Rochester-Castle

We’ve visited Rochester before but given it’s the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta we thought it would be good to take a more in-depth look at Rochester Castle and the events that took place there after the sealing of the “Great Charter”.

Rochester Castle was first built in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings as a Norman stronghold to control the Medway and the Roman road – Watling Street – which crossed it at that point. There was a Roman-era town on the site and it’s likely the first castle – surrounded by a deep ditch and featuring walls of earth topped with timber – was  built within the town’s walls – possibly on the site of the existing castle.

Rochester-Castle2Work on a stone castle was started in the late 1080s by Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester (he also built the first Tower of London), and the castle precincts outer walls still largely follow the line of his original curtain walls. The keep was built by William de Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was granted the castle by King Henry I in 1127. It remained in the custody of the archbishops until the events of 1215.

Following the sealing of the Magna Carta in May, relations between King John and the barons soured again into outright civil war with the castle declared for the rebels. In October and November, 1215, it was held for some seven weeks by a force of knights – accounts suggest between 95 and 140 – against the forces of King John. These eventually breached the south curtain wall and after the forces of the knights – who were led by William de Albini and Reginald de Cornhill – retreated to the keep, the king ordered his sappers to work.

The miners were successful in undermining the south-west tower which collapsed along with a large section of the keep (the fat of 40 pigs were apparently used to make sure the fire in the mine was hot enough). The defenders nonetheless kept fighting, retreating further into the remains of the keep, until they were eventually forced to surrender when faced with starvation. King John’s fury at their resistance was said to be great but while some of the defenders lost their hands and feet when they were apparently lopped off on his orders after surrendering, he was convinced to spare the holdouts from being hanged on the spot and merely had them imprisoned.

The tower was later rebuilt by King John’s long ruling son, King Henry III, and you can see its distinct round shape (in contrast with the earlier, square towers) when looking at the keep today. (Incidentally, King John’s siege was the castle’s second major siege – the first had taken place in 1088 when the forces of King William II (Rufus) had besieged the castle which was then held by the rebellious Odo, Bishop of Bayeaux, who was involved in an attempt to put William the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert, Duke of Normandy, on the throne in place of William (who was the second son). Odo was forced to come to terms and exiled as a result of the siege).

Rochester-Castle3In the hands of the Crown after King John’s siege, the castle was again the site of a siege in 1264 – this time unsuccessful when rebels under the command of Simon de Montfort failed to take it from those of King Henry III (although the garrison was later forced to surrender following events elsewhere).

It was rebuilt and repaired a number of times, including during the reigns of King Edward III and that of King Richard II (during whose reign it was also ransacked in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381). Other kings to visit it over the years included King Henry VII and King Henry VIII.

Already much deteriorated and neglected, in 1610, King James I gave the castle to Sir Anthony Weldon whose family sold off some of the timber and stone to local builders. It survived the Civil War without incident and was used as a public pleasure garden from the 1870s onward before, in 1884, it was sold to the City of Rochester. In 1965 responsibility for its care was given to the Ministry of Public Building and Works. Current managers, English Heritage, took over the site in 1984.

The castle remains an imposing site in Rochester and the outer walls of the keep remain intact even if it’s no more than a shell. Worth the climb to the top simply to take advantage of the spectacular views of the town and cathedral below!

WHERE: Rochester Castle, Rochester, Kent – nearest train station is Rochester (half a mile); WHEN: 10am to 6pm daily (until 30th September); COST:£6.20 adults/£3.90 children (aged 5-15) and concessions (free for English Heritage members); WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rochester-castle.

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Daytripper – Rochester

April 13, 2012

We’ve talked about the Medway town of Rochester earlier in the week as part of our Dickens series but it’s also worth talking about this town in Kent in its own right. 

While Dickens’ connection with the town is a key part of the reason for its charm, this town, which dates from as far back as Roman times and remained an important centre thanks to its strategic position on the Medway, has plenty more to offer.

Foremost among its attractions are the Norman castle and cathedral. Rochester Castle has its origins in a wooden castle built soon after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 with the stone defences following soon after.

