There has been a fortification at the important defensive site of Rochester since pre-Roman times. Under Emperor Claudius, the invading legions fought a major battle here in 43 AD, overcoming fierce resistance by staging an audacious river crossing and encircling the encamped local tribes. Despite this opposition, local governor Aulus Plautius described the people of Kent as the most civilised in Britain. This could perhaps have been a result of their proximity to Europe and important trade routes, and the subsequent mingling of culture and language.
In fact, the name 'Rochester' was derived by the Romans from 'Hroffe's Castre', which in turn was derived from the fortified house of a warrior chieftain, Hroffe, who once lived in the area. During the Roman occupation, Rochester became a thriving town, second only to Canterbury in terms of civic importance in Kent (Cantium). The Romans strengthened the existing fortifications to command the London-Dover Road and constructed a bridge slightly down river from the site of the present crossing.
With the departure of the Romans, the area fell into neglect. Their fortifications disappeared and the fine bridge was destroyed in a Danish raid in 872 AD. However, with the arrival of the Normans, the area underwent a rejuvenation, and the story of Rochester Castle began in earnest.
The Normans recognised the strategic value of Rochester and built a wooden motte and bailey structure in 1087. This work was supervised by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester at the request of King William Rufus, who by this time had succeeded his father, William the Conqueror, as King of England. Gundulf was a skilled military architect as well as a prominent churchman, and responsible for much of the work on the Tower of London and the Round Tower of Windsor Castle. It was fortunate that such a capable engineer undertook the establishment of the castle, as there was hardly time to complete the work before it saw action.
The Bishop of Bayeaux, Rebellion and an Unlikely Alliance.
The Bishop of Bayeaux, Odo, had been granted the Earldom of Kent by William the Conqueror for his support during the Norman invasion of England. During the battle of Hastings, he had swiped at the Saxons with a mace to avoid causing any actual bloodshed, which would have been contrary to his godly standing. Nonetheless he was an unpleasant, arrogant and troublesome character. His ruthless ambition to ascend the Papal ladder and generally act as a political agitant irritated the Conqueror so much that he exiled him to Rouen. Subsequently pardoned by the dying King, Odo returned to England, seeking to instigate a revolt against William Rufus. Not content with making himself unpopular among the ruling Norman classes, Odo also angered his Saxon subjects with his harsh, swaggering style of governance. In keeping with the turbulent nature of early Medieval politics, Odo soon found himself leading a rebellion against Rufus, while simultaneously being rebelled against by the people of Kent, among whom he was greatly reviled. He chose the newly finished Rochester Castle as his centre of operations.
Odo's rebellion against the King appeared to have been snuffed out after a brief action at nearby Tonbridge. However, as he rode under escort to Rochester Castle to instruct his supporters to surrender, the garrison sallied out, snatched him and rode back into the Castle to renew the struggle. It is probable that the defenders had contact with Odo's allies in Normandy, and were hoping to garner support for a full-scale military coup.
However, if this was the case, they had underestimated the depth of ill feeling for the Bishop. The King's call to arms resulted in 30,000 volunteers, the majority of whom were the Kentish peasants already in open revolt against the nefarious clergyman. The result was a unique example of Norman overlord and Saxon subject uniting in a common cause, with the birthing pains of Anglo Norman England still painfully evident. Even so, this huge besieging army could not take the castle by force. Eventually, disease broke out among the packed defenders, probably as a result of corpses being catapulted into the castle in an early form of germ warfare. This broke the will of the garrison, who surrendered. The annoying Odo was again exiled and forbidden to return to England. It was only his status within the church that saved him from execution.
King John and Mayhem on the Medway.
Almost immediately after the siege of 1088, Gundulf was required to render the castle defences in stone. Further extensive work took place in 1127. Henry I then commissioned the Archbishop of Canterbury, William de Corbeil - another churchman/architect - to build the massive stone keep which now dominates the site. So impressed was King Henry by the gaunt, muscular structure that he granted de Corbeil and his successors perpetual custody of the castle.
The building is very similar to the Tower of London. It is 112 feet from the base to the top of the towers, with walls twelve feet thick at ground level tapering to six at the battlements. It has an internal water supply and storage space for food, and also a strong cross wall which divides the building and strengthens the structure yet further. Surrounded by extensive outworks, bristling with towers and defensive fortifications, and with the Medway lapping directly against the walls of the outer bailey (the current esplanade is modern), it was a formidable fortress indeed. It was against this intimidating backdrop that the most violent and dramatic episode in the castle's history unfolded.
