Rochester Castle, Kent
Kent ME1 1SW
Rochester castle started out as a timber motte-and-bailey castle near the strategically important crossing of the River Medway. A new stone castle was later built in the 11th century on a new site directly opposite the medieval bridge, using in part the old Roman city walls.
It was not until the early 12th century that the great Norman Keep was erected, one of the largest of its kind in England. It's walls soar to 113 feet high and are between 10 to 12 feet thick all the way to its summit. The four great corner towers are the tallest in England at a height of 125 feet. With its immense fore-building the keep proved impervious to all stone throwing siege engines of its day.
It was not until the early 13th century that its walls were breached, not through battering but through undermining of one of it's corner towers. Even when this great tower came crashing down after weeks of siege, the internal cross-walls were also built to such strength and thickness, that the garrison were able to simply retreat behind these walls and continue their defence until hunger, thirst and all hope of relief were extinguished.
Despite the corner tower being re-built and further repairs and maintenance spent on it during the 13th century, by the end of the 14th century the castle was allowed to decay and its military importance much diminished.
Access to this castle is just off the end of the High Street by the River. There is plenty of cheap parking at the rear of the main High Street, with the castle within easy walking distance. In addition to the castle the High Street buildings and small curious shops are well worth a visit, especially the book shops.
The grounds of the castle is now like many castles, the town park, with plenty of space to walk around and explore the castle walls, including along the river, which on a sunny day is really lovely. As its in a busy town, do expect lots of other visitors too.
A climb to the top of the keep is an absolute must, as the views from the top are well worth the effort.
The inside of the keep itself, without its floors is little more than a shell, and does provide a grim backdrop to the siege of 1215 when the conditions for those inside would have been simply beyond grim.
Do include in your visit a wander round the outside of the castle grounds and the surrounding historical buildings and streets as this will complete your visit to Rochester Castle.
~ History ~
1086 - Twenty years after the Norman Conquest the Domesday Book records that land in nearby Aylesford is given to the Bishop of Rochester, in exchange for the land upon which a castle has been built.
1088 - Following William the Conquerors death the previous year, his Kingdom is split between his eldest son Robert, who retains Normandy as Duke, and his younger son William Rufus, who becomes King of England. A number of key barons side with Robert's claim to England, including the King's half-brother Bishop Odo, his brother Robert, Count of Mortain, together with key Earls such as Robert de Mowbray Earl of Northumberland, Roger de Montgomery Earl of Shrewsbury and Gilbert fitz Richard of Clare and Tonbridge. Rochester is fortified by Odo against the King as the rebel headquarters. The King marches towards Rochester from London by way of Tonbridge where he captures the castle and wounds it's lord, Gilbert. Hearing that Odo himself has left Rochester for Pevensey, a castle of his brother Robert of Mortain, the King diverts his army there and takes the castle with both of his uncles in it. Bishop Odo is forced to swear that he will yield Rochester to the King. Odo is forced to ride with a small royal force as escort to complete this promise. Upon arrival however the garrison can see that the Bishop is ill in agreement with the royal speakers and in-turn make a mounted sortie and captures them all. When the King hears this he lays siege to the city and it's castle. Plagued by heat, flies and disease, the garrison surrender. Odo loses his English possessions and joins Duke Robert on the First Crusade, from which he never returns.
1089 - In order for the Bishops to retain Rochester a sum of £100 is demanded by King William. Being persuaded that building the King a new castle at the strategic site at Rochester would be cheaper, Bishop Gundalf agrees to rebuild the timber castle in stone for the King, to become one of the earliest stone castles in all the Kingdom. The new castle follows the line of the original castle including the existing moat covering the three landward sides. Gundalf also uses the foundations of the Roman city walls in parts for his curtain walls. The final cost of the castle being some £60 when completed, providing the Bishop a substantial saving and the King his castle.
1127 - A charter by King Henry I is issued for Archbishop William de Corbeil to make 'a fortification or tower within the castle and keep and hold it forever.' The building of the Keep at Rochester Castle begins.
1199 - Following King John's accession to the throne he sets about ensuring that the Archbishops should lose their right to Rochester castle, to take it for himself into the hands of a royal constable, a Reginald de Cornhill, Sherriff of Kent.
1215 - As part King John's enforced peace treaty with his rebel Baron's at Magna Carta, Rochester Castle is to be restored to the Archbishops. However, in a letter just two months later he refers back to the original agreement and requests the castle be transferred to Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, a close supporter of the King. Within a month a party of rebel barons enter Rochester to hold it against the King, to prevent him from moving on London, which they have established as their headquarters. Reginald de Cornhill, formally the King's constable to Rochester, is now holding the castle for the Archbishop against his King.
The commander of the rebel forces, William de Albini, finds that he has insufficient time to fully garrison and provision the castle as the King arrives just three days later from Dover. His advanced forces eventually win the battle to destroy the bridge across the Medway River to prevent rebel reinforcements arriving from London. On 11th October Royal forces enter the city by surprise and two days later King John arrives to take personal charge of the siege of the castle. The ceaseless barrage by day and night by the King's huge stone throwing engines, and by repeat attacks is undertaken in shifts without the walls being breached. Meanwhile the baronial leaders in London make an attempt to relieve Rochester with 700 horsed troops, but turn back when they learn the of the King's strength in arms. The curtain wall is finally breached and so the defending garrison withdraw into the keep. The thickness of the keep walls prove impervious to all attempts to break in and so the King changes tactics and on 25th November, more than a month into the siege, he commands his trusted and able lieutenant Hubert de Burgh, to 'send 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 mine dug beneath one of the keeps corner towers comes crashing down. Even then the garrison continue to fight behind the internal cross-walls of the keep 'for such was the structure of the stronghold'. The garrison, short of provisions, expel those least capable of fighting - many of whom have their hands and feet amputated by the King's army. Soon, starvation and no possibility of relief, forces surrender. The King is persuaded by a close aid not to hang all the noble's but to imprison them instead, so as retaliation against royalist garrisons in future would be avoided.
1216 - Rochester is captured by Prince Louis of France soon after his invited landing into the country by rebel barons.
1217 - King John is dead and the new King, Henry III, aged just nine, sets about the repair to the severely damaged fortress to the tune of £680 spread over the next twenty years.
1264 - Robert de Leybourne holds Rochester for King Henry against the forces of Gilbert de Clare who has advanced from his castle at Tonrbidge in support of the advancing rebel army of Simon de Montford. The two forces enter Rochester at the same time from opposite directions. Once more the keep proves impervious to attack for an entire week. On news of the advancing King's army sent to relieve the royalist garrison, the rebel Earls abandon their siege.
1367-83 - Edward III spends £2,262 on repairs over a three year period. Richard II spends a further £500 repairing the damage inflicted on the castle following the Peasants Revolt of 1381, and some to upgrading of the aging defences against the threatened French invasion. After the end of the fourteenth century, at least in military terms, the role of the castle is much reduced and by the sixteenth century is in a state of decay.