Castle of the Week 27 – Rochester Castle

There has been a fortification at the important defensive site of Rochester since pre-Roman times. Under Emperor Claudius, the invading legions won a major battle here in 43 AD, by means of a courageous river crossing and encircling the encamped local tribes. During the Roman occupation, Rochester became a thriving town. The Romans strengthened the existing fortifications to command the major import/export route along the London-Dover Road and constructed a bridge slightly down river from the site of the present crossing.

Rochester Castle was one of the first English castles to be rebuilt in stone, carried out by William the Conqueror’s architect Gundolf, Bishop of Rochester, during the late 11th century. Renowned as a very able builder of stone structures, Gundolf was responsible for the old Rochester Cathedral, as well as the Tower of London.

In 1127, responsibility for the castle was given to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William de Corbell. During this time, the huge, square keep was built from Kentish ragstone. He also added the four squared towers. Access to the keep was, traditionally, through a first floor forebuilding, an additional defence measure to protect the main part of the keep.

Still standing and in good condition the keep, some 35m high, is the tallest in England, and is 22m square. The walls of the Castle are between 3.5m and 4m thick. It consists of a basement and three floors, the second floor rising through two storeys. A circular staircase leads up to the battlements.

The basement, a dark room used for storing goods, is lit only through small ventilation holes. On the first floor, fireplaces and garderobes indicate that this was an important area for conducting the business of the castle. A much grander and more open aspect is apparent on the second floor of the keep, where the Great Hall was situated, with the Great Chamber beyond – formerly believed to have been the state apartment of the archbishop. On the third floor is another fine room which gives wonderful views across the river.

The site was jealously guarded by the see of Canterbury until the end of the 12th century.

In October 1215 Archbishop Langton failed to follow King John’s order to hand over the castle to the Bishop of Winchester, a close supporter of the King. The result was one of the best-recorded sieges of the Middle Ages. Within days King John attacked, first breaking the bridge to prevent any relief reaching the rebels from London. King John, who set up camp on Boley Hill nearby, personally supervised the siege of the castle, summoning every siege engine at his disposal.

He kept up a furious assault on the castle, a barrage which was almost continuous 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.

King John was forced to resort to undermining the walls using pig fat from 40 pigs as fuel. Although a whole section of the wall collapsed the inhabitants retreated behind a great cross-wall and again refused to surrender. Eventually, on 30 November, the garrison capitulated. The attackers were astonished to discover that only 100 or so knights had kept them at bay for all that time.

Shortly afterwards, the castle was given the status of a major royal stronghold, and the shattered corner of the keep was reconstructed in a cylindrical style, and further protected by the addition of a drum tower

Further destruction was suffered in a siege in 1264, but repairs were not carried out until Edward III undertook a major rebuilding and restoration programme and by 1400 the castle was, once again, a viable fortress.

Write-up & pictures provided by Granite Q.