" Our age has not known a siege so hard pressed nor so strongly resisted "
The Barnwell Chronicler
The ancient city of Rochester has a distinguished history which can arguably rival any other in modern Britain. The famous Roman road, Watling Street, crosses the River Medway here on its way from London to Dover via Canterbury, and since that time, Rochester has always been regarded as an important strategic stronghold. However, it's the medieval castle and cathedral which attract the attention of the modern visitor, both built within the old Roman city walls, they have resisted siege and destruction for over 900 years.
The first castle was raised here at the time of the Norman Conquest and is mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086. This early fortification was rebuilt for King William Rufus between 1087-89 by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, and was one of the earliest castles in this country to be fortified in stone. Much of the documentation on Rochester survives, along with the many dramatic details of its military history - which saw the castle suffer three major sieges within two centuries of its foundation.
Early records suggest that after the conquest, both the City and Castle of Rochester were awarded to the half-brother of King William, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. The first Norman fortification built here would have been a standard motte and bailey design of timber and earth, and would have almost certainly been erected very soon after the conquest in 1066. Before his disgrace and imprisonment in 1082, Odo was a dominant figure in Norman England and was awarded the earldom of Kent by William after the conquest. He is also said to have been responsible for the making of the Bayeux Tapestry, yet it was Odo who was the principal cause of the first great siege of Rochester Castle in 1088, shortly after his own release from confinement.
Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, rallies the younger horsemen at the Battle of Hastings in 1066
After King William the Bastard died in 1087, a large section of the Norman Nobles in England were unhappy at the division of Normandy which resulted from the Conqueror's disposal of his dominions at his death. These Nobles ( the Conqueror's two half-brothers Odo and Robert, Count of Mortain, Geoffrey de Mowbray, Bishop of Coutances, his nephew Robert de Mowbray, earl of Northumberland, Roger de Montgomery, earl of Shrewsbury, Gilbert fitz Richard of Clare and many others) supported the claims of William's elder son Robert, then Duke of Normandy, against William Rufus, the younger son who had succeeded to the Kingdom of England.
Rochester Castle was fortified against the King and soon became a stronghold and headquarters for the rebels. The city was well placed for raids on London and it also enabled them to devastate the lands of Kent, particularly those belonging to Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had crowned Rufus and was therefore Odo's and the rebels' enemy. We are extremely fortunate in that the Chronicles of William of Malmesbury, Florence of Worcester and others survive, telling us much about this siege and of those who took part.
Rufus left London for Rochester by the way of Tonbridge, where he captured the castle and wounded its Lord, Gilbert fitz Richard, one of the rebelling nobles. Rufus then heard that Odo himself had left Rochester for Pevensey, the castle of Robert of Mortain, and Rufus quickly diverted his forces. He soon captured Pevensey with both his Uncles, Odo and Mortain inside. Bishop Odo was then compelled to swear that he would yield Rochester to the King, and Rufus, trustingly, sent him ahead with a small royal force to call upon the garrison to surrender.
© Norman Knight c.1080 - by kind permission of Toby Boyd
Feeling rather confident with Odo in their party, the Royalist troops approached Rochester and called on the townsfolk to open the city gates, ' for so the Bishop in person and the absent king command it' The garrison, who were observing from the castle walls noted, 'that the countenance of the Bishop ill agreed with the words of the speakers' and they quickly made a mounted sortie, capturing the entire party with little effort and carrying Bishop Odo into the town in triumph.
Rufus was of course furious and he immediately made straight for Rochester to put the castle under siege. En route he is said to have recruited large numbers of English to accompany him. The Chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, tells us that in May 1088 Rufus set up two siege castles to block any exit from the beleaguered fortress and kept the rebels under constant attack. William of Malmesbury tells us that the garrison, under their leaders, Bishop Odo, Eustace the Younger of Boulogne and Robert of Belleme, son of Roger of Montgomery, earl of Shrewsbury, were constantly plagued by heat, flies and disease, and after a short period of great hardship, were compelled to seek terms of surrender, which Rufus reluctantly agreed upon.
