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Construction of Rochester Castle
The site has had Roman and Saxon fortifications for hundreds of years until the Norman Conquest. Odo built the first Norman fortifications on the site, which, updated many times over the following fifty years to a stone curtain wall 'Bailey' and the stone keep. The builders of the Keep used part of the original wall built by the Romans as the foundations for the new stone building.
The tower-keep at Rochester was begun sometime around 1087 by Bishop Gundulph (William the Conquerors personal architect) and fully completed by 1126 by William de Corbeil, the Archbishop of Canterbury with the permission of Henry I (King 1100-1135 the fourth son of William the Conqueror). The Keep is the tallest keep in Britain at 125 feet, also the third largest in area after the Tower of London and Colchester.
The Keep has withstood three hugely damaging sieges. The most famous and the most damaging being the bloody and violent siege of King John in 1215. King John laid siege to a small group of rebels led by Barons. The siege lasted for three months and many of the tactics used form a huge part of our current understanding of siege warfare with castles. The siege proved to be the end for large Keeps. The large keeps were vulnerable when undermining used as a method of breaching the walls. This siege also led to repairs, which saw one use of a round turret instead of the standard square design. Showing the evolution of understanding of how to improve a castles resistance to siege weapons.
At 125 feet tall, the keep at Rochester remains the tallest castle keep in Britain. In addition, some rare maps indicate that later repairs may have given the keep turrets roof designs similar to the Tower of London. However, evidence for this is very scarce and limited.
History of the City of Rochester
Great website to learn about the history of our famous city.
In 1965 the castle was felt to be at serious risk and was taken under the care of the Government (Ministry of Public Buildings & Works). The departmental successor 'English Heritage' is now responsible for our castle. Although day-to-day management of the keep is with Medway Council English Heritage, remain in control as Deed & Title owners of this scheduled ancient monument.
Over the decades since 1965, many discussions have invoked interesting debate about restoring the roof and floors.
Many believe the only way to safe guard this; probably the greatest keep in England is to roof it. The walls are currently open to the weather and elements on both sides. This is directly in contrast to the design and structural ability of the building.
A romantic attachment to the Keep as a ruin is largely responsible for her current predicament.
In March 2010, part of the Bailey Curtain supporting wall collapsed after sustained heavy rain. The long overdue study (yet still unfunded and still not contracted to commence) is still required. Yet not one person could say with any confidence that the castle could not or would not suffer a further collapse of other parts after further poor weather. This is clearly unacceptable for a Keep of this importance to degrade to such a degree.
Robin Kent Architectural, Conservation Company who completed a detailed study and preliminary work on the castle concluded
"The poor state of the walls is an ongoing problem that urgently requires resolution. Severe winter conditions are likely to cause accelerated deterioration: while the monument lacks its roof, the walls are receiving double the amount of weather they were designed for."
Robin Kent Architecture & Conservation who completed the 2004 Assessment on the Keep.
The castle keep underwent repairs during this change, sadly, the concrete used was the wrong type and it is partially due to these repairs that the keep is deteriorating much faster. In fact, the cement added in the 1950's has caused water to pool inside large voids in the walls. This presents the immediate threat to the castle as one severe winter could spell the end of the Keep, as we know it.
Rochester Castle has stood as a ruin since a possible fire around 1600, although there is a surprising lack of fire damage to the keep visible today, including a lack of burnt embers in the supports holes for the floors. In addition, it seems if such a fire did occur it would have been visible for miles but there is no clear mention of such a fire in historical records.
Large sections of the bailey curtain wall have been lost over the last four centuries. Some stones it is considered were moved and used in the construction of Upnor Castle. Since 1600 those entrusted with its care sadly used it to further their own ends. Twice the castle faced attempted demolition. Twice the companies charged with the task conceded defeat.
A huge scar on the East Keep wall is the result of an attempt to blast the Keep with dynamite. Once ignored as being too weak to withstand modern explosives this scar is testimonial to the Norman stonemasons and skilled workmanship of the 11th Century.
There were a few attempts made post the demolitions to try to restore the castle. The wellhead visible when you enter the keep is a later addition. Sadly, many of the attempts to restore the keep actually did greater damage and for some reason the gate to the castle was demolished to improve access. Some of this still exists but is not visible. As you enter the Bailey gardens through the Boley Hill entrance, you are walking over the foundations to the gatehouse.
In the 19th Century, the local Council purchased the Castle and the grounds converted into a park. The pictures, taken at the time show an ornate garden popular with young couples and families.
Recently discovered pictures from Medway Archives clearly show part of a Bailey Cross wall still standing with arches, whether this was an original feature or not is subject to debate. Probably demolished around the time the Gatehouse lost to improve access to the new Victorian gardens.
