied the site of
the foundations. There was an offset to correspond with the offset
of the central pier.
F o r the date of this period we again have no direct evidence other
than that of potsherds.
Alongside the foundations of the new
northern pier were found a number of pieces of Roman pottery of
late date. W i t h the exception of a fragment of a Samian cup
( D r a g . 27, good glaze) most of the pottery of this group can be
assigned to the third or fourth centuries.
No post-Roman remains
were found.
The Third Period is represented by the rough wall, varying
between 8 feet and 9 feet thick, which has been patched together
and flung across the northern foot and carriageways and partly
across the southern carriageway. T h i s wall is without foundations
other than the broken piers across which it is built, and consists of
plundered material carelessly thrown together and bound by loose
sandy mortar.
T h e date of this work is even more conjectural than that of the
previous periods.
It may have been put up as a hasty defence
during the raids and invasions that followed the withdrawal of the
Romans, or it may represent the work of E d w a r d the Elder, who is
recorded by the Saxon Chronicle to have repaired the defences of
Colchester. It can scarcely be later than the Conquest.
T h e date of the First Period of the G a t e has been the subject of
varied opinions based upon very inadequate evidence. Such evidence
as is now available falls under four headings :—(1) associated finds,
(2) type of plan, (3) method of construction and (4) historical
(1) T h e principal associated finds have been mentioned above.
T h e y are not numerous but their evidence is singularly unanimous.
None of the potsherds found in the earliest strata need be later than
100 A . D . and several are undoubtedly Flavian.
(2) The plan is the most remarkable feature of the G a t e . It is
without known parallel in Britain but falls into a small Continental
group which includes the Porte d'Auguste at Nimes, the Porte Ste.
Andre and the Porte d'Arroux at A u t u n , and the Porta Palatina at
Turin. T h e distinctive features common to all these gates are the
T h e other t w o gates of Autun appear to h a v e been of similar plan.
On the F r e n c h and
I t a l i a n g a t e s r e f e r r e d to h e r e , s e e A. P e l e t , Fouilles a la Porte d ' A u g u s t e a Nimes, 1849;
H. de F o n t e n a y , Autun et ses monuments, 1889; C. P r o m i s , Storia dell' antico Torino, 1869; a n d
e s p e c i a l l y , R. S c h u l t z e , Die romischen Stadttore in Bonner
118 (1909), p p . 280 ff. w i t h
the n o t e b y K r u g e r i n Trierer Jahresberichte, v o l . i v . ( 1 9 1 1 ) , p . 5 .
I t s h o u l d b e m e n t i o n e d that the
date of the flanking t o w e r s at A u t u n is in dispute.
quadruple entrance, the more or less marked projection in front of
the town wall, and the flanking towers. Other Roman town gates,
as at Lincoln, F a n o , Aosta, Pompeii and Cologne, have as many as
three entrances, but the normal type is limited to one or two. Of
the few quadruple gates, the Balkerne stands out by reason of the
peculiar plan of its towers and the extraordinary breadth of its
carriage-ways, which are over 17 feet wide in contrast to the 1 1 - 1 3
feet of the other examples.
T h e projection of these gates in front of their town walls is a
natural corollary of their ambitious size. Not only would the large
scale in itself architecturally suggest a bold and emphatic plan, but
from the more important military point of view it necessitated a correspondingly elaborate scheme of defence, with secondary works which,
in the interests both of accessibility from the walls and of economy
of space within the town, tended to thrust the front of the structure
T h e s e features are well illustrated by the G a t e of
A u g u s t u s at Nimes, which is complete on plan.
T h e outer
entrances are some 20 feet in front of the town wall and were
flanked by towers which projected yet a further 18 feet beyond
them. T h e entrances of the two carriage-ways, each 13 feet wide,
were spanned in depth by three main arches, of which the outer
two were close together and held between them a portcullis; the
innermost arch, some 18 feet behind the outermost, was closed
by doors which folded back against the walls of the passage. T h e
entrance-ways, thus barred by doors and a portcullis, opened on
to an inner court 25 feet long by 35 feet broad. T h i s court opened
towards the town through two simple archways, and was flanked by
the long vaulted footways, which, unlike the curtailed carriageentrances, extended the full depth of the building, and were each
lighted from the court by three windows. T h e y do not appear to
have had doors, but the presence of staples shows that they were
fitted to receive a barricade in case of need.
Their vaulting
supported fighting-galleries, which met over the front of the gateway
and so commanded the court from three sides, should the enemy
break through the outer defences.
T h e centre of each flanking
gallery was opposite the juncture with the town wall so that any part
of the upper defences could be manned from the walls and towers
with a facility which would have been impossible without the bold
projection of the front part of the building.
T h e Porta Palatina at Turin differed only in minor details from
the Porte d'Auguste. At Autun, the inner courtyards have been
demolished or, more probably, were never included in the plans.
T h e towers here project for half their length inward towards the
Trans. Essex Archaeol. Soc, vol. xv , to face p
town and so themselves cover the rear of the gateway ; and the fact
also that the front of the entrances is practically flush with that of
the town wall strengthen the supposition that the defensive system
here was of a simpler type.
