Chelmsford has grown from two historic centres: a Romano-British ‘small town’ in the Moulsham area south of the river Can (Caesaromagus, Caesar’s plain or market); and a medieval market town to the north of the Can, in the area of the modern High Street (Ceolmaer’s Ford). Moulsham, the site of the Roman town, was re-occupied in the medieval period, and became a suburb of Chelmsford.
The Chelmsford area was an important focus for prehistoric settlement. Significant sites include a Neolithic cursus monument 1km to the east of the town centre; a Late Bronze Age defended settlements at Springfield and Great Baddow; and a large Middle Iron Age settlement at Little Waltham. Mesolithic flints and two post-built structures of probable Early Iron Age date have been found in the area of the Roman town.
The Roman town was established on the site of a mid 1st century settlement, probably a farmstead. There is no evidence of a pre-Roman Iron Age oppidum, or of destruction by Boudica in AD 60-1. Burnt Samian of this period in the Chancellor collection in Chelmsford museum is now recognised as having been derived from London.
A short-lived Roman fort was built to the south of the river crossing in the aftermath of the Boudiccan revolt, with a detached annexe, a bath house and a temple precinct. After the abandonment of the fort in c. AD 70, a civilian settlement developed along the London-Colchester road and a side-road to the east which led to Heybridge. The fort annexe was replaced by a series of enclosures beside the London-Colchester road interpreted as a ‘road station’, a forerunner of the later mansio. The earliest surviving temple dates to the later 1st century.
The town was extensively replanned in the Hadrianic/early Antonine period (c.120-150), with the replacement of the ‘road station’ by a mansio (government posting station) within a large official precinct. Initially, the mansio was built as a temporary timber structure, but was soon rebuilt in masonry with a remodelled bath house. The town grew to its maximum extent in the mid 2nd century, with new building plots being laid out along the London-Colchester road. Earthwork defences were constructed in the Antonine period (c.160/75) to defend the core of the settlement, but these were abandoned by the mid 3rd century.
The Roman town was occupied into the early 5th century. The mansio was repaired after a mid 3rd century fire, and the temple precinct was re-organised in the early 4th century, when a new Romano-Celtic temple was built. A fire in c.300 destroyed several buildings in the south of the town. Although most of these were rebuilt, the piecemeal abandonment of building plots in the 3rd and 4th centuries implies a gradual decline.
Although there is some evidence of sub-Roman and Saxon buildings, the Roman town was apparently abandoned and settlement became based on rural estates in the surrounding area. The princely 6th century burial at Broomfield is thought to have been related to a large estate based on Great and Little Waltham, while an early Saxon cemetery and late Saxon manor are known at Springfield.
The Roman crossing of the Can was considered impassable in Saxon times because of flooding, and the London-Colchester road was diverted via Writtle, 3km to the west. At a later date it regained the direct route to Colchester by means of a ford over the Chelmer (Ceolmaer’s Ford) near the present bridging point. By Domesday Writtle was a royal manor and market, and had developed into the major settlement in the area, with 194 households. By contrast, the manors of Chelmsford, held by the Bishop of London, and Moulsham, held by the Abbot of Westminster, were minor settlements, containing only 4 and 12 households respectively.
The original line of the London-Colchester road was restored in the early 12th century, when new timber bridges were built over the Can (a single bridge) and the Chelmer (two bridges and a causeway). The Can bridge was replaced by a stone bridge in 1372, and finally by the present ‘Stone Bridge’ in 1787. The bridge on the Springfield side of the Chelmer had been rebuilt in stone by the 16th century, but that on the Chelmsford side remained a timber structure until 1820, when it was replaced by an iron bridge.
The medieval town was founded at the end of the twelfth century by the Bishop of London on a new site within his manor to the north of the Can, in the area of the modern High Street. Royal charters were granted for a market in 1199, rights and tax concessions for freeman-tenants in 1200, and an annual fair in 1201. A hamlet had grown up to the south of the Can in Moulsham, but from 1199 Moulsham became part of the vill of Chelmsford, even though it retained its own identity and remained in separate lordship. Both documentary and excavated evidence confirm that the new town was occupied from the outset, and its market was immediately successful. Chelmsford became the main staging point between London and Colchester, and its central location was convenient for administration of the county. The itinerant justices first met at Chelmsford in 1202-3, and by the 1250s the town had become the regular seat for royal justice in Essex, effectively replacing Colchester as the county town.
The parish church of St Mary (now the Cathedral) at the head of the market was established in the early 13th century, but was completely rebuilt in the later 15th-early 16th century. The late medieval church survives, although modified by later repairs and additions, and refurbishment of the interior in 1983. The manorial centre at Bishop’s Hall to the north of the town had its own chapel, and a chapel is recorded in Moulsham in 1157, although no church was built and Moulsham became incorporated in the parish of Chelmsford. A Dominican Friary was founded in Moulsham by 1277. Following its dissolution in 1538 it was demolished apart from the gatehouse and the kitchen.
Walker’s map of 1591 gives an impression of the original medieval layout, although the market place was progressively infilled from the 14th century. Excavation has shown that expansion occurred in the 14th century along the south end of New Street, which linked the town with the manorial centre at Bishop’s Hall, and in the 15th-16th century at the south end of Moulsham Street.
Post-medieval and modern
The history of Chelmsford from the mid 16th to late 18th centuries was dominated by the Mildmay family, who became the main landowners in the town. Thomas Mildmay, auditor to Henry VIII during the Dissolution, purchased the manor of Moulsham, surrendered by Westminster Abbey, in 1540, and the Dominican Friary lands before 1551. In 1563 he also purchased the manor of Chelmsford, surrendered to the Crown by the Bishop of London in 1545. In the second half of the 16th century Thomas Mildmay and his son built an impressive mansion, Moulsham Hall, on the southern outskirts of the town. The Hall was rebuilt in the Georgian style in 1728-43. It was leased to the army during the Napoleonic wars, fell into disrepair, and was demolished in 1809.
Chelmsford continued to prosper in the 17th-18th centuries, both as market and county town, and as a result became more intensively built up, although with little expansion of its overall area. Much rebuilding took place in the 18th century, notably the Shire Hall of 1791. The parish church was partially rebuilt in 1800-3 following collapse of the nave and south aisle. During the Napoleonic wars Chelmsford was a major military centre protecting London’s north-eastern flank. Barracks were built in several places in and around the town, and during the invasion scare of 1803-5 extensive earthworks linking forts at Widford and Galleywood Common were constructed on the ridge south of Moulsham. These were demolished in 1813, although the battery earthworks survive on Chelmsford Golf course and Galleywood Common.
Trade prospered as a result of the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation of 1797, which included the construction of a basin and wharves off Springfield Road. Major expansion of the town began in the mid 19th century, mainly on land purchased from the Mildmay estate, and was further encouraged by the opening of the London-Colchester railway to Chelmsford in 1843. The availability of relatively cheap land and good communications with London led to the development of engineering industries in the Victorian period. Companies such as Marconi (radio and radar), Crompton (electric lighting and tram/railway equipment), and Hoffman (ball bearings) were all pioneers in their respective fields. Chelmsford became a borough in 1888, and the parish church became the cathedral for the new diocese of Chelmsford in 1914.