The sad loss of such a structure so recently underlines the abuse the awesome castle has had to endure at the hands of her so-called protectors.
Parts of the Bailey Curtain Wall were also lost around this Victorian period, the esplanade and 'Lovers Arches' constructed with the gardens that now wind down towards the River Medway River.
King John's Siege of Rochester Castle
During this siege the castle keep was breached by the under mining and then intense heat from burning pigs fat placed in the mine to burn the supports under the tower.
The evidence of the breach is still visible today by the reconstruction that gave the Keep its new round turret.
Lady Blanche de Warenne
The castle is said to be haunted by Lady Blanche De Warenne, - a woman all in white, said to be Lady Blanche de Warenne, who was killed by an arrow through her heart during the fighting. Her appearance has been documented many times, staggering along the battlements with the arrow still protruding from her chest. However, there is also a more recent ghost - that of Charles Dickens who is said to haunt the moat on Christmas Eve.
There are also rumours of a Drummer Boy that can be heard beating his drum from time to time at certain hours throughout the night... from the website:
1995 - City Council took over management of keep, currently under an annual management agreement with EH.
1991-2 - Proposals for re-roofing and restoring the ground and basement floors drawn up for the council by Manning Clamp, but not implemented due to doubts about the effect of altering the microclimate of the keep interior and changing its appearance.
1985 - Modern fabric roof formed to chapel (NMR Drawings).
1984 - Keep administered as a visitor attraction by EH. Ticket office in dungeon replaced by shop in vestibule. Railings replaced (Postcards).
1982 - Modern bridge and steps designed (NMR Drawings).
1975 - New main (NE) staircase proposed (NMR Drawings).
1972-77 - Proposals for alterations to fore building, ramp (NMR Drawings).
1972 - Conservation Area designated.
1965-95 - Selective areas re-pointed over a number of years using Tottenhoe hydraulic lime gauged with Portland cement (Len Hewitt).
1965 - Keep taken into guardianship and administered by MPBW, later EH. E wall repaired (NMR Photos.)
1931 - Ivy cleared from keep for Pageant of Kentish History, June 22.
1915 Jan. - Scheduled as and Ancient Monument of national importance.
1908 - Harris refers to ‘modern iron gate’(p.5).
1906 - Basement excavated and internal bridge constructed (Harris).
1902 - Mural gallery floors levelled, iron bars replaced wooden railings.
1899 - Fore-building repairs, including removal of roots and rebedding of battlements, chancel dome grouted, voussoirs replaced, vestibule windows consolidated. Charges for admission introduced (Castle admission and receipt books).
1897-8 - Turrets' stabilised by filling wall plate holes with masonry, battlements re-bedded, pigeon holes blocked wall heads and cleared of vegetation, revealing collapses 'due to soakage of rain', a wall-walk reconstructed and grouted, fireplaces, hearths and beam holes-pointed using mortar 'far superior to that of Norman date';
1896 - Repair of N and W mural galleries, window openings consolidated;
1896-1904 - £788 works by G Payne, (Archaeologia Cantiana xxvii, 1905) incl.:
1883-4 - Corporation acquired freehold for c.£6,572, making the Mayor constable, and carried out demolitions to improve access, followed by repairs to keep and other parts (EH Guidebook) 1883 Newspaper article suggests £8,000 paid for freehold, but this may include cost of repairs.
1876 - Corporation leased castle from Lord Jersey as pleasure grounds.
1872 - N. bastion of curtain pierced by Royal Engineers. Castle gardens first opened to the public 3 July 1872 (Newspaper cutting). Repairs (List).
1870 June. - Smith says Council took lease, though City archives suggest 1876.
1826 - Wellhead restored and dated by Lord Jersey. Ornamental gates wooden railings and bridges probably fitted at the same time. The wellhead faced the visitor entrance at ground level.
1780 - In a 'ruinous state'. Government attempt to purchase it from Mr Child, for conversion to barracks (EH Guide and G Payne). Dropped due to complexity of ownership.
1772 - First definitive map shows keep plan as today (Denne’s guidebook). ‘Now the property of Robt. Child Esq.’ (Fisher).
1738 - Descendant of the owner, Walker Weldon, offered stone of the tower to a local pavior, having sold the timber to ‘Gimmett’ for a brew house, and steps and accessible dressed stones, incl. of arches, to a London mason. Experimental removal on E face showed demolition to be uneconomic (Smith). Doorway opened to ground floor since the first floor had been removed and the basement filled with garden rubbish (Harris, Payne).
Or late 1700s. - Demolition suggested and possibly attempted, but found uneconomic (EH Guidebook).
1735 - Buck view from Frindsbury Church tower shows keep from NW apparently very much as today.
1640 - Map shows the keep as today, exaggerates the scarcement on the S side of the keep and omits the fore building.
