Rochester Castle keep, with the Cathedral beyond
|Built 1087-1089, 1127|
|Owned by:||English Heritage|
Rochester Castle stands on the east bank of the River Medway in Rochester in Kent. The 12th-century keep or stone tower, which is the castle's most prominent feature, is one of the best preserved in the land.
Standing at the crossing of the River Medway by Watling Street, Rochester was a strategically important royal castle. During the late Middle Ages it helped protect England's southeast coast from invasion. The first castle at Rochester was founded in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. It was given to Bishop Odo, probably by his half-brother William the Conqueror. During the Rebellion of 1088 over the succession to the English throne, Odo supported Robert Curthose, the Conqueror's eldest son, against William Rufus. It was during this conflict that the castle first saw military action; the city and castle were besieged after Odo made Rochester a headquarters for the rebellion. After the garrison capitulated, this first castle was abandoned.
Between 1087 and 1089, Rufus asked Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, to build a new stone castle at Rochester. He established the current extent of the castle. Though much altered through the centuries, some parts of Gundulf's work survive. In 1127 King Henry I granted the castle to the Archbishops of Canterbury in perpetuity. William de Corbeil built the massive keep that still dominates the castle today. Throughout the 12th century the castle remained in the custody of the archbishops.
During the First Barons' War (1215–1217) in King John's reign, baronial forces captured the castle from Archbishop Stephen Langton and held it against the king, who then besieged it. The Barnwell chronicler remarked "Our age has not known a siege so hard pressed nor so strongly resisted". After resisting for just over seven weeks, the garrison surrendered. Although the castle had been greatly damaged, with breaches in the outer walls and one corner of the keep collapsed, it was hunger that eventually forced the defenders' hand. The castle did not stay under John's control for long: in 1216 it was captured by the French Prince Louis, who was the new leader of the baronial faction. John died and was succeeded by his son King Henry III in 1216; the next year, the war ended and the castle was taken under direct royal control.
Rochester was besieged for the third time in 1264 during the Second Barons' War (1264–1267). The castle's royal constable, Roger de Leybourne, held Rochester in support of Henry III. Rebel armies led by Simon de Montfort and Gilbert de Clare entered the city and set about trying to capture the castle. Again the castle's defenders resisted, though this time with a different outcome. After a week, the rebel armies raised the siege in the face of relief from Henry himself. Although the garrison did not surrender, the castle suffered extensive damage that was not repaired until the following century. The castle saw military action for the last time in 1381 when it was captured and ransacked during the Peasants' Revolt. As Rochester Castle fell out of use its materials were reused elsewhere and custodianship relinquished by the Crown.
The castle and its grounds were opened to the public in the 1870s as a park. At various points during the 19th and 20th centuries repairs were carried out. The castle is protected as a Grade I listed building and Scheduled Monument. Today the ruins are in the guardianship of English Heritage and open to the public.
It has long been assumed that the first castle at Rochester was built immediately after the Norman Conquest next to the river, just outside the southwest corner of the town walls. The conjectural site of the early castle later became known as "Boley Hill". Archaeologist Tom McNeill has suggested that these earliest castles in England may have been purely military in character, built to contain a large number of troops in hostile territory.
According to the Domesday Book of 1086, the Bishop of Rochester was given land valued at 17s 4d in Aylesford, Kent, in compensation for land that became the site of Rochester Castle: of the 48 castles mentioned in the survey, Rochester is the only one for which it is noted that the land-owner was compensated for loss of their land.
Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the Conqueror’s half brother, received the city and its castle. On William's death in September 1087, his eldest son Robert became Duke of Normandy but his second son, William Rufus, received England – in the resulting war, Odo joined Robert’s faction and Rochester Castle became one of the headquarters of the rebellion, standing on the road to London. William intended to capture Rochester but on the march he heard that Odo had gone to Pevensey Castle, so he turned aside, took Pevensey and captured Odo, whom he forced to hand Rochester to William's men. The garrison though resisted, sallied out and captured William’s men (and Odo with them). The ensuing siege began in May 1088. Two siege-castles were built to cut off the city's supply lines and to protect the besiegers from sorties. Conditions within the city were dire: disease was rampant, exacerbated by the heat and flies. The garrison ultimately capitulated and Odo, Eustace of Boulogne, and Robert de Belleme sent out allowed to march away with their weapons and horses but their estates in England were confiscated.
