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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

History of Rochester Castle

Rochester Castle stands on the east bank of the River Medway. It is one of the best-preserved castles of its kind in the UK. There has been a fortification on this site since Roman times circa 43AD, although it is the keep of 1127 and the Norman castle which can be seen today. With the invention of gunpowder, other types of defence became more appropriate, and the military centre of the Medway Towns moved to Chatham.

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, and the Roman foundation (and indeed the many generations of stone walls built on the site) can be viewed from Rochester Esplanade, where the River has retreated.

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 little more than a bailey built into the angle of the wall; with the walls built by Bishop Gundulf.

Rochester Castle was indirectly referred to in the Domesday Book of 1086; it records that the Bishop of Rochester was paid for the land on which the castle was built. One of 48 castles mentioned in the survey, Rochester is the only one where landowners were compensated for land taken off them to build a castle. The fortress town as a whole was besieged successfully by William Rufus during the Rebellion of 1088. 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 at the Tower of London.

Henry I granted the custody of the castle to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William de Corbeil in return for his building a keep. Corbeil started to build the great stone keep in 1127, much of which survives today. It is the tallest keep in England and, along with the Cathedral that stands adjacent to it, has dominated the city and river crossing for 800 years. Indeed the castle and keep occupy fully half of the Roman walled city.

In 1206, King John spent £115 on repairs to the castle. He even pre-emptively held it during the year of the negotiations leading up to Magna Carta, but its terms forced him to hand it back into the custody of Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, in May 1215. The rebel barons then sent troops under William d'Aubigny to the castle, whose constable Reginald de Cornhill opened the gates. During October, marching from Dover to London, John then found Rochester in his way and on 11 October began besieging it in person.

The rebels were expecting reinforcements from London but on hearing of the size of King John's army they turned back at Dartford. Robert Fitzwalter rode out to stop the king, fighting his way onto the bridge but eventually being beaten back into the castle. He also sacked the cathedral, took anything of value and stabled his horses in it, all as a slight to Langton. Orders were then sent to the men of Canterbury saying, ‘We order you, just as you love us, and as soon as you see this letter, to make by day and night, all the pickaxes that you can. Every blacksmith in your city should stop all other work in order to make them and you should send them to us at Rochester with all speed’. Five siege engines were erected and work carried out to undermine the curtain wall. By one of these means, the king's forces entered and held the bailey in early November, and began attempting the same tactics against the keep, including undermining the south-east tower. The mine-roof was supported by wooden props, which were then set alight using pig-fat, on 25 November 1215 John had sent a writ to the Justiciar saying ‘Send to us with all speed by day and night, forty of the fattest pigs of the sort least good for eating so that we may bring fire beneath the castle’, causing the south-east tower of the keep to collapse. The rebels withdrew behind the keep's cross-wall but still managed to hold out. A few were allowed to leave the castle but on John's orders had their hands and feet lopped off as an example.

Winter was now setting in, and the castle was only taken, on 30 November, by starvation and not by force. John set up a memorial to the pigs and a gallows with the intention of hanging the whole garrison, but one of his captains, Savari de Mauleon, persuaded him not to put the rebels to death as a precedent would be set if John ever surrendered. As a result, only one man was actually hanged, a young bowman who had previously been in John's service. The remainder of the rebel barons were taken away and imprisoned at various royal-held castles. Of the siege – against only 100 rebels, and costing over a thousand pounds a day, 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’.

Following the castle's fall, it damaged so as to be undefendable, which was to serve as an example to others who would stand against King John. Unfortunately this led to the castle falling with little or no resistance to Prince Louis of France during his invasion of 1216.

King John died on 19 October 1216, 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-east tower of the keep, which was rebuilt according to the latest defensive design and is three-quarters round to better deflect missile attack and work against attempts at undermining. From inside the castle the line of the new tower and old walls is clearly visible, and probably most remarkable where the ornate arch in the castellans chamber, most likely the apse of a private chapel, meets a much more cheaper, perfunctory arch in the new section.

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.

Late in the Hundred Years War, Richard II invested heavily in the defences of Rochester in response to French invasion threats. He built a new bridge at Rochester, which included a removable central span, and created a new bastion at the North East Corner of the castle, guarding the river crossing.
It was briefly taken by Wyatt's men during his futile uprising of 1554. Although 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.

It was given into private hands by Queen Elizabeth the first, and repurchased by the corporation of Rochester during the late 19th century. In the intervening years, a fire had gutted the interior of the castle, and a large amount of the internal stone had been removed. Even after the castle came back into public hands, much of the North East Bastion was destroyed by Royal Engineers creating a new path from the bridge.


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