The rebels were allowed to march out with horses and arms, but were stripped of their lands and titles in England. Odo, his possessions in England lost for a second time, returned and settled back in Normandy. He later accompanied Duke Robert of Normandy on the First Crusade, but died on route to the Holy Land in Palermo.
The magnificent keep at Rochester from the NW Bastion
The part the castle at Rochester played during this siege is not certain, as the whole of the city was held by Odo and the rebels. There has been much confusion over the years as to where this original motte and bailey castle actually stood. In 1912, ES Armitage wrote in his book, "Early Norman Castles of the British Isles" that the original motte and bailey stood just outside the city walls, south of the present castle on a site known as Boley Hill. However, excavations and re-examination of all the evidence has shown that the first castle actually stood on the site of the present one which was built by Gundulf. It is now believed that the evidence Armitage found on Boley Hill must be either related to one of the siege castles Rufus built in 1088 or one of the siege engines King John built during his siege of Rochester in 1215. [see Colin Flight and AC Harrison, 'Rochester Castle, 1976' Archaeologia Cantiana, xciv, 1978]
The latest theory is that Rochester Castle from the beginning of its Norman settlement, was an enclosure of a ditch and bank within an angle of a pre-existing and former Roman fortified town. Much the same as Pevensey, Porchester or London
After the siege, the castle again passed back into the hands of Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, who had been appointed to the See in 1077. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, who had overall responsibility for Rochester after Odo's initial fall from grace in 1082, was keen that the castle was rebuilt, although he wasn't particularly happy about footing the bill. A solution was eventually found in which the castle would be rebuilt to the King's satisfaction, and the cost (estimated at £40) would be incurred by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester. ( The church and manor was valued at £40 in Domesday). Once it had been built, it would then be handed over to the custody of an earl or sheriff and they would be responsible for its upkeep. Gundulf seemed happy with this and took on the responsibility of building the castle in stone, at his own expense. His castle at Rochester, like Richmond castle in Yorkshire, was one of the earliest stone castles built in England and the eventual cost of building came to about £60, slightly more than originally thought, but still good value considering what the land was worth to them each year.
Bishop Gundulf of Rochester
Bishop Gundulf is an interesting character who made a pilgrimage to the Holy land early in his life, visiting Rome en route. He had been a monk at the important and highly regarded Norman Abbey of Bec, where one later Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, was his direct contemporary, and another, Lanfranc was his Prior. He moved from Bec to Caen in 1063 with Lanfranc, and subsequently accompanied the archbishop-elect to Canterbury in 1070. By now he was already gaining a name for himself as an accomplished builder, and the lessons he learnt in Normandy were soon to be applied in England.
One of the ways in which Lanfranc is said to have won over his rebellious English monks at Canterbury was to build them a fine new cathedral. There is also evidence that Gundulf did exactly the same on his elevation to the See of Rochester. He immediately began work on the old Anglo-Saxon Episcopal seat, and at the same time he also worked on William's White Tower in London, where he played a major role in its construction. Among the Anglo-Norman clerics of his day, Bishop Gundulf was probably unique, he seems equally happy to turn his hand to military architecture, as to designing and building for the church. This is where he is said to have been a leader, and his work demonstrates the clear association of castle-and-church-building which would become especially important during the course of the twelfth century.
In all of his undertakings, Bishop Gundulf's most likely role was that of a knowledgeable clerical administrator - who knew where he could obtain good craftsmen and how the work should be done. Whatever his role, the results of his skills can still be witnessed today, in the fine Tower keep of London and the considerable stretches of wall which still enclose the site of Rochester, both now over 900 years old.