The old castle was abandoned and a new castle built on the current site, in the southwest corner of the town walls. Founded between 1087 and 1089, some parts of the castle survive although it has been much altered by use and reuse in subsequent centuries. It was built by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, in return for the confirmation by William II of a landgrant made by his father, for which the king had demanded £100. The actual cost to Gundulf was £60. The bishop was a skilled architect and supervised the construction of the Tower of London's White Tower on behalf of William the Conqueror. Gundulf's castle was adjacent to Rochester Cathedral. According to archaeologist Oliver Creighton, when castles were positioned close to churches or cathedrals it suggested a link between the two, and in this case both were owned by the Bishop of Rochester. Often the same craftsmen and architects would work on these closely related buildings, leading to similarities in some of their features. Along with Durham and Old Sarum, Rochester is one of the best examples of a closely linked castle and religious building.
In 1127 King Henry I granted Rochester Castle to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William de Corbeil, and his successors in perpetuity. He was given permission to build "a fortification or tower within the castle and keep and hold it forever". Corbeil is responsible for building the great tower or keep that still stands today, albeit in an altered state. The 12th century saw many castles in England rebuilt in stone, an advancement in sophistication of design and technology. Although Rochester had already been given a stone curtain wall by Gundulf, the keep dates from this period. It visually dominated the rest of the castle, towering above its outer walls, and acted as a residence containing the castle's best accommodation. A sturdy fortification, it could also serve as a stronghold in the event of military action. Such was the importance of the keep as a symbol of Rochester it was depicted on the town's seal in the 13th century.
Construction progressed at a rate of about 10 feet a year. It was probably finished before Corbeil died in 1138 and definitely before 1141, when Robert, Earl of Gloucester, was imprisoned there during the Anarchy of King Stephen's reign. It is likely that after the keep was built there was no further building activity in the 12th century, although the structure was maintained.
Following the fall of Normandy in 1204 to Philip II of France, King John increased his expenditure on the castles in southeast England in case of invasion, Rochester among them: in 1206 John spent £115 on the castle's ditches, keep, and other structures.
Custody of Rochester Castle remained with the Archbishops of Canterbury until the end of the 12th century bit the worsening crisis of John’s reign demanded its being placed at the King’s disposal. Defeat at the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214 marked the end of John's ambitions to retake Normandy and exacerbated the disquiet of the barons; within months the barons in the north were actively challenging his rule. Rebels captured London, Lincoln, and Exeter, and John persuaded Stephen Langton, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, to cede control of Rochester Castle to a royal constable, Reginald de Cornhill, on terms that it be returned to the Archbishop at Easter 1215, later extended to Easter 1216. Until a constable was appointed, control reverted to Langton whom King John asked to hold the castle "in such a way that by it no ill or harm shall come to us or our kingdom".
John met the rebel barons at Runnymede, and on 19 June 1215 and Magna Carta was sealed. Peace though was brief and the First Barons' War broke out. A group of rebels took Rochester Castle, how is unclear, but contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall recorded that the king demanded Langton hand over the castle to royal control and the archbishop refused. Although Langton held out against the king's demands, the rebels feared he would eventually cave to pressure from the king and seized control of Rochester Castle for themselves. According to Ralph of Coggeshall, this was done with the consent of the castle's royal constable, Reginald de Cornhill. Langton left the country that same month, leaving the castle in the hands of the king's enemies. In a letter that year to justiciar Hubert de Burgh John expressed his anger towards Langton, calling him "a notorious traitor to us, since he did not render our castle of Rochester to us in our so great need." After this point, Rochester Castle was no longer considered to be in the perpetual custody of the archbishops of Canterbury.
