Sunday, September 29, 2013

Rochester Castle: The Rise and Fall of a Fortress

by Lauren Gilbert

Steel engraving, hand tinted c 1860
On a visit to Faversham (see a previous post HERE, I took the opportunity to wander around the charming town and went into a small antique shop.  I found a small print of Rochester Castle, and could not resist.  Although I did not have the opportunity to visit Rochester Castle, my little picture piqued an interest in this fascinating structure. The ruins that stand today are the remains of a mighty fortress with an incredible history, including three sieges.

Rochester Castle Keep with Cathedral

There appears to have been a defensive structure on this site since the first century.  On the River Medway, this is a strategic defensive location.  The Romans under Aulus Plautius built a fort here to guard a bridge and river crossing.  The Venerable Bede wrote of “the fortress of the Kentish men”. After besieging the city of Rochester in 884, the Danes built a fortress outside it.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the first Norman castle was quickly built on a hill near the site where the current fortress remains stand. Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, held the site and probably rebuilt existing fortifications with a wooden motte and bailey design to discourage any Saxon resistance and to guard the river crossing.  In 1087, after William the Conqueror’s death, there was conflict over who would control Normandy--Robert, Duke of Normandy or William Rufus, King of England?  Odo and many of the barons supported Robert, and Rochester Castle became a headquarters for Robert’s supporters.   After a siege, the castle fell to William II (William Rufus) in 1088 and Odo was banished.

Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester, was also a builder.  He had been involved in the work on William the Conqueror’s keep, the White Tower, in London.  Gundulf built a stone castle near the Norman cathedral in Rochester in about 1090.  He used existing Roman walls, repairing damage and making them higher.  These walls and new walls specially constructed enclosed a large bailey with a ditch outside.

In approximately 1126, Henry I granted the Archbishop of Canterbury custody of Rochester Castle and the office of Constable.  Sometime after that, William de Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury was given custody and rebuilt the castle.  The keep was built 125 feet high, with a square ground plan and four corner towers.  The keep is the tallest in England.  The walls of the keep measured 12 feet thick, and a drawbridge separated the keep from the fore building (a square tower) for additional protection.  Between 1130-1139, fireplaces were added.  The Great Hall and a chapel were on the second floor, with the State Apartments on the fourth floor.

In 1141, Canterbury supported Empress Matilda for the throne of England.  The castle was taken.  Robert, Earl of Gloucester (Henry I’s natural son) was held there by William de Ipre, Earl of Kent. After the smoke cleared and Henry II was on the throne, sometime between 1154-1189, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket asked that the rights of the castle be returned to the Church.  Henry II, of course, refused, being more interested in curbing the power of the Church.  Henry II and subsequently Richard I both strengthened the castle.

Rochester Castle did not return to church control until 1201, when King John turned the rights over to Archbishop of Canterbury Hubert. King John made some improvements to Rochester Castle in 1206.  Then, in 1215, came the First Barons War. Certain barons, supported by Steven Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, rebelled against John for increasing taxes and his failure to implement changes required by the Magna Carta. Under the terms of the Magna Carta, Rochester Castle was turned over to the control of Steven Langton in May of 1215.  Langton and John got into an argument, and Langton escaped the country.  

Subsequently, rebels supported by French knights took control of the castle.  Langton disapproved of the violence espoused by the rebels.  John besieged Rochester Castle (the second siege). It took seven weeks for the rebels to surrender, which happened only when they ran out of food, despite significant damage to the curtain wall and the south tower, and the King’s army taking the bailey.  After some rebuilding, John took back control of the castle and put William de Albini in charge.  In 1216, King Louis VIII of France invaded England.  John fled and subsequently died in October. After the Battle of Lincoln in 1217, the Treaty of Kingston-Upon-Thames was signed September 12, 1217.  The English people and the barons did not want French rule, and John’s son Henry was made King Henry III at the age of nine.

During Henry III’s reign, Rochester Castle was rebuilt, with additions including a chapel and gateway.   Control of the castle changed several times as appointees fell out of favour.  In 1264, Henry had the fortifications increased, and the castle was fully stocked with men and provisions. The barons were afraid that Henry III was following King John’s path, because of Henry’s increase of taxes and the barons’ dissatisfaction with Henry’s methods of government.  Simon de Montfort, who was married to Henry’s sister Eleanor, wanted to reassert the provisions of the Magna Carta, and became the leader of the rebels.  The situation deteriorated, with Henry and his son Edward captured and Henry forced to agree to the Provisions of Oxford which established rule by a council of twenty-four barons.  This led to civil war (the Second Barons War) and, in April of 1264, the third siege of Rochester Castle occurred.

Simon de Montfort’s rebels entered the city of Rochester and attacked the castle, which the constable held for King Henry III.  The castle’s defenders held out against the rebels, ultimately retiring to the keep.  Although the castle was badly damaged, the defenders held out and the siege was ultimately lifted when Henry and his army came to relieve the defenders.  This siege lasted approximately nine days. Simon de Montfort’s government became unpopular, and his allies began to defect.  The war ended with the Battle of Evesham in August of 1264, where Simon de Montfort was slain and his body mutilated. 

Under Edward III, between 1367-1383, Rochester Castle was repaired and refortified to defend against possible raids from France.  The last significant military action there occurred in 1381 during the Peasants’ Revolt when it was sacked.  After that, the castle was not used.  Materials were stripped and used elsewhere, and in 1613, James I granted the castle to Sir Anthony Weldon.  At one time, it was owned by Robert Child, Esq. (the grandfather of Sarah, Lady Jersey, patroness of Almack’s).  In 1870, it was owned by Lord Jersey, who leased the grounds to the City of Rochester, which were used as public gardens.  Today, the ruins are an English Heritage property, and repairs to preserve them are in process.

Sources include:

Phillips, Charles. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Royal Britain.  New York: Metro Books, 2010, 2011.

Restore Rochester Castle website. Chronology.

Lauren Gilbert is the author of Heyerwood: A Novel.  She is a contributor to Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, which was just released!  Castles, Customs, and Kings can be purchased at and other retailers.  She lives in Florida with her husband. Please visit Lauren's website.

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