The volume, the first full-scale, comprehensive and scholarly history of the ancient borough of Colchester to be published, describes the life of the oldest and for long the largest town in Essex from the Iron Age to 1990. It tells how the stronghold of Cunobelin was replaced by a Roman fortress, later a colonia sacked by Boudica and rebuilt within walls which survived to encompass first a 10th-century burh and later an important medieval town and were to be severely battered be the Royalist siege of 1648. Colchester's Norman castle continued to serve as the sheriff's seat, housing the county gaol until the 17th century. Nevertheless it failed to become the county town, though chosen in 1962 as the site of the University of Essex, and its functions as an administrative centre were overshadowed by the industrial and mercantile activities described in the volume.
Colchester became an important trading centre linked particularly with the Low Countries, and from the 12th century was noted as a centre of the textile industry, a speciality that encouraged a remarkable growth of population in the later 14th century and that was stimulated be the arrival of Dutch refugee clothmakers in Elizabeth I's reign. The decline of the bay industry in the 18th century was compensated for by growing diversity in overseas trade and services. Colchester was notable from the 17th century to the 19th as a hive of Protestant nonconformity. It became a garrison town in 1855, a centre of engineering in the late 19th century, and a retail and tourist centre in the 20th. The account is divided into three parts. The first, arranged chronologically, treats the economy, social and cultural life, gov-ernment and politics, and topography. The second deals with particular features and institutions of the town, topic by topic. The third describes topographically the parishes of Greenstead, Lexden, Mile End, and West Donyland, which formed the outlying parts of the liberty.