Now London and Rochester were both held by the rebels Hearing the news, John immediately rode to Rochester. Royal forces entered the city on 11 October, taking it by surprise and laying siege to the castle, and the King himself appeared two days later. Rochester Bridge was pulled down to prevent the arrival of a relief force from London. The siege that followed was the largest in England up to that point, and would take nearly two months.
According to the Barnwell chronicler, five siege engines hurled a barrage of stones at the castle's wall day and night. These were supported by missiles from smaller bows and crossbows. Though the Barnwell chronicler claimed they smashed a hole in the castle's outer walls, Roger of Wendover asserted they were ineffective and that John turned to other methods to breach the defences. A letter dated 14 October indicates John was preparing to undermine the castle's walls. He wrote to Canterbury, asking for the production "by day and night of as many picks as you are able" and that they be sent to Rochester. On 26 October a relief force of 700 horse was sent from London. They turned back before arriving, perhaps because they heard the king was advancing to meet them.
When the castle's outer walls were eventually breached, the defenders retreated to the relative safety of the keep. It too withstood the efforts of the siege engines, and once again John turned to mining to bring down the walls. The mine was dug beneath the south-east corner of the keep. A letter sent from Rochester on 25 November offers insight into the methods of mediæval siegecraft. John ordered Hugh de Burgh to "send to us with all speed by day and night forty of the fattest pigs of the sort least good for eating to bring fire beneath the tower". The wooden props supporting the tunnel dug beneath the keep were set alight to collapse the mine, bringing down one corner of the keep. Still the garrison held out and sought safety behind the stone partition or cross-wall in the keep, abandoning half the building. The Barnwell chronicler remarked that "for such was the structure of the stronghold that a very strong wall separated the half that had fallen from the other".
Conditions within the keep worsened by the day and the garrison were reduced to eating horse flesh. In an attempt to reduce the demand on limited provisions, some members were sent out of the keep, beginning with those least capable of fighting. Some sources record that they had their hands and feet amputated by the besiegers. On 30 November the garrison eventually surrendered and were taken captive. Initially John wanted to execute them all as was the custom of the time when a garrison had forced a long and bloody conflict. Savaric de Mauléon, one of John's captains, persuaded the king otherwise, concerned that similar treatment would be shown to royal garrisons by the rebels. Only one person was executed: a crossbowman who had previously been in the service of the king since childhood was hanged. Many of the rebels were imprisoned, sent to royal castles such as Corfe for safe-keeping. Of the siege the Barnwell chronicler wrote, "Our age has not known a siege so hard pressed nor so strongly resisted ... Afterwards few cared to put their trust in castles". Prince Louis of France, son of Philip II, was invited by the barons to lead the rebellion and become king in the event of their victory. In 1216 he arrived in England and captured Rochester Castle; it is not known how, however, as no documentary evidence recording the event survives.
John died in 1216 and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Henry, and the rebellion melted away. Rochester Castle was returned to royal control in 1217.
Given the damage incurred during John's siege, the castle was in dire need of repairs. Between 1217 and 1237 around £680 were spent on repairs, of which £530 were taken up by work on the keep. In 1225 and 1226 the town walls were enhanced by the addition of a ditch at the cost of £300. The new ditch enclosed Boley Hill, possibly to deny the position to future aggressors who might attack the castle. Repairs began with the castle's outer curtain wall. At the same time a chapel was built within the castle. In 1226 the hall, buttery, and dispensary were repaired. Work probably did not begin on the keep until 1226. It was mostly repaired by 1227, but work continued on it until 1232. During 1230 and 1231 a stone wall dividing the castle's enclosure into two parts was built which no longer survives. While attention was paid to making the castle a working fortification, Henry III also funded construction of residential and other buildings. In 1244, £132 was spent on building a second chapel next to the royal apartments. Stables and an almonry were added in 1248. The main gatehouse was rebuilt between 1249 and 1250 at a cost of over £120. Further repairs were carried out on the keep in 1256, this time costing more than £120. Later in the decade further attention was paid to the castle's defences, possibly in response to Henry III's worsening relations with his barons.
Henry III's reign was in crisis in 1258; he was forced to yield government to a royal council of fifteen magnates until 1261, then in 1264 Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester led the barons in rebellion and civil war began.
