A short while ago I visited Kent with my partner Tony Wait and one of the places we visited was Rochester Castle. Although not particularly active during the 14th century, I still thought it worthwhile a post because it is such an interesting place.
There is no doubt about it: even in its ruined state Rochester Castle is still an imposing building, a Norman statement of power built during a time when war and strife were an everyday way of life. The first castle, a wooden motte and bailey, was built very soon after the Conquest, a symbol of William’s royal authority. However in 1088, after his death, his brother Odo, the bishop of Bayeux, rebelled against his son and heir William II, and took the castle and city. William II, in due course, besieged it and, after a few weeks, regained control. He then commissioned Gundulf, bishop of Rochester to strengthen the fortifications with a crenelated stone wall.
Henry I also saw the castle as an important strategic defense and in 1127 gave its custody over to William de Corbeil, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was he who had the great keep built – the huge tower that still stands guard over Rochester today. Throughout the troubles of the next century, Rochester maintained its status as a royal castle, although this nearly ended in 1215.
During 1215 the barons rebelling against the rule of King John, took the castle with aid of the castle’s constable and held it against the king for almost two months. On hearing of the outrage, John immediately headed for the city and took it easily, pulling down Rochester Bridge so that no more rebel reinforcements could arrive from London. John first used his five siege engines to batter the walls, but against Rochester’s stout defenses they were rather effective. Next, the king took to undermine the walls and was finally successful in breaching the outer defences. However, the rebels had now holed up in the keep.
Once again, John decided that undermining one side of the tower was the answer. He had a tunnel dug beneath it, the roof supported by several wooden props. These were then set alight, fuelled by the fat of “40 pigs too fat to eat” sent to him by Hubert de Burgh. Predictably, once the tunnel collapsed, so did one wall of the keep, but even that did not end the siege. The rebels merely retreated behind another wall within the keep and kept fighting from there. However, the conditions of the besieged were deteriorating by the day and soon they were reduced to eating horseflesh. Inevitably, it was the lack of food, and not direct military action, that forced them to surrender. Thanks to the persuasive advice of one of John’s captains, most of the rebels were spared execution and were imprisoned at various other royal castles instead.
Henry III’s reign saw the castle repaired and strengthened, but this did not prevent it coming under siege again in 1264. In another rebellion by the barons against a king, Gilbert de Clare, earl of Hertford and Simon de Monfort, earl of Leicester, attacked the city and cathedral and soon had control of the outer bailey of the castle as well. As in 1215, the defenders retreated to the keep. They were only saved from another undermining by Royalist reinforcements from London under the command the king himself, and his son Edward I.
For the next 100 years the castle was left to fall into great disrepair: certainly, Edward II didn’t pay much attention to it, apart from keeping a few Scottish prisoners there. Stone was robbed from its buildings and a “great wind” in 1362 caused damage to the structure of the keep. Finally Edward III released funds to restore what had been damaged and to build two new defensive towers. However, it’s status as a royal residence had now ended and the repairs reflected its new main purpose as a barracks and centre of administration.
Rochester castle saw one last attack during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 when the keep was stormed, looted and a prisoner released. In fact, this was the last it saw of any fighting as it did not play a role during the English Civil War and consequently was spared slighting. Another reason was that it was probably not in very good repair at that time anyway and was therefore pretty useless as a fortification. From then on the castle remained in private hands and quietly crumbled until, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, a few people made efforts at preserving it. Even A.W.N. Pugin of the Houses of Parliament fame surveyed the castle and tried to understand how it was built.
In 1965 the Ministry of Public Building and Works took over the responsibility for the care of the building. According to a survey done at that time, around £30000 (over a million in today’s money) was required for urgent repairs to stop further decay. In 1984, English Heritage became the castle’s guardians, although the City of Rochester holds the responsibility of its day to day care. However, even with the protection it now has, the stonework of Rochester keep is still crumbling, necessitating netting to protect visitors (and keep pigeons off), as well as closing off parts that are now too dangerous. It is still open to the public though, and well worth a visit.
As we visited it together, Tony Wait also has a post including Rochester Castle and the part it played in the homecoming of Richard I after his release from imprisonment in Austria. You can read it here.
This is only a brief history. For those wanting to find out more, especially about the siege in King John’s time, below are a couple of book suggestions…
There is also a film about the siege: Ironclad. I’ve heard it’s a good film but, as usual for these sort of films, lacks in historical accuracy.