Rochester Castle

by Jessica Brain

Perched high on the site of an old Roman settlement Rochester Castle dominates the skyline. Strategically positioned on the east bank of the River Medway, the massive architectural impact of the old ruined Norman fortifications is evident whichever angle you approach it from. The equally impressive Rochester Cathedral stands at the base of the castle, another architectural jewel in this small but historically rich south eastern town.

The castle itself was built on the site where the Romans had originally settled in the town. This location was of tactical importance, being at the junction of the River Medway and the famous Roman Watling Street and it is not hard to see why the Normans decided to use this as a location for the fortress. In fact before the Normans arrived, castles were virtually unheard of in England, but soon proved to be an architectural necessity when consolidating captured areas, leading to the construction of equally imposing fortifications around the country.

In 1087 Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester began the construction of the castle. One of William the Conqueror’s greatest architects, he was also responsible for the Tower of London. Much of what you see remaining of the walled perimeter remains intact from that time. William de Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury was also a contributor to this grand castle building project. Henry I granted him custody of the castle in 1127, a responsibility that lasted until King John seized the castle in 1215.

Rochester Castle - Jessica Brain
Sieges became part of Rochester Castle’s volatile history, the first taking place in May 1088. William the Conqueror had died in 1097 leaving his conquests to his two sons, Robert and William. Robert was left Normandy and William was to inherit England, however Odo, the Bishop of Bayeaux and Earl of Kent, had other ideas. He led a conspiracy to put Robert on the throne instead of William, however this plan resulted in his being besieged in Rochester by the army. The conditions were dire with intense heat and flies whilst disease was rife, Odo was forced to go into exile.

On the 11th October 1215, William de Albini and Reginald de Cornhill, accompanied by a large group of knights, defied King John. The siege lasted seven weeks whilst the King and his army battered the castle walls with a five stone-throwing machine. The King’s army using a bombardment of crossbows were able to breach the southern wall and drive back de Albini and Cornhill’s men to the keep.
The King’s sappers meanwhile were busy digging a tunnel which led to the southeast tower. The plan to destroy the tower was executed by burning the fat of forty pigs which burnt through the pit props and destroyed a quarter of the keep. The defenders of the castle continued the warfare undeterred, and fought bravely amongst the ruins. Despite their valiant efforts starvation ultimately took its toll and they were forced to surrender to King John and his army. The castle was subsequently taken into the custody of the Crown.

A twenty year period of renovations followed, under the supervision of King Henry III, John’s son. The walls were rebuilt and the new tower constructed in order to protect the more vulnerable southeast corner from a similar invasion.

The Barons’ War of 1264 saw the castle become the setting of yet another battle, this time between Henry III and Simon de Montfort. The castle came under fire from rebel armies. Roger de Leybourne, the leader of the castle’s defence, was forced back into the keep after less than twenty four hours of fighting. Stone throwing caused extensive damage and a mine tunnel was under construction when de Montfort abandoned the siege. News had came of an approaching army under the command of the King. Once again repairs were needed but these would not occur for another 100 years until Edward III rebuilt whole sections of the wall and later, Richard II provided the northern bastion.

Rochester Castle
In the centuries to come, Rochester Castle’s prominence would continue to rise and fall with the changing times. Today, the castle is in the care of English Heritage and has a large number of visitors who are keen to learn about the history of the castle and explore the grounds. It is not hard to imagine when entering the bailey the hype of activity that would have taken place there; market stools selling an array of goods and the everyday hum of peasant life in Norman Britain. As you enter the main castle building you are greeted by the ticket office, previously the entrance chamber, decorated with typical Norman arches and huge impressive doors. Remnants of the castle’s rich tapestry of events can be found in all corners of the site, from the drum tower constructed in the 1200’s to the castle walls with traces of an old hall on the west side, built by Henry III.

The bailey, now an attractive expanse of grass and trees where many families choose to picnic, would not have looked so appealing in the time of the Normans. Most likely covered in dust and a sea of mud in the winter months, many people would have been working in the bailey from blacksmiths to carpenters, cooks and traders. The conditions would have been cramped, not to mention the animals, horses and dogs living within the confines of the castle.

The Constable’s Hall was the location of everyday activities in the castle, particularly business matters, including the local courts. One might imagine luxury when envisaging castle life, but life in Norman castles was often very rudimentary, even for the nobility. Furniture was minimal and food was basic, a diet of beef and pork as well as a huge number of chickens were consumed. Food was eaten with fingers, no cutlery or plates were used. Hygiene in these living conditions became a huge issue as washing facilities were non-existent. Eventually, the old ways of the Normans were replaced with new ideas and by the end of the twelfth century comfort and hygiene played a bigger role.

Rochester Castle - Jessica Brain
Rochester Castle remains one of the most impressive Norman fortresses and continues to attract visitors from far and wide. Take a stroll along Rochester high street visiting the array of small shops and cafes which give this town its quaint atmosphere and continue towards Rochester Cathedral, the country’s second oldest cathedral, a spiritual monument to Christian worship throughout the centuries. From the cathedral, the imposing castle edifice makes a grand impression whilst also providing a wonderful photo opportunity, one of many this historic town has to offer.

Explore, admire and discover the rich history this town has to offer!

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.

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