Rochester's constable in 1264, Roger de Leybourne, held the castle in support of Henry. John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, was the garrison's co-commander. A baronial army led by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Hertford, laid siege to the castle on 17 April that year. Having marched from the earl's castle to Tonbridge the army attacked from the Rochester side of the river, either the south or west. While the army advanced towards the city the royalist garrison set alight the suburbs. The king's hall within the castle was also burned down, although it is unclear why. De Montfort marched from London to attack Rochester the city from another direction and forced passage of the Medway on 18 April, Good Friday, and in a co-ordinated attack de Montfort and de Clare attacked and entered Rochester in the evening. That night the cathedral was raided. The following day the rebels captured the castle's outer enclosure and the royal garrison retreated to the keep. After a truce for Easter day, hostilities resumed on the Monday, and the siege continued until on 26 April the approach of the King's relief force forced a withdrawal.
The castle was left severely damaged and no repairs were made until the reign of Edward III (1327–1377). Numerous surveys in the following century bear testament to the castle's sorry state and follow its steady decline. A survey from 1340 estimated that repairs would cost around £600, however another conducted 23 years later stated that it would cost £3,333 6s 8d. Natural weathering worsened the condition of the castle, and in 1362 a "great wind" damaged the structure. By 1369 few of the castle's buildings still stood: the keep, gatehouses, a hall, kitchen, and stable were all that survived, and even then in a state of ruin. Although it too was in desperate need of repair, the keep was still in use and was the centre of the domestic life at the castle.
Between May 1367 and September 1370 repairs costing £2,262 were carried out: sections of the curtain wall were repaired and two mural towers built, one replacing a tower on the same site. More work was undertaken between 1370 and 1377, the year of Edward's death. The royal apartments built during Henry III's reign were never repaired; it has been suggested this was because by the 14th century, when considerable sums were being spent on repairs elsewhere in the castle, Rochester had fallen out of favour as a royal residence. As the castle's importance as a high-status residence waned, its role as a barracks and administrative centre came to the fore. Richard II (1377–1400) spent £500 repairing the castle., in response to French raids on the south coast during the Hundred Years' War.
Rochester Castle saw fighting for the final time during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. It was besieged and captured by a group of rebels who plundered the castle and released a prisoner. It has been suggested that the £66 10s spent in 1384–1388 and the £91 13s spent in 1395–1397 may have been partially in response to damage incurred during the revolt.
Samuel Pepys commented on the condition of Rochester Castle, and as early as the 17th century the castle may have acted as an attraction for visitors. By this time many castles were in a state of ruin, and Rochester was amongst those in need of repair, although still in use. In 1610 James I granted Sir Anthony Weldon control of the castle. During the Civil War, Weldon declared for the Parliamentarian cause. The castle did not see fighting during the war, even though the city was captured by Royalists in 1648; this may indicate that the castle was not a serviceable fortification by this point. Weldon's support for the Parliamentarians may have spared the castle from slighting (demolition) in the aftermath, a fate shared by many other castles. Walker Weldon inherited the castle and carried out the destruction of part of the outer wall in the 18th century to sell off the building material; he had originally intended to dismantle more of the castle, but the plans were abandoned. A drawing from around this time suggests that the cross wall had been removed by this point. While other parts of the castle were dismantled, the two towers in the south-east wall were still being used for accommodation. In 1743 prisoners were held at the castle, probably in huts. Rochester Castle descended through the Weldon family until it was bequeathed to Thomas Blechynden in the 18th century. By 1774 Robert Child was in possession of the castle, and it remained in the possession of his family until 1884. There were unsuccessful plans in 1780 to reuse Rochester Castle as an army barracks, after the commander of the Royal Engineers for Chatham, Colonel Hugh Debbieg, asked the Childs for permission. The castle ruins inspired a painting by artist J. M. W. Turner in the late 18th century, one of his first oil paintings. Turner was renowned for his love of nature and was at the forefront of the picturesque movement, during which such ruins became fashionable.