T h e Balkerne G a t e projects 30 feet in front of the town wall.
It therefore clearly belongs to the courtyard type, and future excavation would be expected to reveal foundations of the inner structure
on the east side, north of the reservoir which has effectively
demolished everything on the south-east. T h e whole plan is freakish
and unfinished in its present state, but becomes at once reasonable
and effective if completed on the lines of the Nimes gate.
T h e resemblance of the Balkerne to the Continental group has an
important bearing upon its date.
T h e introduction of the projecting
gateway flanked by towers marked an important development in
Italian mural architecture.
It indicated a definite departure from
the limitations of camp-planning, which had hitherto dominated the
mind of the Roman architect and unfortunately appears to have
retained its supremacy in Roman Britain. T h e movement towards
a more expansive type of g a t e w a y which should offer as much
facility for traffic in peacetime as for defence in war seems to have
made its appearance, in Italy, towards the close of the first century
B.C. One of the earliest examples is probably the Porta Praetoria
of Aosta, where the three entrance-archways are some 23 feet in
front of the town walls and are flanked by large towers which
project 30 feet outside the walls and 43 feet within t h e m ; towards
the back, they are joined by a secondary system of arches and so
completely dominate a defensive courtyard. T h e Gate of A u g u s t u s
at Nimes derives its name from its well-known inscription, which
dates it to the year 16 B . C . T h e G a t e s of Autun are also early, but
their less elaborate defensive works suggest a more settled and later
period, and on account of the style of their architectural detail are
assigned by Schultze to the the time of Tiberius. T h e age of the
Turin gate is less certain.
H y g i n u s records that A u g u s t u s ordered
the town to be girt with walls, and it is possible that the plan of the
Porta Palatina dates therefore from the era of its close analogy at
Nimes. T h e few surviving fragments of the gate, however, appear
to be of the same work as the polygonal towers which flank it, and
towers of this type are not known to have been used in Roman
architecture before the latter half of the third century. At the same
time, it is sufficiently obvious that the present towers are not part of
the original plan ; they sit uncomfortably on the outskirts of the
gate and form no integral feature of the design.
It is natural,
therefore, to suggest, with Schultze, that the existing remains
represent a third or early fourth century adaptation and partial or
entire rebuilding of a much older plan. W i t h o u t this assumption,
not only is an explanation required for the lack of co-ordination in
the plan, but also the gate remains an isolated recurrence to an
otherwise undoubtedly early type in an age when town gates of more
than two spans were practically unknown and when a single entry
with simple bastion-defences was becoming the normal type.
T h e evidence of the plan, therefore, amounts to this : with the
possible, but not probable exception of the Turin example, all the
Continental gates of similar or kindred design are earlier than the
middle of the first century. Again with the one doubtful exception,
the gates of the Middle and later Empire are of a markedly different
character. T h e evidence favours a first century date for the
(3) T h e method of construction is commonly regarded as evidence
of a late date.
It is a widely received tradition that stone-faced
rubble walls with brick lacing-courses are necessarily of the third or
fourth centuries, and, though the tenet appears to derive its authority
only from a limited series of well-known buildings in Rome, it has
not been scientifically disputed. Rome, however, where every
necessary variety of building-stone was readily accessible and where
the traditions of Hellenic construction died slowly, would not
a priori be expected to provide early examples of a device which
is in origin distinctively a builder's makeshift. It was not until the
immense development of vaulted architecture under the Middle
Empire rendered rubble and cement with a coursed facing increasingly
a necessity for first-class building, that the architect became
accustomed to regard these as normal materials and to use them for
such monumental works as the Circus of Maxentius (A.D. 310).
Turning, therefore, from the architecture of Rome, we are faced
in Italy and the provinces on the one hand with the almost equally
partial evidence of s u b - R o m a n public buildings, and on the other
hand with a vast mass usually of ill-dated and often of casually
observed domestic work. A. de Caumont, from his wide knowledge
of provincial architecture, expressed the opinion that coursed brick
was used with rubble-facing considerably earlier than the third
century, and Schultze supports him by dating a Cologne gate of this
construction to the early Flavian period. Scanty though our present
records be, however, the matter is in reality outside the scope of
theory, for both at Pompeii and at Herculaneum brick lacing-courses
were in use before A . D . 79, usually but not invariably in conjunction
with opus reticulatum. In a good example at Herculaneum, the
courses are each of six bricks in depth, and this multiplicity of the
brickwork appears to be more usual in early than in late building.
