A guest feature by Littlestone.

William Stukeley’s 1758 plan of Caesaromagus (present day Chelmsford) in the Bodleian Library, Oxford

After twelve years in Lancashire, eight in Wiltshire and thirteen in Japan, I finally ended up in the old English market town of Chelmsford (Essex, south-east England). That was thirty two years ago next month. Chelmsford is some forty miles from London and so was well within commuting distance of my new job in the capital. Houses in the town were affordable, schools for the kids looked good and that, basically, was all I knew about the place – other than the welcome signs as you entered the town which proudly (though somewhat inaccurately) claimed Chelmsford as ‘The Birthplace of Radio’ (the Marconi connection). All, that is, until I heard of an archaeological excavation undertaken by the British Museum back in the early 80s. The excavation was of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Springfield Lyons on a derelict piece of land just down the road from where I then lived. Sadly, after the BM’s excavation, the site was again abandoned and is now rapidly disappearing under a new business park.

The derelict site of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Springfield Lyons, Chelmsford before being developed into a business park

Little by little though I learnt that Chelmsford had a bit more of a history to it than just an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. The area had been occupied from Neolithic times and once boasted an impressive prehistoric cursus (the Springfield, or Chelmer, Cursus ) with a wooden circle at one end (now both sadly buried under a supermarket and modern housing development).

But here’s the interesting bit; two thousand years ago Chelmsford was (and still is) situated midway between Colchester and London – both important Roman towns. Perhaps that’s why it somehow earned the distinguished Roman place-name of Caesaromagus (Caesar’s Marketplace). Why it should have been called Caesaromagus is something of a mystery as it was, “…a great honour for a town to have the imperial prefix incorporated in its name, and no other town in Britain was so honoured…”* Although Caesaromagus is mentioned on a 3rd century Roman map (the Antonine Itinerary) its exact location puzzled scholars for centuries. It wasn’t until 1758 when William Stukeley (of Avebury and Stonehenge fame) correctly identified Chelmsford as the Roman town of Caesaromagus. Stukeley even drew a plan (top) of what he thought the town looked like; although the plan is purely fictions and Stukeley has incorrectly placed it on the north side of Chelmsford’s River Can and not on the south side where excavations show it was actually sited.

Artist’s impression of Caesaromagus’ 4th century octagonal Romano-Celtic temple Chelmsford Archaeological Trust

Sometime around 325ce however an impressive, octagonal stone temple (above) was constructed in Caesaromagus for the worship of a Romano-Celtic deity (or deities). The temple stood on what is now the Baddow Road roundabout, close to where the Roman town was then situated. Similar temples, of the same date and plan, have been found in London and on the continent; perhaps the most famous of which is Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen in Germany. The Aachen Cathedral, which now envelopes the octagonal Palatine Chapel, is the oldest cathedral in northern Europe. Constructed by Charlemagne around 796 it has seen the coronations of thirty German kings and twelve queens.

Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel AachenDomInsideOktogon by Maxgreene. Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

What is interesting, and what has recently been reported by Christopher Howse in the Daily Telegraph, is that Caesaromagus’ octagonal stone temple, “…was behind the design of the third most influential ecclesiastical structure in the history of the Latin Church, after St Peter’s Rome and the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In third place came Charlemagne’s palace church at Aachen. The Roman tradition that it was built in is represented by a temple from AD 325 unearthed in Chelmsford in 1970.” Howse goes on to say, “As an exemplar of the Roman tradition embraced by Charlemagne, Chelmsford is invoked by Professor Eric Fernie, the former director of the Courtauld, in his splendid new volume Romanesque Architecture, an addition to the Pelican History of Art published by Yale.”

So, from what I thought was little more than a convenient place to commute from, Chelmsford turned out to be a place of unassuming mystery, not to mention one with a long and intricate history. A timeline that begins in the Neolithic with a cursus and wooden circle, through the Roman period giving rise to a well-organised little town boasting an octagonal temple of impressive stone construction. Then on through the medieval to the more recent past and the ‘Birthplace of Radio’. And, lest it be forgotten, Chelmsford was the first place anywhere in the world to employ electric street lighting 🙂 Oh, and I almost forgot, it was from Chelmsford that the Quaker, William Penn, left England in 1682 to establish the Province of Pennsylvania in North America, and it was from Penn’s endeavours that the city of Philadelphia was later planned and developed.

No small accomplishment for a little marketplace on the fringes of the once great Roman Empire. That’s not quite the end of the story though. I mentioned at the beginning of this feature that I’d lived for thirteen years in Japan. A lot of my spare time was spent visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Japan boasts what is probably the oldest wooden building in the world – the Hōryū-ji (法隆寺) temple built in 607ce in Nara Prefecture, western Japan. Within the Hōryū-ji compound there’s a small wooden hall known as the Yumedono (Hall of Dreams). The Yumedono was built in 739ce to assuage the spirit of Prince Shōtoku (the prince was an Alfred the Great sort of figure who promoted Buddhism in Japan). The Yumedono stands on the site of a slightly earlier building commissioned by Prince Shōtoku himself. There is also, still in existence, a similar but slightly later building at the Eizanji-temple not far from the Yumedono in Nara Prefecture.

The octagonal hall at Eizan-ji temple in Nara Prefecture is thought to date from before 764ce

There are two things about Prince Shōtoku and the Yumedono. The first is that both the Yumedono and the Eizan-ji buildings are octagonal halls. The second is that legend has it that the Prince was born in a stable. The Hall of Dreams was built 414 years after the Romano-Celtic temple in Chelmsford so there would have been plenty of time for the idea for this style of building to reach Japan from the West, along with other goods and ideas via the Silk Road. Indeed, other aspects of temple building in Japan were influence by Greco-Roman styles of architecture and there are countless artefacts of Persian, Greek, Roman and Egyptian origin in the early 8th century Shōsō-in (正倉院) Imperial Repository in Nara (see also the Trust’s feature on Roman jewellery found in 5th century Japanese tomb). It would be fascinating indeed if the inspiration for Prince Shōtoku’s Hall of Dreams had its origins in Roman octagonal temples – perhaps even the one here in Chelmsford.

* Caesaromagus: A History and Description of Roman Chelmsford by Nick Wickenden, Keeper of Archaeology, Chelmsford Museums Service. A Chelmsford Museums Service Publication, 1991.

Full Telegraph article here. And for a light-hearted glimpse into the life and times of Chelmsford during the Roman period see Channel 4’s Chelmsford 123 situation comedy produced by Hat Trick Productions in 1988 and 1990.