By the 19th century, gardens were created within the castle's enclosure. Charles Dickens lived in Rochester and included the castle ruins in The Pickwick Papers and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Through the words of one of his characters, Dickens described the castle as a "glorious pile – frowning wall – tottering arches – dark nooks – crumbling stones". Many historic buildings, particularly ruins, have acquired myths and legends, and some are rumoured to be haunted. Rochester gained a "white lady" ghost.
The 19th century saw efforts to preserve the castle. In 1826 repairs were made to the well in the keep. At the same time a survey was carried out by Augustus Pugin and he excavated around the keep, investigating how it was built. (He descended into the well in a bucket in an unsuccessful search for treasure.) Victor Child Villiers, 7th Earl of Jersey, leased the castle to the Corporation of Rochester in 1870 for use as a public park; when it opened to the public in 1872, Rochester Castle was presented as a picturesque ruin, with trees planted in the enclosure and the walls overgrown with ivy. In 1884 the Corporation bought the castle for £6,572. Between 1896 and 1904 repairs were carried out. Ivy was removed from the keep between 1919 and 1931 and the planting in the castles scaled back.
In 1965 the Ministry of Public Building and Works took over care of the castle from the Corporation of Rochester in 1965. and guardianship was transferred to English Heritage in 1984. Since 1995 the City of Rochester has been responsible for daily management of the castle.
The castle is a Scheduled Monument, a "nationally important" historic building and archaeological site which has been given protection against unauthorised change. It is also a Grade I listed building. The castle is open to the public.
The castle built by Bishop Gundulf in the late 12th century was enclosed by a stone wall. Situated in the south-west corner of the city, the castle used the remains of the Roman town walls as foundations. The circuit had at least one tower; it was replaced in the 14th century. The original gateway was radically altered in the 13th or 14th century. From across the River Medway, the twin landmarks of Rochester's castle and cathedral would have dominated the mediæval landscape, symbolic of the authority of the church and nobility in the period. Most castles were built by secular nobles, but the work by Gundulf and his successor Corbeil provide examples of the role of the church in castle building.
According to military historian Allen Brown Rochester's keep is "among the finest and oldest in all England". Since its construction it underwent limited alteration, aside from the rebuilding of one corner, and although now in a state of ruin it remains significantly intact and is considered one of the most important surviving 12th-century keeps in England and France. The keep was richly decorated with hangings and furnishings. Dating from the second quarter of the 12th century, it is Rochester Castle's dominant feature. It had a square plan, and measures 70 feet square externally with pilaster buttresses at each corner. The keep was built in the castle's southern corner, close to the curtain wall. The primary building material was local Kentish Ragstone, although Caen stone used to face the keep was imported from Normandy. The same material was imported for the Tower of London's White Tower in the 11th century. The tops of the turrets rise |125 feet above the ground, 12 feet above the battlements. Below the latter are rectangular holes, marking where wooden hoarding would have been attached. Though 12 feet thick at the base, the walls of the keep taper to 10 feet at the top. It is the tallest keep in Britain, and only those at Dover, the Tower of London, Colchester, and Norwich are larger. During John's siege of Rochester in 1215, the south-east corner collapsed; during Henry III's reign it was rebuilt as a cylinder. The windows increase in size higher up the walls, although only the uppermost were decorated. A spiral staircase in the north-east corner provided access to all floors, and another in the south-west corner went from the first floor to the top floor. The north-west corner tower contains small chambers, and the south-east probably had a similar layout before it was rebuilt.
The keep's entrance at first-floor level. A forebuilding attached to the north side guarded the entrance. A stone staircase began on the west side of the keep before turning and meeting the forebuilding, which could be entered by crossing a drawbridge across a gap 9 feet wide. There was another entrance in the west of the forebuilding, and at some point a new doorway was knocked through to the keep at the bottom of the drawbridge pit. The original door from the forebuilding into the keep was protected by a portcullis.