T h u s at Trier, in the great baths known as the Palace of Constantine, the lacing-courses are at varying intervals and usually only
of two, more rarely of three, bricks in depth ; and the contrast of
definitely late construction with the regular quadruple courses of
the Balkerne is still more marked in the irregular work of the Saxon
Shore. T h e thickness of individual bricks is a doubtful criterion,
but the width of mortar joints may be credited with some chronological significance, and here again the -inch joints of the Balkerne
are clearly earlier than the 1 to 5-inch joints at L y m p n e and
Pevensey. In first-class architecture at Rome, where proportionally
finer construction is to be expected, the 1 -inch bricks used in the
B a t h s of T i t u s (80 A . D . ) and the Palace of Domitian (c. 90 A . D . ) have
joints of -inch thickness, whereas similar bricks in Hadrian's
T e m p l e of V e n u s (c. 125 A.D.) already have twice this depth of
mortar, and 150 years later, in the walls of Aurelian, the joints have
increased to the same thickness as that of the bricks themselves.
T h e Colchester work takes an early place in the series.
T h e assumption of an early use of faced cement at Colchester is
moreover in complete accordance with general probability. T h e
lack of stone in E s s e x must have necessitated this form of construction from the earliest period of organised building, and the
incidental use of brick lacing-courses is inherently probable from the
outset. In summary, the method of construction cannot be held to
preclude an early period for the G a t e , and exhibits, on the contrary,
certain features which seem to militate against a late date.
(4) Historical probability is a nebulous source of evidence, but,
such as it is, it falls curiously into line with the evidence discussed
under (1) and (2) above. T h e problem of the date of the Colchester
town wall is an ancient subject of debate. Dr. Duncan, many years
ago, in the article already referred to, propounded the theory which
our meagre records naturally suggest.
T h e lack of any sort of
fortification prior to 61 A . D . , the destruction of the town by Boudicca
in that year and the consequent replanning and rebuilding during
the following generation, all favour the conclusion that the present
fortifications were erected at this period as the fruits of bitter
experience. T h e first occupation of the site by the Romans appears
to have been curiously casual. T h e eastern tribes were early
subjugated, and in the consequent security the Roman settlers,
although they must have re-organised and partly rebuilt the town,
R o m a n b r i c k s a p p e a r t o baffle p r e c i s e c l a s s i f i c a t i o n ; for e x a m p l e , i n the G o l d e n H o u s e o f
N e r o , c o n t e m p o r a r y b r i c k s v a r y i n t h i c k n e s s f r o m 1 i n c h e s t o 2 i n c h e s ( M i d d l e t o n , Ancient
Rome, p . 34).
T h e s i z e o f t h o s e i n t h e B a l k e r n e i s far f r o m u n i f o r m .
can have introduced relatively little of the Roman system of townplanning, largely dependant as this was upon a regular scheme of
fortification. T h e earlier Roman town must have shared, with other
semi-native towns, the informal character which in some cases, as
at Verulam and Silchester, the Roman hand never entirely re-shaped
in the conventional mould.
T h e rebellion of 61 A . D . is the only recorded event which could
have resulted in a complete re-modelling of the town, and though
our records are fragmentary, it is tempting to cite them in favour of
the latter part of the first century as the period in which the present
scheme of fortification was undertaken. As at Caerwent, the
earthen rampart which backs the wall appears to have preceded it,
the wall in places being unfinished on the inner surface where it
butts upon the rampart.
It is more than probable, however, that
both wall and rampart were part of a single plan, the rampart being
thrown up first as a temporary defence while the wall was building.
In summary, therefore, such evidence as can be gathered from
history coincides with that of the pottery and of the plan.
indication is that the Gate was erected in the latter part of the first
or beginning of the second century on a monumental scale with two
broad carriage-ways, two foot-ways, flanking towers or guard-rooms,
and probably a defensive court extending perhaps 30 feet within
the town walls.
At some period during the later years of the
Roman occupation the northern half of the Gate may have collapsed
or been destroyed, and was rebuilt.
At this time, the northern
footway was probably disused and replaced by the northern carriagew a y , which w a s reduced in width by the insertion of the new north
pier; the rebuilt G a t e thus approximated to the less abnormal type
with three entrances. Sometime after the withdrawal of the Romans,
however, the G a t e was still found to be too vulnerable a spot in the
defences and was further reduced by a roughly constructed barricade.
It, then or later, exchanged its primary function as a g a t e w a y for
that of a fort. At the beginning of the nineteenth century or earlier,
a tap-room of the former K i n g ' s Head in Head Street was built
across the site.
T h e general appearance of the original G a t e can be reconstructed
from its Continental analogies. T h e footways, as we know, were
v a u l t e d ; it is improbable, however, that a similar vault of 17 feet
diameter was entrusted by a Roman architect to the somewhat
slender middle piers, and it is more likely that the carriage entrances
were simply arched front and rear and were ceiled by the great
beams (? balkens) which carried the fighting-gallery across the
structure. There was probably a single upper-story, lighted by a
series of narrow windows and perhaps surmounted by an embattled
parapet. T h e quadrant-shaped towers may not have been higher
than the main roof.
T h e footways possibly had no permanent
doors; the carriage-ways must have had them, but, as at Autun,
there is no evidence of the existence of the portcullis which is
indicated at N i m e s .
T h e reconstruction of the conjectured rearcourt is a problem for a future excavator.
Was this manual useful for you? yes no
Thank you for your participation!

* Your assessment is very important for improving the work of artificial intelligence, which forms the content of this project

Download PDF