The castle from the south showing the curtain wall
In 1127 King Henry I, issued a charter which still survives. After taking counsel from his barons, he granted the constableship and custody of Rochester Castle to Archbishop William de Corbeil and his successors at Canterbury in perpetuity. The knights who had served Rochester as part of their duty were to continue as before, and Corbeil was further empowered to make
' a fortification or tower within the castle and keep and to hold it forever'
The grant is mentioned by the Chronicler John of Worcester and also by Gervase of Canterbury, who states that the same Archbishop (Corbeil) built a noble tower. There is no doubt that the 'Noble Tower' he mentioned is the present keep we see today, which gives us the date of its construction. Corbeil, like Lanfranc and Gundulf before him, was a prominent builder who not only has credits for Rochester, but was also responsible for building Hedingham Castle keep, (also featured on this site) around the same time for the de Vere earls of Oxford in Essex.
The keep, in the form of a great rectangular or circular tower, became the dominant feature of Norman castles. These fortifications were usually built to incorporate a separate suite of residential rooms, and although the inside of Rochester has suffered over the years, the fine example of Corbeil's Hedingham remains one of the best preserved examples in Europe. However, their primary use was as a military strong point and citadel, where a final effort at defence could be made.
Rochester Cathedral from the castle with the River Medway in the background
Once Archbishop Corbeil's castle had updated Gundulf's within the circuit of his original walls, at least one mural tower was added to the curtain wall. The architectural development of Rochester seems to have been complete and little else was done for the remainder of the twelfth century. The castle remained the responsibility of the Archbishop of Canterbury and when vacated it was maintained at the King's expense. According to the Pipe Rolls, King Henry II spent £100 on the tower and castle against the rebellion of his son. The Pipe Rolls also inform us of an expenditure of £115 by King John in 1206, on the tower, bridge, ditches and other buildings
The custody of the castle remained with the Archbishop of Canterbury throughout much of the twelfth century and evidence exists of both Thomas Becket and Hubert Walter, as incoming archbishops, successfully gaining control as was their right. Walter enjoyed the custody of Rochester under Richard I, but it took King John three years to confirm the custody of the castle to him in 1202, for which letters patent of John's exist.
King John was not happy about Rochester being under the control of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and this arrangement was to fall apart in 1215. The next Archbishop, Stephen Langton, was disliked by John and he blocked his appointment to the position by Innocent III for several years. John was at first excommunicated for his actions, but eventually gave in and Langton took up his post in 1213. Langton played a leading role in the baronial opposition to John, and it was at his suggestion that the demands included in Magna Carta were modelled on the charter of Henry I.
Inside Rochester Castle
The next phase of events at Rochester, leading up to the great siege of 1215, are rather confusing as some of the chronicles contradict each other. I have used part of R Allen Brown's version from his 'History of Rochester Castle to explain what happened and the most likely order of events.
On Langton's arrival in England, an agreement was made with John that the castle at Rochester should be in the hands of the royal constable, Reginald de Cornhill, Sheriff of Kent, until the Easter of 1215, later revised to 1216. Letters patent of the King, dated 25 May 1215, on the eve of Magna Carta, refer to this agreement and request that the castle should be transferred from de Cornhill's control to another royal custodian. They were also to swear, as de Cornhill had done, to hand the castle back to the archbishop when the term of the agreement was up, or sooner if peace with the barons be restored in the kingdom.
The Chronicler, Roger of Wendover, writes that Rochester was restored to Langton on 15 June 1215, after a peace treaty was arranged between John and the rebel barons. However, on the 9 August, letters from John refer to his original agreement requesting the transfer of the castle to Peter de Roches, Bishop of Winchester and one of his close supporters.
Another Chronicler, Ralph of Coggeshall, states that Langton refused to give up the castle at the King's request, but rebels, who feared that he would be forced to do so, seized Rochester with the consent of the constable, Reginald de Cornhill. It seems that de Cornhill, who was holding the castle for King John, was now holding it for the archbishop and his supporters.
