Early History

  • Overview

    Late Iron Age (600 BC – 43 AD)

    Evidence of human occupation in the area. Prosperous agricultural economy developed.

    10 AD

    Colchester becomes the new flourishing capital of the Catuvellauni.

    43 AD

    Romans invade and capture Colchester.

    5th Century

    Decline of Roman power.

    9th Century

    Wessex overlordship of the Kingdom of Essex. Essex exposed to Viking raids.


    Matilda gives Cressing to the Knights Templar.

Evidence of human occupation in the area dating from the Late Bronze Age (2000-600BC) and the Iron Age (600BC-43AD) has been found in the course of farming and in archaeological excavations. This part of north Essex was of some importance in the late Iron Age. Just before 10AD, Cunobelinus (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline) the chief of the Catuvellauni, had moved his capital from Hertfordshire to Colchester (Camulodunum).

The Catuvellauni had succeeded in absorbing the neighbouring tribe of the Trinovantes who had previously controlled Essex, and Cunobelinus effectively ruled over much of south-east England. His coins, with their ear of corn motif, testify to a prosperous agricultural economy. We know from Roman writers that there was a flourishing trade exporting corn, cattle, slaves and hunting dogs, and from archaeology that wine, oil and pottery were imported into England. Landscape studies suggest that until recent hedgerow clearance much of the field pattern in central and eastern Essex dates back to the Iron Age.

Closer to Cressing, Witham was an important site, considerable evidence for Iron Age occupation having been found at Witham Lodge and Ivy Chimneys. The earthwork camp at Chipping Hill, Witham, now destroyed by the railway and housing development, was occupied in the Iron Age but the latest research shows that it was constructed in the Late Bronze Age. Archaeological evidence shows that by the 1st century B.C. there was an Iron Age settlement at Cressing Temple itself, possibly enclosed by a defensive ditch.

For obvious political reasons, the capture of Colchester was the Romans’ principal objective when they invaded in 43AD, and initially it was their chief administrative centre. Roman remains are commonly found throughout Essex, and Cressing Temple is no exception. Large quantities of Roman pottery have come to light in recent years, and fragments of brick and tile suggest the existence of a Roman building.

The site has good communications. The river Blackwater may have been navigable as far as Witham. It lies between the Roman roads from London to Colchester (the A12) and from St. Albans to Colchester (the A120), whilst the road from Witham to Braintree is likely also to be of Roman origin. Nearby there were small Roman towns at Kelvedon (Canonium) and Braintree, a Roman temple just south of Witham at Ivy Chimneys, and villas at Rivenhall and White Notley.

Excavations have shown evidence of a Roman Settlement at Cressing.

The end of the Roman period in Britain is usually taken as 410 when the Emperor Honours wrote to the Britons advising them to make their own arrangements for their defence. Contrary to the traditional picture of sudden political and social collapse, a gradual decline in the face of the Anglo-Saxon incursion, which was not invariably by force of arms, is more likely. What is indisputable is that this period is poorly documented, and this is particularly true of the kingdom of Essex. This had emerged by the 7th century, but by the 9th century was subject to the overlordship of Wessex which eventually absorbed it as the Wessex kings gradually established their rule over most of England. Its geographical position meant that Essex was exposed to the Viking raids which began in the 9th century.

Although the Danes were present at times in the county, Essex probably did not lie within the Danelaw in the sharing out of territory effected by Alfred and Gudrum at the Treaty of Wedmore in 878. Alfred’s son Edward the Elder began to reconquer this area from the Danes, camping at Maldon in 913 whilst Witham was fortified and eventually capturing Colchester in 917. Further Danish raids at the end of the 10th century saw English defeats at Maldon in 991 and then at Assandun, probably Ashdon in the north of the county, in 1016 leading to the incorporation of England into Canute’s Danish empire. At Cressing Temple, the evidence from the Anglo-Saxon period amounts to no more than a few potsherds, and it is probable that the site was deserted for much of this time.

In the last years before the battle of Hastings, the most powerful family in England was that of Earl Godwin whose son Harold was Earl of Essex prior to becoming king. The manor of Witham, of which Cressing formed part, was one of his Essex estates. After the Norman Conquest it passed to count Eustace of Boulogne and then to his daughter, Matilda, wife of king Stephen. In 1137 Matilda detached Cressing from Witham and gave it to the Knights Templar. Ten years later, Stephen granted Witham to the Templars as well.

Next Page: The Knights Templar & Hospitallers