The tallest Norman keep in England, from which there are spectacular views, was built around 1127 on the order of its then owner, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William de Corbeil. It was about 90 years later, in 1215, when King John laid siege to it during the rebellion of his barons, only taking the castle after a seven week siege when his sappers undermined the south-east tower of the keep (famously it was the fat of 40 pigs which stoked the fire they laid in the tunnels under the tower). The castle was repaired and continued to be used until late medieval times when it fell into disuse and while much of the keep – the highest in England – is now ruined, it remains a stirring sight.

Rochester Cathedral, meanwhile, was first built in Saxon times (there has been a bishop here since 604) although no trace remains of this above ground. The current building, rather, dates from the Norman era – it was consecrated in 1130 in a ceremony attended by King Henry I – and was extensively added to over the following centuries with the completion of the Lady Chapel in 1492 the last major work. Among the most famous bishops here were Bishop Fisher and Bishop Ridley – both of whom died for their faith.

Strolling through the cobbled streets of this historic town, about 30 to 40 minutes from London by train, you’ll also come across the Guildhall Museum, which is housed in the 17th century guildhall and features a range of displays and exhibitions on the history of the Medway including a Dickens discovery room.

Also worth seeing is Eastgate House, the model for Dickens’ Westgate House and now the location of the Swiss chalet in which he wrote, and Restoration House – created from two medieval buildings in the 16th or 17th centuries and the inspiration for Miss Havisham’s home  (see our earlier post).

One unmissable gem is the Six Poor Travellers – an atmospheric and well preserved almshouse in the High Street which dates from Elizabethan times and has an amazing backstory which you can explore as you make your way through its narrow rooms.

Part of the charm of Rochester (and for more on Rochester generally visit www.cometorochester.co.uk/visit/index.htm) lies in its close proximity to Chatham and Gillingham and here you’ll find much more to amuse and entertain including Chatham’s Historic Dockyards (see our earlier daytripper on this), Fort Amherst, Britain’s largest Napoleonic fortress, and for those who can’t get enough of Charles Dickens, Dickens World.

Just to the north of Rochester is Upnor Castle, a rare surviving Elizabethan artillery fortress built to defend the fleet at Chatham Dockyard.

It’s one of London’s most famous landmarks and, having just undergone a three year, £2 million restoration, we thought it was time to take a look at the origins of the White Tower.

Now the keep of the Tower of London, the White Tower was first built by the Norman King William the Conqueror following his defeat of Saxon King Harold Godwinson and the cream of the Saxon army at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Following his coronation at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, King William then withdrew to Barking Abbey while his men built several temporary strongholds in the city to ensure it wouldn’t cause any trouble – this included an earth and timber keep standing on an artificial mound in the south-east corner of the city’s Roman-era walls.

The White Tower, a permanent structure, replaced this and although the exact date its construction started is unknown, building – under the watchful eye of Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester, was well underway by the mid-1070s. While the labourers were English, the masons in charge of the building were Norman and then even used some Caen stone imported from William’s homeland (along with Kentish ragstone). By 1097 the tower was complete.

Primarily built as a fortress rather than for comfort, the size of the Tower was intimidating and, at 27.5 metres tall, it would have dominated the skyline for miles. Initial defences surrounding the White Tower included the Roman walls and two ditches although in later years outer walls were added to create the massive fortifications and series of towers one encounters at the site today.

The tower earned its moniker, the White Tower, from the whitewash used on its walls during the reign of King Henry II. The caps on the four turrets which stand at each corner of the tower were originally conical but were replaced with the current onion-shaped domes in the 1500s (the round tower was once home to the Royal Observatory before it moved out to Greenwich). The White Tower’s large external windows are also more modern innovations, these were added in the 1600s by Sir Christopher Wren.

The original entrance to the White Tower was on the first floor, reached by a wooden staircase (that could be removed if necessary), much as it is today while, for security reasons, the internal stone spiral staircase was placed as far from this entry as possible in the north-east turret. A stone forebuilding was later added during the reign of King Henry II but was later demolished.

Inside, accommodation for the king was provided on the second floor – it originally had a gallery above but an extra floor – still there today – was later added. Accommodation for the Tower’s constable was probably on the first floor. Both floors were divided in two – with a large hall on one side and smaller apartments on the other. These rooms now house displays on the Tower’s history – at the present these include the Royal Armouries’ exhibition ‘Power House’.

