Silchester (or Calleva) and Colchester (Camulodunum) were both Iron Age fortified settlements. After the Roman Conquest in 43CE they became influential, defended Roman towns of a high status; as proved by the unusual wall construction at Silchester, and the fact that Colchester was the capital of Britain until the Boudiccan revolt of 61CE. However, after the Romans left Britain in 410CE their fortunes diverge. Colchester was resettled by the Anglo Saxons by 450CE, and gradually developed once again into an important commercial centre. Population estimates for the town based on recording from the Domesday Book suggest that about 2,000 people were living there in 1086, whilst by the year 1400 this had increased to 8,000 people. Silchester on the other hand was not re-settled by the Anglo Saxons, instead the nearby former roman town of Dorchester on Thames was chosen. The small village which had been on the site of Silchester was abandoned in around 1400, possibly due to the Black Death. A key reason why Silchester was not re-settled in any meaningful way by the Anglo Saxons was that it was 10 miles away from the nearest river. This meant that it was not on a good communications or trade and so was not suitable for the Anglo Saxon way of life. This stunted the town’s rejuvenation, and contributed heavily to it being abandoned later. Colchester on the other hand had been an important trade port under the Romans (due to its location on the river Colne). The Anglo Saxons were also then able to trade from this settlement, and it grew once again, becoming one of the country’s principle towns. Therefore on the basis of this comparison it appears that ease of trade was a key determinant of which settlements would prosper in the Anglo Saxon and Medieval periods, and that rivers (and easy access the coast) were more important for trade than roads during this period. This lead to towns with good road connections but poor waterway access declining (Silchester for example), whereas towns with good road access which were close to rivers and the sea developing further (Colchester).
Contributed by Matthew Cockerill