Strategically placed on the London road and guarding an important crossing of the River Medway in Kent, this imposing fortress has a complex history of rebuilding and destruction. Today it’s here as a proud reminder of the history that Rochester went through along with its beautiful cathedral across the cobbled streets.
In 1087 Gundulf, who was the Bishop of Rochester began the construction of the castle. He was one of William the Conqueror’s greatest architects and was also responsible for the building work of the white tower at the Tower of London. Much of what you see remaining of the walled perimeter remains intact from that time. This was the first castle in the area built after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. William de Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury was also a contributor to this grand castle building project. Henry I granted him custody of the castle in 1127, a responsibility that lasted until King John seized the castle in 1215.
It was defended by a hundred knights and other ranks who were hostile to the king, who camped here for more than 7 weeks. Five huge catapults were set up to pound the keep and outer walls with rocks, but this strategy proved ineffective, so the king ordered his soldiers to dig a tunnel under the keeps southern tower. This tunnel was held up with wooden props which were then burnt, John used the fat of 40 pigs to fire a mine under the keep bringing down a quarter of the entire keep. Despite this, the garrison did not surrender and continued warfare undeterred, and fought bravely amongst the ruins. Today you can see how the round shape of the rebuilt tower makes it stand out amongst the other square towers.
The castle was consequently taken into the custody of the Crown. The Castle remains one of the most impressive Norman fortresses and continues to attract visitors from far and wide. The equally impressive Rochester Cathedral stands at the base of the castle, another architectural jewel in this small but historically rich south eastern town.
The castle itself was built on the site where the Romans had originally settled in the town. This location was of tactical importance, being at the junction of the River Medway and the famous Roman Watling Street and it is not hard to see why the Normans decided to use this as a location for the fortress. In fact before the Normans arrived, castles were virtually unheard of in England, but soon proved to be an architectural necessity when consolidating captured areas, leading to the construction of equally imposing fortifications around the country.
By the 17th century, the castle had become neglected, the keep had been burned out, and the site was being used as a local quarry for building materials. In 1870 the castle grounds were leased to the City of Rochester, who turned them into a public park and eventually, in the 20th century, responsibility for this imposing old structure was taken over by English Heritage. Today, the castle stands as a proud reminder of the history surrounding the old town of Rochester.
The outside of the keep was an extensive bailey, the very large area would have been home to a number of buildings common to medieval castles, so your usual kitchens, stables, chapels, workshops and all the fundamental buildings that would have kept this place functioning. It would have been like a small town in its own right.
The great tower or keep was a formidable statement of power and prestige which still dominates the skyline and your view as you approach the city. At a height of 125 feet, nearly 38 metres, it’s the tallest surviving keep in England and one of the tallest in the western world. A square building with turrets at the four corners, the keep has its entrance at first floor level as quite normal. It was reached from a moving wooden drawbridge with an external gate tower that was closed off with other doors. Across the ramp another double set of doors gives you access to a large chamber, this is where we wander up first where the ticket office now is.
Inside the tower has three stories above an unlit basement that was used for storage. The building was well provided with many latrines and fireplaces. The chambers for sleeping were made in two of the turrets and the other two contain spiral staircases which we are able to go up today. One from the basement for services and the other for the more elite to get around the keep. Dividing up the inner space was a large spine wall and inside they had doors to allow access through but in its middle a well was made so that it could be accessed from all floors but only from the north side, this was something that played a massive part in some of the final hours of the siege. The well reaches 20 metres into the ground and still to this day contains water. The first floor in this keep, or in any tower normally is a place for the Lord to dine and entertain his numerous guests as well as a place for him to hold court. More private space was on the floor above.
On the second floor, is the level of the state apartments and its here that the cross wall is replaced by an arcade of incredible columns and supporting arches. This was used to separate the great hall from the great chamber beyond. These rooms would have been once the most luxurious in the keep, representing the height of good living. What makes Rochester castle special and quite unusual is the rich decoration in the stonework is beautiful but also confirms they were meant to be of high status. This can be seen throughout the entire building.
The broken arch above us as we look out here, is very much a clue to the violent period that the castle endured, the gallery which overlooked down into the state apartments runs round around the building giving plenty of vantage points, the gallery had plenty of used, and could have been portioned off to make extra rooms for guests, more than likely for servants or less favoured guests. The gallery was also a good position for groups of minstrels to provide entertainment and music for those below. One of our favourite things to do was wander up the spiral staircases to the battlements and wall walk for fine views of the city and the surrounding area.
After visiting the castle, we just had to head into the beautiful cathedral that was founded in AD 604. It has a 1400 year old history and is home to collections of all forms that date back as far as the early Middle Ages. Your first view is the stunning nave as you enter, it really does look wonderful and beautiful at any angle. Rochester is able to claim to be the second oldest and earliest cathedral in England after Canterbury. It was founded by Kind Ethelbert of Kent and was dedicated to St. Andrew who was the patron saint of monasteries. In 1215 the cathedral was looted, first by King John and then in 1264 by Simon de Montfort’s men when they laid siege to the city.
Constantly robbed of its treasures by unruly soldiers and had taken a turn for the worst with it being known as a place of ill status, it was in the 1800s that the cathedral had gone through many restoration processes but finally in 1880, Gilbert Scott restored the cathedral to its stunning present day appearance. Some of the events here at the cathedral are incredible, one that we just missed before filming this is Luke Jerrams Gaia, or more known as ‘the moon, or earth’ it’s a touring artwork by a UK artist, who provides an installation of the earth in three dimensions, giving off the impression that you’re able to see our planet from all angles, other incredible events are the new ribbons of remembrance, this is to mark the anniversary of lockdown, members of the public were invited to tie ribbons on the railings around the cathedrals trees, when we visited we saw the moving display of 5000 metal leaves, an art display by Peter Walker.
He made a memorial to the coronavirus pandemic, simple but moving, each steel leave had the word HOPE engraved on it, symbolising the past and remembering those who lost their lives but also hope for the future. The exhibit is part of a tour that goes from cathedral to cathedral in hope to inspire others. Interestingly, the crypt here was used as an air raid shelter throughout both world wars it’s now home to a collection of incredible relics and fragments and also a lovely café.
Overall, visiting the cathedral alone is an incredible journey and explore and worth it as its free to enter and explore. But I have to say, for us it was be able to climb the stairs and walk in the footsteps of a siege at the castle.
Till next time!