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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It was in 1265, 750 years ago this month, that a parliament convened by English rebel leader Simon de Montfort, took place in Westminster Hall (exterior pictured below).

The French-born De Montfort, who led a group of rebel barons, was riding high after defeating King Henry III at the Battle of Lewes on 14th May, 1264. While he ruled in the king’s name through a council – having captured both the king and his son Prince Edward, the monarch was no more than a figurehead. De Montfort was effectively the man in charge. Westminster-Hall

In a bid to solidify his hold on the country, he summoned not only the barons and clergy but knights representing counties to a parliament along with – for the first time – representatives from major towns and boroughs like York, Lincoln and the Cinque Ports (the representatives were known as burgesses).

It’s this latter move which led this three month-long parliament to be described as the first English parliament and which has led de Montfort to be described by some as the founder of the House of Commons.

Presided over by King Henry III, the parliament was held in Westminster Hall in London – a city loyal to de Montfort’s cause. It dealt with a range of political matters including the enforcement of a series of government reforms known as the Provisions of Westminster which had been aimed at strengthening baronial rights and the role of courts.

Prince Edward (later King Edward I) managed to escape from de Montfort’s clutches later in 1265 and led forces against de Montfort. The rebel leader was killed at the Battle of Evesham on 4th August, 1265.

The UK Parliament is marking the 750th anniversary of De Montfort’s Parliament with a series of events (along with the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta) – check out www.parliament.uk/2015 for more.

At one time the grandest of medieval townhouses in London, the history of the Savoy Palace, also known as the Palace of the Savoy, goes back to at least the 13th century.

A mansion was built here by Simon de Montfort, the ill-fated Earl of Leicester, in 1245. Following his death, it and the land between the Strand and the Thames were gifted by King Henry III to Peter, Count of Savoy, and it was renamed the Savoy Palace (apparently originally spelt Savoie).

The uncle of the king’s young wife Eleanor of Provence, Peter had accompanied his niece to London for her wedding to the king at Canterbury Cathedral on 14th January, 1236, and decided to stay. In 1241, the king named him the Earl of Richmond and in 1246 granted him the land upon which the property was built.

After being briefly given to a religious order, Queen Eleanor gifted the property to Prince Edmund (“Edmund Crouchback” – a term referring to his entitlement to wear a crusader’s cross, not a hunchback), the 1st Earl of Lancaster and younger brother to King Edward I.

It was subsequently occupied by Edmund’s successor earls and, later, dukes. Among the ‘guests’ to visit the palace during the 14th century were the French King Jean (John) II, held there for three years following his capture by the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers during the Hundred Years War in 1356.

Interestingly, as the property of the Dukes of Lancaster, the precinct around the palace was considered part of County Palatine of Lancaster (created in 1351), meaning that the rule of the dukes was applied here instead of that of the king – a situation which remained in place until the 1800s.

The palace eventually became the property of John of Gaunt, the 2nd Duke of Lancaster and third son of King Edward III. The richest and most powerful man in the kingdom (he was all but king in name during the younger years of King Richard II in whose name he ruled), Gaunt’s home was said to be sumptuous.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that it become a focus of the rebels during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 (it had been attacked unsuccessfully a few years earlier). They attacked and destroyed the property, razing it to the ground. (The story includes the tale that 32 men drank themselves to death after becoming trapped in the cellar while the palace burned).

The site, however, continued to be referred to as that of the Savoy and in the early sixteenth century King Henry VII, by order of his will, financed the founding of the Savoy Hospital on the site for the poor people (the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy is a relic of this building – see our earlier post here). The hospital closed in 1702 and was later demolished (we’ll deal with this in more detail in a later Lost London post).

The site, which stands on the north side of the Thames just west of Waterloo Bridge,  is now occupied by the salubrious Savoy Hotel (the entrance of which is pictured above) and the Savoy Theatre, which, like the hotel, was founded by impressario Richard d’Oyly in the 1880s (the theatre was the first building in the country to be entirely lit by electric lighting).

The name of the Savoy Palace is also remembered in street names around the site including Savoy Street, Savoy Hill, Savoy Steps, Savoy Way and Savoy Place.