The Barnwell Chronicler also states that Langton refused to give up the castle as he had promised, and Roger of Wendover mentions that the archbishop handed it over to the King's enemies. Whatever, Stephen Langton left the country in mid September and it is really impossible to understand exactly what part he played in it all. With all this confusing evidence, it is also not possible to discount King John's charge of treason, which he expressed in a later letter to Hubert de Burgh;"For he (Langton) is a notorious and barefaced traitor to us, since he did not render up our castle or Rochester to us in our great need"
The SE side of Gundulf's curtain wall
Wendover tells us that the rebels seized Rochester in order to block King John's approach to London and their commander was named as William de Albini of Belvoir. He goes on to say that they only had three days to gather supplies and stock the castle before John attacked. The numbers of rebels involved is also confusing, as the strength of the garrison numbers between 95-140, depending on which chronicle is read.
King John initially spent the month of September in Dover, organising forces from the continent, with the occasional visit to Canterbury. Once he heard that Rochester had been seized by the rebels, he wasted no time in moving onto the attack. He arrived at the castle on 15 October, although it is most likely that his troops were in action before this date. Their first assault was on the old medieval bridge across the River Medway, but this was beaten back by the defenders. However, on 11 October, John's forces entered the city by surprise and gained a foothold, so the garrison quickly retreated to the safety of the castle.
What happened next at Rochester was one of the greatest operations of it's time, with a grand siege lasting over two months before the castle was surrendered. The fighting was fierce and without letup, although some historians have questioned why John threw so much into it, but this was the character of the man. King John in the past has always been given bad press over his deeds as king and as a statesman, but at Rochester, not for the first time or even the last, he showed himself to be a very competent commander in the field, with siege warfare becoming something of a speciality.
He set up his command post on Boley Hill and had several huge stone throwing engines. There were five of them, according to several of the chronicles, which pounded the castle relentlessly by both day and night, although they are said to have made little impact on the sturdy castle walls. Mining tools were soon ordered by John, and recent excavations have uncovered what is likely to have been one of his trenches.
The baronial leaders in London then attempted to relieve Rochester on 26 October, but on hearing that John had sent 700 horses to intercept them, they turned back at Dartford, leaving the castle to their fate. On 25 November, an urgent writ commands Hubert de Burgh, the King's justiciar, to
' send us with all speed by day and night, forty of the fattest pigs
of the sort least good for eating, to bring fire beneath the tower'
In the days before gunpowder was available, the pigs fat would have been used to fire the mine props John had positioned under the tower, which themselves held up the undermined foundations. Once these had been burnt through, the theory was that the tower would collapse.
King John's mine was successful, and a whole section of the great tower came down, although even after this considerable achievement, the rebels retreated further into the keep and the siege continued. Conditions inside were getting bad and the garrison were reduced to a diet of horse flesh and water, ' which bore hardly on those who had been brought up in luxury' (Barnwell Chronicler) The first to be expelled by the garrison were those least capable of fighting and they are said to have had their hands and feet amputated by John's army, although soon after this the rebels also finally surrendered.
Initially, King John wanted to hang all the rebel nobles who had resisted him, which he was entitled to do according to the rules of war as the castle had been taken by storm. He was talked out of this by one of his captains, Savari de Mauleon, who persuaded him against doing so, on the grounds that it would lead to retaliation against royal garrisons by other rebels. John agreed, but Wendover tells us that he still hung one of the rebels, a crossbowman, who he had maintained since childhood.
The remainder, who included William de Albini and Reginald de Cornhill, were incarcerated in Corfe, which had a fearful reputation, and other castles also held by John. The siege over, he divided his army in two, sending one half to East Anglia and the other accompanied him to Nottingham where he spent Christmas.
Peace at Rochester did not last long, and the following year Prince Louis of France landed in England. Supported by the rebel barons who had offered him the crown, they seized the castle again and held it against John. There are no details available at all on this event, although in the following year, 1217, after John was dead and Louis had returned to France, peace was restored to Rochester and the rest of the kingdom. The castle then came back into the hands of the new young king, Henry III, then aged nine years.
