History of Rochester Castle

Built to command an important river crossing, the castle built in stone by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, in the 1080s was one of the earliest such buildings in England. In 1127 Henry I entrusted it to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who began to build the great keep – a masterpiece of medieval architecture, and the tallest such building to survive in Europe. The castle endured three sieges, including a famous assault by King John in 1215, when one corner of the keep was destroyed. Although it became redundant as a royal stronghold in the late Middle Ages and fell into ruin in the 17th century, it remains a potent symbol of medieval secular power.

Remains of the crenellated curtain wall on the western side of the bailey at Rochester Castle
Remains of the crenellated curtain wall, which is one of the earliest surviving parts of the castle and was built by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, in the late 11th century

Before The Castle

The city of Rochester originated in a Roman settlement (Durobrivae) on the east bank of the river Medway. A major road between east Kent and London crossed the river at this point.[1] The city was walled from the 3rd century, but was largely abandoned in the early 5th century with the end of Roman rule in Britain. It attained new importance from the 7th century as a bishopric.[2]

Almost certainly founded soon after the Norman Conquest of 1066, a royal castle of timber and earthworks stood in the south-west quadrant of the walled city, on land formerly belonging to the Bishop of Rochester.[3] Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, rebellious uncle of William II (r.1087–1100), took control of the city and castle in 1088, but after a siege of several weeks William regained them.[4]

The king then commissioned Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester (d.1108), to rebuild the defences in stone. Part of the castle’s west curtain wall survives from this work.[5]

Construction of the Keep

In 1127 Henry I (r.1100–35) entrusted the castle to William de Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury (d.1136), on condition that the archbishop build fortifications there. This led to the construction of the great keep, described by contemporaries as ‘outstanding’ and ‘noble’.[6]

Subsequent archbishops of Canterbury retained control of the castle on the king’s behalf throughout the 12th century, including during the troubled period of conflict between Henry II (r.1154–89) and Archbishop Thomas Becket (d.1170). In the early 13th century new disputes between king and archbishop culminated in the famous siege of 1215.[7]

The semi-circular south-east turret of the keep towers above ruins in the foreground at Rochester Castle
The semicircular south-east turret of the keep. The original square turret here was destroyed in the siege of 1215

The Siege of 1215

Between October and December 1215 King John (r.1199–1216) laid siege to Rochester Castle in a bid to retake it from rebels. Having broken Rochester Bridge and captured the castle bailey, the royal army used siege engines to bombard the rebels inside the keep with stones, while miners attacked the building’s south-east turret.[8]

Burning the fat from ‘40 pigs too fat to eat’ to fire the timber props they had used to support the undermined masonry,[9] the attackers brought down the south-east corner of the keep and forced the rebels to retreat to the northern half of the interior. Starvation soon forced the rebels’ surrender. Chroniclers left vivid descriptions of the siege, which was clearly an action of outstanding ferocity, even if the king’s victory was short-lived as he died the following year.[10]

The 13th Century

John’s son Henry III (r.1216–72) repaired the keep and added a complex of residential buildings in the bailey, described in many detailed writs.[11] One wall of the king’s chamber survives in the west curtain wall (see Description of Rochester Castle).

The royal court frequently visited the castle in the mid-13th century, but during a further siege in 1264, by Earl Simon de Montfort and barons rebelling against the king, the king’s hall and other bailey buildings were burned. The rebels captured the bailey but were unable to take the keep, and were eventually driven off by royal reinforcements.[12] Soon after, however, the garrison was forced to surrender after a royal army was defeated in battle at Lewes.

Late Medieval and Tudor Decline

The damage of 1264 had a lasting impact. The royal hall and chambers in the bailey were never rebuilt, and the castle went into a long period of decline.[13] Unusually the keep, by then redundant in many other royal castles, became the principal residential building.[14] Elizabeth (d.1327), wife of Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (r.1306–29), was briefly a prisoner in Rochester Castle in 1314.[15]

In the 14th century Edward III (r.1327–77) and Richard II (r.1377–99) ordered some repairs to reverse years of decay and pilfering of materials. The two rectangular towers of the east curtain wall and the remains of the north-west tower date to this period.[16]

From the 15th century, however, the bailey was let to tenants.[17] By the second half of the 16th century the castle was entirely redundant, and Elizabeth I (r.1558–1603) licensed the removal of stone from the curtain wall to build the new fort at Upnor.[18]

Photo postcard of Rochester Castle Gardens in about 1910 with many visitors enjoying the grounds
Rochester Castle Gardens in about 1910 © Historic England

Public Amenity and Ancient Monument

Rochester Castle played no role in the Civil Wars (1642–51) and so it was never slighted. It appears, however, that a violent fire took place in the keep before the 1660s, which reduced the building to ruin.[19]

Artists and writers, including Samuel Pepys[20] in the 17th century and Charles Dickens[21] in the 19th, recorded their impressions of the vast interior and the impressive views from the top of the keep.