The White Tower is also home to the Chapel of St John the Evangelist which, made from Caen stone, still looks much the same as it did in Norman times. It was used by the royal family when in residence at the tower but by the reign of King Charles II had become a store for state records. These were removed in 1857. Among some of the events which took place here was the lying in state of Queen Elizabeth of York, wife to King Henry VII, after her death in 1503, and the betrothal of Queen Mary I to Philip of Spain in 1554 (by proxy, Philip was not present). Prince Charles received communion here on his 21st birthday.

Other historic events associated with the White Tower include the apparent murder in 1483 of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ – King Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York – while legend says they were killed in the Bloody Tower, the discovery of two skeletons under stairs leading to the chapel during building works in 1674 has led some to believe that they may have been buried here.

It was also in the White Tower that King Richard II was forced to sign away his throne to King Henry IV in 1399 and it was from the White Tower that Gruffydd ap Llywelyn Fawr, the illegitimate son of  Welsh Prince Llywelyn the Great, apparently fell to his death while attempting to escape captivity in 1244.

There are tours of the White Tower daily at 10.45am, 12.45pm, and 2.15pm.

WHERE: Tower of London (nearest tube station Tower Hill); WHEN: 9am to 5.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 5.30pm Sunday to Monday (until 31st October); COST: Included in Tower of London admission – £19.80 adults; £10.45 children under 15; £17.05 concessions; £55 for a family (prices include a voluntary donation); WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/.

Daytripper – Battle Abbey

October 12, 2010

In the first of an occasional series featuring daytrip destinations from London, we’re taking a look at Battle Abbey in East Sussex, site of the country-defining Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Last weekend, the clash of weapons could once more be heard on the field below the abbey ruins as about 350 re-enactors gathered as they do every year close to the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings on 14th October and fought it out all over again (pictured above). Yes, King Harold and the English army were defeated (again!), but there’s always hope for next year!

And while you’ll now have to wait a year to see the re-enactment played out once more, given its location only an hour-and-a-half from London by train, the abbey ruins and battlefield site are a great site for a daytrip.

The abbey itself was built soon after the Battle of Hastings on what was then known as Senlac Hill and although it has been suggested Duke William of Normandy (aka William the Conqueror or William the Bastard) made a vow before the battle to build the abbey should God grant him victory, it is believed he ordered the abbey’s construction as both a memorial to the dead and a public act of penance.

The building work began within a few years of the fight with the high altar to be placed on the site where King Harold had fallen. The church was used from about 1076 onwards but was officially consecrated in 1094 in the presence of King William himself.

Quickly becoming one of the country’s wealthiest religious houses (thanks largely to gifts from the king), it housed monks of the Benedictine order until, in the mid-1500s, the monks left as part of Henry VIII’s suppression of religious houses and the property was granted to the king’s friend Sir Anthony Browne.

His descendant, the sixth Viscount Montague, later sold it to the Webster family in 1721 and it remained a family home and later also housed a school (the Battle Abbey School which still occupies part of the site).  In 1976, it was bought by the government with the aid of funds from Americans.

Not too much now remains of the original abbey – some ground floor chambers once used by novices still stand in what was the dormitory range (and feature incredible vaulted ceilings), the west range around the cloister still stands (now in use as part of Battle Abbey School) and the foundations of the chapter house are still there.

The church itself is no longer existant but the site of the high altar, where King Harold died, is now marked with a memorial stone which, when we visited was laden with memorial wreathes.

Of particular significance is the Great Gatehouse – the current structure dates from 1338 and is said to be one of the finest monastic gateways still surviving in Britain. It now contains an exhibition on the abbey’s history. There’s also a cafe on the site.

Below the abbey lies the rest of the battlefield site and while remains from the battle have never been found, English Heritage provide audio guides on which events from the day are reconstructed as you follow a path around the field.

The surrounding market town of Battle – dominated by the abbey gatehouse – is also well worth a look – it’s attractions include Yesterday’s World, a museum in a 15th century Wealden Hall House which contains memorabilia about life in the Victoria era through to the 1970s. The town also lies on the 1066 Country Walk, which runs from Pevensey to Rye and retraces the steps of King William’s army after they landed in England.

WHERE: High Street, Battle, East Sussex (trains run from Charing Cross to Battle station); WHEN: 10am to 4pm to March 31st (open to 6pm from April to September) ; COST: Free for English Heritage members or £7 adults/£6 concessions/£3.50 children/£17.50 a family ; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/1066