History Files
 
 

 

Castles of the British Isles

Photo Focus: Rochester Castle

by Peter Kessler, 2 August 2009. Updated 31 October 2021

 

Rochester Castle in Kent
Photo © P L Kessler

Rochester Castle is strategically placed on the London Road, the route from Canterbury and Dover to the capital. It overlooks the right bank of the River Medway, commanding a wide view of the surrounding countryside.

Almost as soon as they had landed, the invading Romans established a military presence at Rochester in AD 43, but it was the Normans who were responsible for the castle, building it within the Roman city walls.

Today it is in ruins, but much of the building has been preserved, along with the outer walls, and it still forms a major structure in Rochester.

Rochester Castle in Kent
Photo © P L Kessler

A motte and bailey keep was probably built here immediately after the Norman conquest in 1066. This would have been used as the headquarters for the rebellion against William II to replace him with his elder brother, Robert, duke of Normandy.

William captured the castle, not once but twice, ending the rebellion on the second attempt. He requested that Gundulf, bishop of Rochester, rebuild the castle.

Rochester Castle in Kent
Photo © P L Kessler

Gundulf did that between 1087-1089, making it one of the first stone keeps in the country. He also worked extensively on building the neighbouring Rochester Cathedral, and played an important role in building the White Tower in London.

Rochester Castle in Kent
Photo © P L Kessler

In 1126, Henry I granted the castle to William de Corbeil, archbishop of Canterbury (1123-1139). He immediately started work on rebuilding it, producing what would become one of the finest relics of its kind in England.

Rochester Castle in Kent
Photo © P L Kessler

The quadrangular four-storied structure, flanked by turrets, was made of Kentish ragstone, with a maximum height of 34.4 metres and three floors above a basement.

Rochester Castle in Kent
Photo © P L Kessler

Attached is a tall, protruding fore-building, with its own set of defences which any attackers would have to pass through before the keep itself could be entered at first floor level (second storey). It was put to the test in 1215, when it was besieged by King John.

Rochester Castle in Kent
Photo © P L Kessler

The castle was successfully besieged again by Simon de Montfort, during the civil war between rebel barons and Henry III. The siege began on 17 April 1264 after Earl Gilbert de Clare attacked the city from the south-west.

Rochester Castle in Kent
Photo © P L Kessler

Following the conclusion of the siege, Henry rebuilt the castle. It was besieged for a third time in the reign of Richard II, during the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 which was led by Wat Tyler.

Rochester Castle in Kent
Photo © P L Kessler

By this time the castle had reached its maximum military strength, architecturally speaking, with repairs being made by Edward IV in the 1400s. By the 1500s it was falling into decay, although the massive keep remained well preserved.

Rochester Castle in Kent
Photo © P L Kessler

Remains of the medieval city walls still exist, although the medieval bridge was cleared away in 1857. The castle grounds were converted into parkland before 1891, which were cleared to make an open space for the 1931 pageant. Pageants, fairs, and special events are held there to this day.

 

All photos by P L Kessler, taken in May 2009.

Main Sources

English Heritage: Rochester Castle

Rochester Castle - Michael W Cook

The 1911 Classic Encyclopaedia

 

Images and text copyright © P L Kessler except where stated. An original feature for the History Files.