In 1870 Rochester Corporation leased (and later bought) the castle and opened the grounds, on the site of the bailey, to the public as gardens.[22] Repairs followed in the early 20th century.[23]

The Ministry of Works assumed control of the keep in 1965, and responsibility passed to English Heritage in 1984. Since 1995 the City of Rochester, now Medway Council, has managed both the keep and the Castle Gardens.[24]

About the Author

Jeremy Ashbee is the Head Historic Properties Curator at English Heritage. He specialises in the study of medieval palaces and castles and is the author of several English Heritage Red Guides, including the guidebook to Rochester Castle.


1. M Hassall, ‘Roman Rochester in its wider context’, in Medieval Art, Architecture and Archaeology at Rochester, ed T Ayers and T Tatton-Brown, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 28 (Leeds, 2006), 1–5.
2. N Brooks, ‘Rochester, AD 400–1066’, in Ayers and Tatton-Brown, op cit, 6–21.
3. P Morgan (ed), Domesday Book, Kent (Chichester, 1983) (accessed 22 Jan 2018). The most important archaeological evidence for the defences of the earliest castle is provided in C Flight and AC Harrison, ‘Rochester Castle, 1976’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 94 (1978), 27–60.
4. M Chibnall (ed), The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, vol 4 (Oxford, 1973), 127–35.
5. C Flight, The Bishops and Monks of Rochester, 1076–1214 (Maidstone, 1997), 13, 123; the most detailed description of the surviving 11th-century wall is given in R Peats and P Drury, ‘Rochester Castle conservation plan’, unpublished report, English Heritage and Medway Council (2008), vol 1, 18–21 (accessed 8 May 2013).
6. JAA Goodall, ‘The great tower of Rochester Castle’, in Ayers and Tatton-Brown, op cit, 265–99.
7. RA Brown, Rochester Castle (HMSO guidebook, London, 1969), 8–10.
8. W Stubbs (ed), Memoriale Fratris Walteri de Coventria: The Historical Collections of Walter of Coventry, Rolls Series 58, vol 2 (London, 1873), 226–7.
9. TD Hardy, Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum in Turri Londinensi Asservati, vol 1 (London, 1833), 238b.
10. HG Hewlett (ed), The Flowers of History by Roger de Wendover, Rolls Series 84, vol 2 (London, 1887), 148–51.
11. Henry III’s works are summarised in J Ashbee, ‘The medieval buildings and topography of Rochester Castle’, in Ayers and Tatton-Brown, op cit, 250–64; see also D Renn, ‘Refortification at Rochester in the 1220s: a public/private partnership?’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 124 (2004), 343–63.
12. There are several detailed chronicle descriptions of this event: see particularly HR Luard (ed), Flores Historiarum, Rolls Series 95 (London, 1890), vol 2, 489–90 (accessed 4 April 2013); J Stevenson (ed), Radulfi de Coggeshall Chronicon Anglicanum, Rolls Series 66 (London, 1875), 175–6; Gervase of Canterbury, ‘Gesta Regum Continuata’, in The Historical Works of Gervase of Canterbury, ed W Stubbs, Rolls Series 73, vol 2 (London, 1880), 235–6 (accessed 4 April 2013); HR Luard (ed), ‘Annales Prioratus de Dunstaplia’, in Annales Monastici, Rolls Series 36, vol 3 (London, 1866), 230–31 (accessed 4 April 2013); JO Halliwell (ed), The Chronicle of William de Rishanger of the Barons’ Wars: The Miracles of Simon de Montfort, Camden Society, 1st series, 15 (London, 1840), 25–6 (accessed 4 April 2013); and H Rothwell (ed), The Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough, Camden Society, 3rd series, 79 (London, 1957), 191–2.
13. Ashbee, op cit.
14. The National Archives (TNA), C145/142 no. 5, describes defects to ‘the king’s hall in the same tower’ (ie the keep).
15Calendar of the Close Rolls, Edward II, 1313–1318 (London, 1893), 43, 107.
16. TNA, E101/545/12; E101/480/5.
17. TNA, E199/20/14, referring to ‘farmers, tenants and occupiers of the castle’ and to ‘gardens, herb-gardens and orchards pertaining to the said castle’.
18. TNA, E351/3543; JR Dasent (ed), Acts of the Privy Council, vol 30 (London, 1905), 92.
19. Peats and Drury, op cit, 60.
20. R Latham and W Matthews (eds), The Diary of Samuel Pepys, volume 6: 1665 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2000), 249 (entry for 2 Oct 1665).
21. C Dickens, ‘One man in a dockyard’, Household Words, 3/76 (entry for 6 Sept 1851), 553 (accessed 16 May 2013).
22. Peats and Drury, op cit, 68–70.
23. TNA, Work 14/791; G Payne, ‘The reparation of Rochester Castle’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 27 (1905), 177–92 (accessed 8 May 2013).
24. Peats and Drury, op cit, 71–4.

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