The very earliest history of St Peter’s is, to say the least, obscure. We have no detailed information about the building which stood here before the 15th century. It seems likely, however, that on the site of this present building, there has been a church of some kind well back into Anglo-Saxon times, but our certain starting date is 1086, the time of the Domesday survey.
The first reference to St Peter’s Church by name is in the Domesday Book. This suggests that in 1086, the church was well established in the town and of some importance because it is said to have two priests. The first named Rector we know of is Thomas in 1180. St Peter’s is the only church in Colchester, apart from Greenstead parish, mentioned in the Domesday document but in references to the town generally, there is mention of seven priests. This indicates the existence of other ancient churches at the time, sharing the offering of the town’s worship, one of which would have been Holy Trinity whose Saxon tower is still to be seen. St Peter’s was particularly well endowed but was given to the Priory of St Botolph when that was re-founded in about 1102, and they appointed the Rector until, in 1318, the Priory appropriated its rich endowments to their own use, their Prior became Rector, and since then the incumbent of St Peter’s has been a Vicar. Apart from its wealth, St Peter’s imposing site on the crown of the hill and the fairly spacious interior of what by then must have been a re-erected church on the site of an older building, must have made it an important church in the life of the town from very early times.
In the 14th Century its appearance was different from that of the modern and several-times restored building, for the mediaeval church had a central tower, as can be seen on mediaeval prints of Colchester, and was probably cruciform in plan.
In the 15th Century alterations were made which widened the building by the addition of the north and south aisles, and at the same time altered what was probably cross-shaped into the present oblong shaped church. Surviving illustrations are not clear enough to indicate the exact appearance of the original tower, but it would seem to have stood on pillars in a central position in the building between the nave and the chancel, have been octagonal in the upper part and surmounted with an octagonal lantern and pointed roof, too stumpy to qualify as a spire.
Indications of St Peter’s place and importance in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the weaving industry had established itself in and around Colchester, may be noted in the memorial inscriptions in stone and brass to be found in the church. The number and interest of the mural brasses are greater here in St Peter’s than in any other Colchester church. More detailed reference to these is made here. It is recorded that prior to the Reformation, there was a chantry, founded by Richard Heynes, and a gild of St John, with endowments, called Jesus Masse. The church registers date back to 1611.
The long standing evangelical tradition of St Peters is indicated by the way the Puritan Edward Warren lost his post as Vicar in 1662, the time of the “Great Ejection” on the introduction of the Act of Uniformity.
The central tower, which was a feature of the old church’s outline, was shaken by an earthquake shock in 1692 and an interesting and painstaking entry in a rather fine early hand was made in the ancient Register of St Peter’s about this event. The original is preserved in the archives at the Essex Record Office.
That on Thursday Sept: 8 1692 there happened about two of ye Clock in the afternoon for ye space of a minute or more an universall earthquake all over England France Holland & fome parts of Germany. and particularly it waf attefted to me by the Masons that were then a plaistring the Steeple of St Peter in this Towne & uppon the upper most scaffold that the steeple parted fo wide in ye midst that they could have put their hand into the crack or cleft y immediately shut up clofe again, without any damage to the workmen (who expected all would have fallen down) or to the fteeple it felf, most of the houfes here and elfewhere fhooke, & part of a chimny fell downe on North Hill, & very many who were fenfible of it were taken at ye same time with a giddynef in their head, for fom fhort time, in witnefs of wt is here related I have here fet my hand.
Robt Dickman Minister of St Peter’s Colchester
In the mid 18th Century the tower was declared unsafe and demolished (1758) and a new tower at the west end of the church was built (1763). Other alterations were made at this time, when the Chancel was shortened by the extension eastwards of the nave arcades. The purpose was to enable larger congregations to hear sermons and for this the galleries with their attractive panelling were added to the church, the north gallery dating from 1791 when it was installed at the cost of the then Vicar, Revd S Storry. The retention of the galleries despite later restoration work designed to recover the mediaeval appearance of the building, still leaves the strong Georgian impression of the interior today. These 18th century alterations were made at a time when such changes were fashionable, but it is clear also that the importance of the church and the size of its congregation are indicated. This must have remained true in later times for in Victorian days, when in many places galleries were removed from church buildings, in St Peter’s they were deliberately retained to accommodate large numbers, and they have proved necessary for many services up to the present time.