The great keep of Rochester was built in 1127, but even after almost 900 years, two sieges and centuries of post-medieval abuse and disuse, it remains a very imposing building.
The castle has actually been besieged three times, the first occasion, in 1088, before work had begun on the keep. Shortly after William the Conqueror’s invasion of 1066, Rochester was one of many strategically important sites where a castle was quickly raised to quell any thoughts of Anglo-Saxon resistance to the new Norman regime.
Curiously the 1088 siege was not the result of an Anglo-Saxon uprising, but rather a dispute between the Normans themselves: after William’s death in 1087, his Anglo-Norman kingdom was split between his sons, and his barons, unhappy about the division, rose up against the new king of England, William II Rufus.
The castle that was disputed in Rochester in 1088 lacked the keep but it would have had the bank and ditch and stone curtain wall that survives today (though with substantial later additions). This outer wall that encloses the bailey made use of a corner angle of the former Roman wall of the city, along with the bank of the river Medway. Gundulf, bishop of Rochester, was responsible for its construction, as well as starting work on the adjacent Cathedral.
This Gundulf was renowned as a skilled builder, and indeed he was involved in the work on William’s strong keep in London, the White Tower. Though Gundulf was long dead by the time work started on Rochester’s keep, there is a similarity in design and style between the two. Indeed the tower of Rochester would probably have been whitewashed in similar style to its sibling in London.
Today, Rochester’s keep is not the bright white edifice it might have been in the 12th century, but it does still stand to its full height, and thus continues to command the town around it and the bridge over the Medway beneath it. Sadly, inside, it’s but a shell of what it was once. The timber and lead-lined roof that would have protected it from the elements is gone, as have the floors that would have made for several storeys of impressive accommodation, so from the base you can look right up through some 30metres of stonework to the sky beyond.
The passages and stairs that ran through the thick outer walls do survive though, so you can ascend through a series of spiral staircases and dark, stone-flagged corridors, to the parapets at the top. That provides a fine view out, and if you look towards the south-east, you’ll see Boley Hill, a small rise not far from the castle now graced by a large white house, from where it’s thought King John’s five siege engines were ranged against the castle in 1215. That siege took seven weeks for John to break, after his men had undermined the tower and brought down a quarter of the keep itself.
Even then, the besieged were able to retreat behind the sturdy crosswall that still splits the keep in half, and survive a few more days barricaded in before they eventually gave up because they had no more horses left to eat. The defenders on that occasion were rebels, led by the baron William de Albini, disaffected with John’s arbitrary rule, ever-more onerous tax demands, and finally his refusal to stick to the terms of Magna Carta, signed at Runnymede Meadows earlier in 1215. Read more on the baronial revolt against King John.
The keep was rebuilt later in the 13th century. The new section is obvious from both inside and outside – the round corner on the exterior differs to the three other straight edges, while internally, it’s clear where the rather less tidy stonework and arches of the patch-up meet the original walls.
The castle was besieged again in 1264 during the rebellion against Henry III led by Simon de Montfort, though this time, the king’s men were on the inside. After that the place was rather overlooked for a century or so and it was only in the 1370s under the reign of Edward III that the damage to the curtain walls inflicted in 1264 was repaired.
For a place that’s seen so much military activity, Rochester Castle is in remarkably good repair today, and is well worth a visit, for the brute strength of the keep on the outside and the atmospheric experience of climbing up inside.
The well inside the keep – it gave the defenders a supply of water during the siege of 1215, and luckily was on the right side of the crosswall for them after the south-eastern tower had been undermined.