Monday, 23 November 2009

The End of History?

It’s a cold Tuesday morning and I’m hanging around in Colchester with an hour to spare before I can get a bus to the small village of Great Wenham, where I'm due to collect a car to deliver to Peterborough.

I’ve walked up to the castle, on the edge of the town centre, and am looking around the grounds.

Colchester castle dates back to the eleventh century and boasts the largest Norman keep in the country, not so much because of the ambition of the architects but because it was built around an even older building – the Roman temple of Claudius.

The castle was originally four stories high, but the top two are long gone now, not due to the ravages of time or warfare, but due to the actions of a certain John Wheeler, a local businessman who purchased the place from the Crown in 1629 with the sole intention of demolishing it to sell the rubble to local builders. However by the time the upper two stories had been knocked down he had concluded that he would not make a profit from the enterprise after all and abandoned it.

The absence of the top half of the castle did not prevent the Royalists from holing up there for a twelve week siege during the civil war, in 1648. A small obelisk now marks the spot where their generals were executed following their surrender to the Parliamentarians.

Three years earlier, Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General himself, had also concluded that there was enough of the building left for him to make use of as a prison in which to hold and interrogate suspected witches. Anyone who has seen the classic 1968 film starring Vincent Price, then in his fifties, might be surprised to learn that Hopkins was only twenty five when he began his witch hunting career. He died just two years later in uncertain circumstances, by which time he and his partner John Stearne had been responsible for the deaths of twenty three women. In a strange echo of modern times, Hopkins' interrogations were hampered by the fact that torture was unlawful, meaning that he had to resort to such tactics as sleep deprivation and the 'swimming test' which involved determining whether the suspect would sink or float in holy water.

The castle was acquired by the local council in the 1930s and went through various restoration and repair projects to arrive at its present state. Now that it is considered part of our national heritage and worthy of preservation, it's easy to think that this must place a full stop at the end of its history, but who knows? Maybe sooner or later someone else with big ideas will get hold of it again for better or worse.

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