Rochester Castle

Rochester Castle, Kent 29 Sep, 2011
Photo © Clem Rutter CC BY 3.0

Rochester Castle seen from the cathedral door, showing the four-turreted keep. The filled-in moat now enjoyed by picnickers has also seen service as a graveyard and Charles Dickens asked to be buried here, though his wishes were ignored.

Rochester Castle stands on the east bank of the River Medway, in Rochester, Kent. It is one of the best-preserved castles of its kind in the UK. There has been a castle on this site since Roman Times, though it is the Keep of 1127 and the Norman castle for which Rochester is deservedly famous. With the invention of gunpowder other types of defence became more appropriate, and the military centre of the Medway Towns moved to Chatham.


Rochester Castle - engraved by H Adlard c1836

The Romans under Aulus Plautius built a fort on the site of the present castle to guard the important river crossing, where they constructed a bridge. There is evidence of an earth rampart later replaced by a stone wall. The timber piles of the Roman bridge were rediscovered during the construction of the present road bridge.

The Norman period commenced with the victory of William of Normandy at Hastings. He appointed his half brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, as Earl of Kent. Rochester's first Norman castle was probably of the motte and bailey type – a wooden tower and with palisades – on Boley Hill. This was the castle that was besieged by William Rufus during the Rebellion of 1088.

As a result of this siege, Bishop Gundulf was persuaded to build a stone castle with a curtain wall. It is not known how much, if any, of the surviving keep is his. Gundulf was a talented architect: he had started the building work on Rochester's Norman Cathedral in 1080, and was also responsible for the White Tower of the Tower of London.

Henry I granted the custody of the castle to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William de Corbeil. Corbeil started to build the great stone keep in 1127, much of which survives today. This is the keep which has dominated the city and river crossing for 800 years.

The siege of 1215

In 1206, King John spent £115 on repairs to the castle and moat. But in 1215, after the signing of the Magna Carta in July, the castle was handed to dissident barons. By mid-October John found himself besieging it. The king's forces entered the bailey, perhaps by catapult attack or undermining the curtain wall, but the keep held out till late November. It was finally taken by undermining the south tower, the mine-roof being supported by wooden props. These props were then set alight using the fat of "forty of the fattest pigs of the sort least good for eating", [1] and the whole corner of the keep collapsed. The rebels withdrew behind the keep's cross-wall but were taken within a few days.

John died the next year, so it fell to Henry III to repair the castle. He spent over a £1000 on rebuilding, with new stables and gateways, and a further ditch to strengthen the defences. A new chapel was built next to the Royal apartments in the bailey. The most notable surviving feature is the new south tower, which was rebuilt according to the latest defensive design and is three-quarters round (just visible as the left-most corner of the keep, above).

The siege of 1264

In 1264, the dissident barons, led by Simon de Montfort, attacked Rochester. They crossed the Medway under cover of the smoke from a fire-ship, and took the city. Like John before them, they quickly gained control of the castle bailey and then attempted to undermine the keep. This time the siege was not successful, being relieved after only a week by Henry himself. However, the rebels did burn down many of the buildings, including the Royal chambers. Repairs were not carried out until 1367, under Edward III, by which time much of the stone had been removed for other use.

The Wars of the Roses were not fought in Kent, so the castle was spared. It was briefly taken by Wyatt's men during his futile uprising. But with the invention of gunpowder and introduction of cannon, this form of castle was no longer so secure. It became expensive to maintain so fell into disrepair.


Rochester Castle, Kent

The castle is now maintained by English Heritage and the keep is open to the public. The wooden flooring in the centre of the building is gone, but many of the passageways and spiral staircases within the thickness of the walls are still usable. Decorative chevrons ornament the archways and the water well in the cross-wall is clearly visible. Visitors with a head for heights can climb 27 m to the battlements and enjoy their commanding view of the river and surrounding area.

Later military history

Rochester remained of strategic importance, and the neighbouring Chatham Naval Dockyard grew in importance. In the Napoleonic wars, the dockyard was protected by a circle of Palmerston Forts, including Fort Luton, Fort Borstal, Fort Pitt, Fort Clarence, and Fort Amherst. HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson's flagship was built in Chatham (though now "exiled" in Portsmouth). During the twentieth century wars, Chatham has provided a home for the Royal Engineers, and built aircraft such as the Sunderland. The Dockyard also built and serviced nuclear submarines.

Notes and references

1 Contemporary source quoted in Salter (2000)

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