For the next fifty years of the thirteenth century, Rochester enjoyed further improvements to the existing defences. The SE Tower was rebuilt and further sums of money were spent making the castle a more agreeable place to live in for the constable and visiting guests. The chapel was plastered and whitewashed and in 1254, external steps with a new entrance doorway were provided, to give access without having to enter the King's chamber. The peace at Rochester wasn't to last for long, and in 1264 another siege was hammering at the gates, giving the castle yet another test of strength and endurance.
During the civil war between King Henry III and a party of rebel barons led by Simon de Montfort, Rochester was held for the king by the Constable, Roger de Leybourne. He was joined by John, earl of Warenne, John FitzAlan, earl of Arundel and the King's nephew, Henry of Almain.
The siege began on 17 April 1264 after Gilbert de Clare, earl of Hereford and Gloucester, marched on Rochester from his castle at Tonbridge, attacking the city from the SW. On hearing of Gilbert's approach, the Royalist garrison fired the suburbs towards Canterbury, and for some strange reason also the King's hall in the castle. Meanwhile, earl Simon de Montfort approached from London to attack the city from the northern side via the medieval bridge across the River Medway.
At first, de Montfort's army was beaten back at the bridge, but at the third attempt on18 April, Good Friday, he got across 'by a certain most subtle device' which involved a barge loaded with coal, sulphur and pig fat and set on fire. It seems the barge was used to either set the bridge ablaze, or it was used to provide a smoke screen to cover his forces crossing. A simultaneous assault was launched by Gilbert de Clare from the southern side, and the two earls entered the city the same evening.
Much destruction and killing took place within the city and de Montfort's troops even chased fugitives into the cathedral church to continue their killing. Church valuables were stolen and monuments in the Prior's Chapel were destroyed or damaged. The next day, both de Montfort and de Clare's forces entered the inner bailey of the castle, with the garrison beating a hasty retreat to the keep. No fighting was to take place on Easter Sunday, out of respect for religion, but on the Monday, both earls renewed their attack in earnest.
Siege engines were once again used and the castle took a constant battering for over a week. Rochester was yet again proving a hard nut to crack for the invaders and there is also evidence that they started to mine the castle walls, just as King John had fifty years previously. However, the two earls soon abandoned the siege after hearing news that King Henry and his son Prince Edward, were advancing with a strong army against them.
Eastern mural tower, rebuilt by Edward III in 1367
Rochester had survived again, yet it paid a heavy price and the damage done by de Montfort was considerable.yet no repairs were done on the castle for almost a hundred years. In 1281, the constable John of Cobham was given licence to demolish the King's hall and chambers, but it wasn't until the mid fourteenth century, under Edward III, that a series of surveys was made.
A second survey was completed in 1363, which estimated the repairs to the castle at nearly £3500, a considerable sum. By now the castle and bailey were in a state of ruin, but Edward III, a great warrior and builder, agreed to pay for its restoration and between May 1367 and September 1370, £2262 was spent on a reconstruction programme. New towers were added to the curtain wall and after the Peasant's Revolt, Richard II spent a further £500 which included adding an additional bastion in the NW curtain wall by the Medway bridge crossing.
By the end of the fourteenth century, the castle and city of Rochester had reached its maximum military strength architecturally, and between 1383 and 1393 the bridge across the Medway was also completely rebuilt in stone. The medieval bridge stood about 50 metres to the south of the modern bridge and it can be clearly seen in the left hand corner of the engraving below of Rochester by Nathaniel Buck,1735. Gunpowder was needed to demolish it in 1857.
Rochester Castle & Cathedral from the NW - Nathaniel Buck 1735
The Clerk of the King's works made several visits to Rochester in the middle of the fifteenth century, although there is no evidence of further building works taking place for the remainder of the medieval period. By the sixteenth century it is reported to be falling into a state of decay. In the seventeenth century, James I granted Rochester to Sir Anthony Weldon and it remained within his family until the late nineteenth century. Demolition destroyed some parts of the curtain wall, although further work was abandoned because of the difficulty of the work and the expense.