The stone-built keeps of the 11th century generally had simple plans, with few rooms and an uncomplicated layout. Rochester's keep bears testament to a developing complexity, and provides an early example of a keep divided into separate areas for the lord and his retinue. The thickness of the walls allowed rooms to be built into them, as can also be seen at the Hedingham Castle's contemporaneous keep, or the slightly later one at Dover. The keep's interior is divided for its entire height by a cross wall running east–west. The ground floor was used for storage, with the three storeys above providing accommodation. The first floor probably contained a hall and great chamber, divided by the cross wall. This level may have been the accommodation of the castle's constable who looked after it during the owner's absence. There is a room called "Gundulf's Chamber" built into the thickness of the wall in the north-west corner; it may well have been the constable's private chamber. The second floor contained the keep's best accommodation and some of its most elaborate decoration. It is 27 feet high and surrounded by a gallery in its upper half built into the thickness of the walls. The floor also had a chapel measuring about 28 feet by 15 feet. At some unknown point in the post-mediæval period, a fire gutted the keep, leaving it in its present state without floors or a roof. On the second floor, there are openings in the cross wall, broken by a series of Romanesque columns between round-headed arches. The cross wall carried a well shaft, with a well-head at each floor. The third floor had a second chapel and access to the roof, and may have held additional accommodation.
The current entrance in the north-east occupies the approximate location of the main gatehouse constructed by Gundulf and then rebuilt during 1249–1250. It was pulled down in the 1870s when the enclosure was converted into a municipal garden.
The western part of the stone outer wall, a stretch facing the river, dates from when Gundulf built the first wall enclosing the castle. In the 19th century a revetment was added to strengthen the decaying wall. Like the keep, it was constructed using Kentish Ragstone. This part of Gundulf's wall was 4½ feet thick at the base, narrowing to 2 feet at the top; it rose to a height of around 22 feet. Four embrasures were added to this part of the wall in the 13th century, although the builders imitated Norman design. At the northern end of the 12th-century stretch of western wall are the remains of a building, probably a hall, dating from the 13th century. Although no longer standing, it is known it had a vaulted undercroft.
In the south Gundulf's wall survived into the modern period, although has now been dismantled. The current wall is a 19th-century replacement. At the eastern end of this wall, near the southern corner of the castle, is a two-storey rounded tower 30 feet in diameter dating from the early 13th century. It was built to fill the breach in the curtain wall caused when John's army besieged the castle and to reinforce a weak point in the defences. The section from the tower to the location of the former main gatehouse in the north-east dates from about 1367 to 1370. Two towers were built along the wall, each two storeys high and again using Kentish Ragstone. The one nearest the keep is relatively plain and the northernmost one more elaborate. The latter was intended for use as a residence and in the modern period was converted into a cottage. The wall between these two towers was reduced in the modern period, possibly to give a better view of the cathedral. Apart from the west side, the castle was surrounded by a ditch, much of which has since been filled in.
| ("Wikimedia Commons" has material|
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- The Paul Drury Partnership (October 2009b) (PDF), Rochester Castle Conservation Plan Part 1: Understanding and Significance (pp. 54–102), Teddington: The Paul Drury Partnership, http://www.visitmedway.org/xsdbimgs/Consul%20P2.pdf
- The Paul Drury Partnership (October 2009c) (PDF), Rochester Castle Conservation Plan Part 2: Issues and Policies, Teddington: The Paul Drury Partnership, http://www.visitmedway.org/xsdbimgs/consutlation%20plan%20-%20issues%20&%20policies.pdf
- Thompson, Michael (1987), The Decline of the Castle, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-32194-8
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- Warren, W. Lewis. (1991), King John, London: Methuen, ISBN 0-413-45520-3
- Waugh, Scott L. (2004), "Warenne, John de, sixth earl of Surrey (1231–1304)" ((subscription or UK public library membership required)), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/28734
- Ayers, T.; Tatton-Brown, T. (eds) (2006), Mediæval art, architecture and archaeology at Rochester, Leeds: British Archaeological Association and Maney Publishing, ISBN 978-1-904350-76-7
- Rowlands, I. W. (1989), "King John, Stephen Langton and Rochester Castle, 1213–15", in C. Harper-Bill, C. J. Holdsworth, and J. L. Nelson, Studies in mediæval history presented to R. Allen Brown, pp. 267–280