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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

King John at Rochester Castle

The tyrannical rule of King John, set in motion a civil war with his barons, forcing him to flee London and retreat to the South East, where he raised an army and, planned to retake the capital, but first he had to capture Rochester Castle, which had fallen into rebel control.

Despite the signing of Magna Carta, many barons were still unhappy at King John remaining on the throne, and in an attempt to remove him civil war broke out in 1215. King John was forced to leave London, and retreated to Dover, where he gathered an army.

In an attempt to prevent the King from reaching London, the rebels persuaded Stephen Langton to give them Rochester Castle, from where they could control the bridge. Rochester castle had been rebuilt in 1089 for William Rufus, replacing the mote and bailey type, erected around the date of the Norman invasion, and was one of the first in the country to be constructed in stone. The rebels had very little time to prepare, and found the castle depleted of supplies.

Upon arrival at Rochester, King John's army found the bridge defended, and in the ensuing battle, the king's army was beaten back. Eleven days later a second attempt was made, which took the rebels by surprise and the bridge was taken. When rebel re-enforcements arrived from Gravesend, and saw the king's men controlling the bridge, they fled.

Two days later King John arrived at Rochester and took control. He positioned five siege engines to catapult rocks at the castle walls. He also ordered archers to shoot at anything in the castle that moved. Within a few days of constant bombardment by the catapults, King John realised that progress was not being made, and so he set miners to work beneath the castle walls.

Tunnels were dug until reaching beneath the castle walls, where caverns were excavated and shored up with wooden beams. The tunnels were then filled with Brush and scrub which was lit. As the fire burned through the supports, so the walls above gave way. The Kings men stormed the castle through the gap created by the collapsed wall, forcing the rebels to retreat into the 125 feet high keep, with its 12 feet thick walls.

Again, miners were used, this time being instructed to concentrate on the southeast tower of the keep. To those inside they could hear the picks knocking day and night, without being able to do anything to prevent the inevitable. When the shafts were complete, King John ordered the slaughter of 40 pigs, whose fat was spread over the beams to ensure a hot fire. The result was the collapse of the southeast tower.

The rebels were no to be beaten so easily. Due to the size of the keep, it had been built in two halves, and the resourceful rebels sealed themselves in the other half. The rebels by this time were short of food and sent out the men that were unable to fight. These were welcomed by the King, although many had their hands or feet cut off. The remaining rebels slaughtered the horses for food, but eventually on 30 November, some eight weeks after the siege began, they surrendered. The King wanted to hang them all, but was persuaded against it, and they were imprisoned, except a bowman who, having switched sides, was hung.

Within six months, Rochester Castle had again been taken, this time by Prince Louis of France.

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