Early 1600s - Granted by James ll to Sir Anthony Weldon (EH Guidebook).
1610 - Castle granted to Sir William (Anthony –Harris) Weldon by James l, remaining in his family until late C19 (City of Rochester Soc).
1599-1602 - 612 tons of rag stone and 223 tons of ashlar removed from the castle wall flanking the river (not the keep), for constructing Upnor Castle.
1588 - Map shows domed roofs on the turrets, like Upnor (and the Tower of London), but may not be accurate.
1554 - Sir Thomas Wyatt uses castle as headquarters for his rebellion (Archaeologia Cantiana xxxix, 1927, p.169)
1500s - Noted as neglected and decaying.
1461 - Some repair work carried out.
1450s - Visited by the Clerk to the King’s Works several times.
1383 - Repairs to castle by Richard ll or works to strengthen it against French raids cost over £500.
1381 - Some damage by Peasants’ Revolt.
1370-7 - Considerable expenditure on castle by Edward lll.
1369 - Survey lists keep as one of few buildings left standing, but ruinous, due to neglect, wind damage in 1362 and ‘the removal of materials'.
1367 - May-September 1370. £2,262 spent on repairs, including to the great tower or keep turrets, gutters and lead roof. Fabric role for 1367-9 mentions freestone from Beer, Caen, Stapleton, Reigate and Fairlight, rag from Maidstone and wrought stone from Broughton and Monchelsea (Archaeologia Cantiana xxvi, 1904, p.169).
1363 - Survey estimates over £3,333 repairs estimated.
1360 - Survey notes cracks in structure of keep.
1340 - Survey by Edward lll says dilapidations had ‘become steadily worse’ and £600 repairs required.
1281 - John of Cobham permitted to demolish burned hall and chambers.
1275 - Materials from the decaying structure had been stolen by successive constables and others.
1264 17 April - Besieged by Earls of Hereford and Gloucester. 19 April, Garrison withdrew to keep, 26 April, siege lifted, leaving castle badly damaged.
1240s-50 & 1258-9 - Keep repaired.
1247 - Chapel wainscoted.
1239 - Chapel plastered and decorated.
1232 - Roofs leaded and floors laid.
1227 Michaelmas - Further £100 credited for the keep
1227 18 March - Sheriff ordered to complete the work. Around this time, the Great Seal of Rochester shows keep from W (reversed on seal), with hoarding and gate with portcullis.
1226 11 March - Sheriff ordered to spend up to £100 on keep
1223 - Henry lll orders Sheriff of Kent to repair ‘our castle of Rochester which formerly fell’. (writ), presumably due to slow progress.
1221 - New ‘chapel and chamber’ built, possibly the fore building chapel, the roof of which blocked an earlier window, rediscovered in 1899 (Payne)
1217-37 c. - £530 spent on repairs to the keep.
1216 - Taken and occupied by Louis of France for a short time.
1215 11 Oct-30 Nov. - Besieged by King John. SW corner of keep undermined by tunnels from S (encountered massive foundations) and, mainly, E side. After collapse of SW corner, defenders fortify N side of cross-wall before capitulating due to starvation (Barnwell Chronicler) Roofs may have been burnt in this or 1264 siege –molten lead and areas of pink stone noted in 1901 on central wall (Payne).
1206 - Works to keep by King John cost £115.
1189-99 - Castle strengthened by Richard I.
1172-3 - Works to strengthen the keep by Henry ll cost £100.
1166-7 & 1170-71 - Repairs to castle.
1127 - ‘Noble tower within the castle and keep’ built by Archbishop William de Corbeil, after Henry l grants him the constableship (Charter of Henry I, Gervase of Canterbury, John of Worcester). The Roman city wall is re-used as foundation for the S wall of the keep.
1088 - Odo holds the castle against William Rufus, but it falls as a result of lack of sanitation (Braun, p.72).
1087-9 - Curtain walls rebuilt in stone for William Rufus by Gundulph, Bishop of Rochester (d.1107-8), the builder of the White Tower and Colchester keep, who also rebuilt the cathedral aligned with the Roman wall. (Textus Roffiensis). S curtain avoids S wall of keep, suggesting it was already part of Odo's motte.
1068 - Castle built by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent (Doomsday).
884 - Town besieged by Danes, who built a fortress outside it.
700 - Bede calls it 'the fortress of the Kentish men'.
600s - Saxon charters refer to town as castellum.
c.350 (or before) - City wall constructed said to be 2.44m thick and 6.1m high (City of Rochester Soc.).
Post '43 - Roman fort and city of Durobrivae (i.e. 'fort at the bridges') (EH).
Pre-’43 - Belgium settlement / port, with mint and possible bridge (EH).