The signing of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215 had not been enough to prevent the country falling into interminable bickering between noblemen and monarchy. Again, the action of a churchman proved instrumental in the events leading to Rochester's involvement. This time, the Archbishop of Rochester, Stephen Langton, allowed the King's enemies to seize the castle for a group of rebel barons. Livid, King John branded him a 'notorious and barefaced traitor' and descended upon the town in October 1215, determined to bring his unruly noblemen to heel. Troops under the command of William D'Albini and Reginald de Cornhill held the castle, while Robert Fitzwalter rode out to oppose the King as he attempted to burn down Rochester Bridge. In a grim struggle, fully armoured knights fought among flames and suffocating heat, while fire ships drifted along the Medway beneath them. Fitzwalter's men were eventually beaten back, and the fighting centred upon the Castle itself.
Stabling his horses among the pews in the adjacent Rochester Cathedral as a slight to Langton, King John summoned every siege engine at his disposal and kept up a furious assault on the castle, a barrage which was almost without cease for the next seven weeks. Again and again, the King's soldiers attacked, finally managing to breach the outer defences in early November.
However, the defenders rallied, and drove them back out. Yet more savage fighting led by King John in person saw the outer walls back in Royal hands, but the keep remained impregnable. The King attempted to negotiate a settlement, but failed. Although food was running out, the defenders were confident that they could hold out longer than the King's finances, and refused to surrender.
It is not only in modern times that the financial aspect of warfare has been a consideration. John's siege was costing over £1,000 a day, an astronomical sum in the 13th Century. After six weeks, it was clear that drastic measures were needed to conclude the affair. To this end, a team of sappers was put to work building a mine beneath the south-eastern tower. With the tunnelling complete and the weight of the keep teetering on pit props, chivalric tradition dictated that the garrison be warned of its predicament, and offered terms. However, such was John's anger that he ordered that 'the fat of 40 swine' be procured from the local populace to act as fuel, and immediately had the mine fired.
In one terrifying moment, the entire tower collapsed, taking a quarter of the keep with it. As the attackers swarmed over the rubble, the garrison withdrew behind the cross wall and continued to hold out for another fortnight, in an astonishing display of defiance. The struggle was not dissimilar to the brutal house-to-house skirmishes of the Second World War, with soldiers fighting, living and sleeping within yards of each other, separated only by rubble. Those defenders who could no longer fight due to injury, disease or lack of food were sent out of the castle where, badly miscalculating the mood of the incensed King, they had their hands and feet cut off.
Eventually, on 30 November, the garrison capitulated. The attackers were astonished to discover that only only 100 or so knights had kept them at bay. In a bizarre mixture of furious rage and massive relief, the King decreed that a monument to the unfortunate 40 swine be built, acknowledging their part in the proceedings, and then ordered the surviving defenders be hanged from the battlements. One of his subordinates, who feared that the latter action might provoke reprisals, dissuaded him. The monument to the swine can still be seen in the castle grounds. It was a rather sporting end to the affair.
After the fall of Rochester, the remaining rebels lost faith in their castles, and offered them up to the Crown with little resistance.
The Baron's War, Simon de Montfort, and the Ghost of Lady Blanche.
The keep lay breached and in ruins for 11 years, until in 1226 the collapsed tower was replaced at the behest of Henry III. Military technology had advanced since the keep's original construction and the tower was rebuilt as a circular structure rather than the squared towers that dominate the other corner of the keep. This was because a circular wall deflects missiles far more efficiently than a flat one, and there are no corners for besieging sappers to pick at and weaken.
At Easter 1264, the castle again found itself the focus of rebellion when the armies of Simon de Montfort (the legendary Black Prince) and Gilbert de Clare laid siege to the castle against Henry III. They quickly overran the outer defences but were unable to fight their way into the keep. Despite starting a mine of their own, the rebels were obliged to withdraw before they could use it when they learned that Henry was approaching with a large army.
There was, however, a tragic twist. During this siege, the castle was held for the King by a crusader named Ralph de Capo, who was the subject of a personal grudge by the besieging de Clare, who was a rejected suitor of de Capo's wife-to-be, the beautiful Lady Blanche. During a lull in the fighting to mark Easter Sunday, de Clare managed to sneak into the castle as a sallying party rode out. His remarkable intrusion was due in no small way to the fact that his armour was very similar to de Capo's, and he therefore aroused no suspicion as he crept around the fortress, searching for the Lady.