In the 1870's, the Corporation of Rochester obtained a lease of the castle from the owner, Lord Jersey, and the grounds were then turned into a pleasure garden. They obtained the freehold in 1884 for the sum of £6572 and restoration work was done on the keep. In 1965 the Corporation placed the castle in the guardianship of the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, and since 1984 it has been under the care of English Heritage.
Rochester Castle additional information
Rochester Castle is managed by Rochester upon Medway City Council
Open all year round, Closed 24th-26th December
Hours 1st April - 30th Sept: 10am-6pm - 1st-31st October: 10am-5pm - 1st Nov - 31st March: 10am-4pm.
Entry to the castle inner bailey is free, admission prices to the castle are unavailable.
Local Tourist Information is available in Rochester.
Train - Rochester Station, includes services from London.
OS Map - No 178 ref TQ742686.
The castle at Rochester is another that is perfectly suitable for children, who can run around within Gundalf's walls until they are exhausted. The castle itself is disappointing to many people, as it is only now only a shell of its former magnificence, all the floors collapsed many years ago when it was left to decay. However, it is possible to navigate your way around each floor as you make your way up to the battlements and is a truely fine example of a Norman keep. On the second floor there is a display on the castle with a reconstruction, which is always useful, and the headset tour is also very informative, taking you back over 900 years to the time of the great sieges.
This amazing castle has witnessed untold horrors, and yet it still survives. Many medieval castles didn't witness combat or siege conditions as Rochester endured, yet they were wiped from the face of the landscape centuries ago. This just shows the enduring power and simplicity of Rochester, beaten down but still very much alive, and remains a haunting reminder of the Norman Conquest.
Of course a visit to the castle would not be complete without a visit to the magnificent cathedral. It was rebuilt by Gundulf with further additions over the centuries, and although not as grand as a Salisbury or Durham, it holds its own with equal charm, its history being closely linked to the castle.
The city of Rochester is a short stroll from the castle and cathedral and contains many coffee shops and cafes in its cobbled lanes. Although with the closure of the docks at Chatham, the area has suffered in the recent past. The River Medway provided the key to it's success in days gone by, and will most likely remain the future hope for the town again, although investment in the area has seen many improvements of late.
Charles Dickens spent most of his childhood in Rochester and made it his background for many scenes in Great Expectations and Pickwick Papers. The Charles Dickens Centre is also to be found in the city, and is housed in a 16th century mansion which contains relics and other material associated of the novelist.
Information on Rochester Castle was obtained from:
History of the Norman Kings by William of Malmesbury - Ed Joseph Stevenson.
The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers - Ed RHC Davis & Marjorie Chibnall.
A History of the Kings by Florence of Worcester - Ed Joseph Stevenson
The Domeday Book - Ed Thomas Hinde.
The Bayeux Tapestry - Norman Denny & Josephine Filmer-Sankey.
English Historical Documents 1040-1189 - David C Douglas, George W Greenaway.
Rochester Castle - R Allen Brown.
The Castle in Medieval England and Wales - Colin Platt.
The Normans and the Norman Conquest - R Allen Brown.
Anglo-Norman Warfare - Ed Matthew Strickland.
Anglo-Norman England - Majorie Chibnall
The World of Orderic Vitalis: Norman Monks and Norman Knights - Majorie Chibnall.
England and it's Rulers 1066-1272 - MT Clanchy.
William The Conqueror - David C Douglas.
William Rufus - Frank Barlow.
The Normans and their Myth - RHC Davis.
The Crowned Lions: The early Plantagenet Kings - Caroline Bingham.
Medieval Warfare - Maurice Keen
The Middle Ages - A Concise Encyclopedia - Ed HR Loyn.
Plantagenet Encyclopadia - Ed Elizabeth Hallam.
English Heritage Handbook.
Readers Digest Guide to Britain.
This Months site is dedicated to my Grandfather
George William Mitchener
All pictures marked and text on this page are copyright to the owner
and must not be reproduced in any format without permission
Another Castles Abbeys and Medieval Buildings Site Feature