Rochester Castle once stood guard over the River Medway, an important gateway to London and a sheltered backwater for Tudor shipbuilding. In its day, the castle had the tallest keep in Britain and one of the tallest in Europe. It was designed by one of William the Conqueror's most important architects and withstood siege after siege. Today, its ruin, high on a hill over the river, isn't a moldering, ivy-covered romantic pile. Instead it remains a proud and brutal reminder of the violent times that followed the Norman Conquest.
Design & Location
If the towering, square keep of Rochester Castle looks familiar, you've probably been looking at pictures of the White Tower in the Tower of London. They were both designed by the same man, Bishop Gundulf, first Archbishop of Canterbury after the Norman Conquest and the Normans' favorite martial architect in the years after William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel to defeat the Anglo Saxons.
William probably picked the site for a fortification on his march toward the capital after the Conquest in 1066. A castle of earthworks and wood was quickly thrown up at about that time. As with many castles and fortifications, the site had already been identified and fortified by the Romans, hundreds of years before. And even before then, as early as 43 AD, the Romans had battled local tribes over the site. Rochester was a walled city from the 3rd century. Although abandoned when the Romans left Britain in the 4th century, the walls were still standing when the Normans marched North. William chose a spot for his castle within the ancient walls.
Notable Sieges & Battles
It didn't take long for the Normans to start fighting with each other over this strategic, bridging point on the Medway. In 1080, William's uncle, Bishop Odo, marched on William's fortress at Rochester, besieged it and briefly took control of the castle and the city. It only took William a few weeks to win it back and he decided he needed a stronger, stone castle here. He employed Bishop Gundulf, who had already built the White Tower in the Tower of London, to rebuild Rochester Castle in stone.
The castle created by Gundulf, and later reinforced and expanded (including the building of the keep) by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1127 was an impressive military building with walls 11 to 13 feet thick and a keep 113 feet high.
The Archbishops of Canterbury controlled the castle, on behalf of the king, until 1215. Then King John, fighting back after being forced by the Barons into signing the Magna Carta, besieged the castle, destroyed one of its towers and starved the defenders into submission. His method of bringing down the massive stone tower has made this particular siege a legend. King John's men undermined the southeast turret and propped it up with timbers. Then they set fire to the timbers with pig fat — according to English Heritage by burning "40 pigs too fat to eat."
The third time the castle was besieged was the last, in 1264, when Simon de Montfort took the castle during another Barons rebellion. De Montfort is sometimes credited with being the father of representative government but was another thoroughly despicable ruler whose actions led to the massacre of Jews in London, Worcester, Winchester and Canterbury. His rule only lasted a year.
The castle was never repaired from the damage caused by Simon de Montfort's siege of 1264. It fell into disrepair and eventually a violent fire destroyed much of its internal structure. It's a testament to the strength of its Kentish ragstone walls that so much of the keep still stands. What you will see if you visit today is an immense, roofless space, surrounded by several stories of galleries. There are some state rooms on the second floor but they are simply bare stone spaces. The main reason for climbing the spiral stone staircases in the turrets is to reach the wall walks beside the battlements at the top of the castle. From there, the views take in all of the city of Rochester, Rochester Cathedral and the Medway beyond.
How to Visit Rochester Castle
- Where: The castle is on Castle Hill, near Rochester Cathedral. It is about a third of a mile from Rochester Rail Station on Corporation Street (the A2). If you drive, there is a large pay and display car park near the rail station on Corporation Street. The train station is quite central. Check National Rail Enquiries for train times and prices. Trains from London Victoria are the fastest, taking about 43 minutes. Avoid trains from St. Pancras Station. They are commuter trains, stopping at every station, and some can take up to three hours.
- When: From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. spring and summer and to 4 p.m. fall and winter.
- Price: Full adult price in 2018 is £6.40. Family tickets for two adults and up to three children cost £16.80. In addition, the attraction is included in the English Heritage Overseas Visitors Pass.
What to See Nearby
This is an area rich in history with quite a few interesting attractions within a mile or two of the castle, including:
- Upnor Castle: An Elizabethan artillery fort built to protect Chatham Dockyards
- Chatham Historic Dockyards: The home of shipbuilding for hundreds of years. Where some of the British Navy's most historic ships were built. Don't miss the quarter of a mile long "rope walk" in the still working ropery. Charles Dickens father worked there as a clerk.
- Rochester Cathedral:The second oldest in Britain.
- The Royal Engineers Museum: Three hundred years of military engineering history — in Africa, India and Europe — is remarkably interesting. You can tell your friends back home that you've seen the Duke of Wellington's field notes and map for the battle of Waterloo.