He eventually cornered her at the top of the keep, by the round tower. As Lady Blanche struggled to push him away, De Capo himself spotted her plight. De Capo, who was an excellent bowman, fired a single arrow at de Clare. His aim was indeed true - the arrow struck its mark, but glanced off de Clare's armour and plunged straight though the heart of the unfortunate Lady Blanche, killing her instantly. It is said that her ghost wanders the battlements every Easter, endlessly replaying the scene.
Repair, the Peasant's Revolt and Samuel Pepys' Housemaids.
The damage caused to the castle by de Montfort and de Clare went un-repaired for over a century, although Rochester was still considered important enough to hold Queen Isobel of Scotland, the wife of Robert the Bruce, for several months in 1314. Edward III decided to make good and further strengthen the site in 1367. He added two mural towers to the outer defensive wall and rebuilt entire sections of the bailey.
It last saw action in the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, when thousands marched on the castle, having been roused by John Ball, the 'Mad Priest of Kent'. Their mere presence was enough to secure the release of Robert Belling, a prominent rebel who was being held captive. Satisfied, the peasant army then marched on London, where after some considerable looting and the overrunning of the Tower, the rebellion was quelled and Ball suffered the grisly fate of hanging, drawing and quartering. The London Borough known as Kentish Town gained its name at this time, as it was the part of the capital that the Kent rebels used as a base for operations during the turmoil.
The castle was by now rapidly becoming militarily redundant, and was fortunate to escape the ravages of cannon in the English Civil War two centuries later, a fate that all but destroyed the magnificent fortress at Corfe. At some unspecified time during the late Middle Ages, the keep was burnt out, and large parts of the outer fortifications were demolished, the stones used for building purposes, especially at nearby Chatham Dockyard. Happily, a plan to demolish the entire building was abandoned as too expensive and difficult. Samuel Pepys visited the castle in the 17th Century, and an entry in his diary records saucy goings on with two housemaids in a stairwell. He wrote of the castle:
Lo! But what a thing it is to look down from the battlements! The view did fright me greatly!
In 1870, custody of the castle passed from private hands to the City Corporation. It was during this time that the esplanade to the west of the bailey was constructed, and also that the old Rochester Bridge, which still incorporated much of the brickwork so gallantly defended by Robert Fitzwalter, was finally demolished in favour of the current structure. The bastion at the North end of the bailey was converted into a visitor entrance, the bailey was replanted as a pleasure garden, and the castle settled into a dignified retirement.
The Castle Today
For a building that has been so badly knocked about, it is rather surprising that so much remains. The massive keep still dominates the Medway, with the air of a scarred prize fighter, as it has done for over 900 years. Standing on the South East corner and looking at the seam between the newer circular tower and the older surrounding brickwork, it is rather sobering to reflect on just how much damage King John's mine caused. Inside the keep the damage is even more evident, with handsome Norman arches abruptly cut in half and rebuilt with somewhat less eye for decoration. It is also easy to imagine the bitterness of the struggle around the cross wall, and having seen just how cramped the space is, difficult not to pity the defenders who either fell with the tower or continued the fight among the rubble.
The top of the castle is a considerable climb up uneven spiral staircases, but the superb view of Rochester Cathedral and the surrounding area is well worth the effort. The centre of Rochester is something of a tourist trap, albeit a pleasant one. Charles Dickens loved the town, spending large parts of his life here, and his work is full of local references. So enchanted was Dickens with this corner of Kent that he requested to be buried within the castle grounds, but the authorities intervened and he was instead laid to rest at Westminster Abbey. Even the streets themselves have a claim to fame, providing the original words to the tune now known as 'Waltzing Matilda':
Soldier for Marlborough, soldier for Marlborough Who'll be a soldier for Marlborough with me? He sang as he walked upon the cobbled streets of Rochester. Who'll be a soldier for Marlborough with me?
Visiting the Castle
Visit the castle in the summer and relax in the grounds with a rapidly melting ice cream, imagining the finery and fanfares of medieval high society. Picture the state visit of Sigismund, Emperor of Germany in 1416, accompanied by 1,000 mounted knights, and the magnificent sight they must have presented as they rode through the castle grounds in full plate armour. More poignantly, visit in late autumn after the tourist crowds have gone, with the gaunt fortress foreboding and light rain swirling about the battlements, and consider Odo's dilemma, as he found himself unwillingly obliged to pursue his own rebellion. Or imagine the ominous smell of burning pork fat from beneath the South Eastern tower, and the ground shaking as King John's men finally breached the fortress during the marathon siege of 1215. With all its history, the castle is an inspiring place to visit.