Tonbridge was an early motte
and bailey castle probably
built by Richard Clare (d.1090) soon after the Norman conquest to help
Kent, although the Victorian tale that it was built to imitate the lost
Clare stronghold of Brionne
in Normandy should be taken with a stiff
pinch of salt. In 1088 the castle was held against William
Rufus and surrendered after a brief siege before the king
moved on to
In 1163 the archbishop of Canterbury claimed the
castle, but Earl Roger Clare (d.1173) made his messenger eat the
demand, seal and
all. In December 1215 the castle was taken by royal forces
after the fall of Rochester.
Hubert Burgh and the archbishop
of Canterbury fought over the overlordship of the castle, which ended
in the archbishop's favour in 1231 when Earl Richard Clare (d.1262) did
homage to him
for the castle. In 1253 Earl Richard was given licence to
crenellate Tonbridge castle. This possibly marks the
completion of the gatehouse. Despite this, the castle fell to
the king in 1264 when Earl Gilbert Clare rebelled (d.1295).
In 1274 Earl
Gilbert entertained Edward I
in the castle before his
coronation. As late as 1521 the gatehouse was reported to be
‘as strong a fortress as few be in England'. The
fortress was demolished in 1647-48 and used as a quarry in the
eighteenth century, the shell keep being pulled down in 1782.
Finally, the castle was refortified in the second world war with anti
tank pill boxes being built at each end of the south curtain wall.
The castle was defended by a moat which is now dry, but once connected
with the River Medway to the south. There were originally 2
baileys, one to the NW and one to the east, with the motte set between
the two. The NW bailey had now gone, but the motte and east
bailey survive, probably because both of these were refortified in
stone. Excavation has shown that the motte was original
enclosed by its own moat, but this was filled in to the east in the
twelfth century to allow more room and an easier access from the east
The motte is 65' high and is surmounted by an irregular shell keep some
70-75' in diameter. Interestingly a coin of Emperor
Constantine (d.337), minted at Treves was said to have been found on
the motte in the Victorian era. Although this doesn't mean
that the motte is Roman it should be noted that the ‘Norman'
motte at Aberdeen was found on excavation to be a second century Roman
watch tower cum fort. Tonbridge motte summit was partially
excavated in 1912, which revealed the foundations of various buildings
within the structure, some of which have been rebuilt for a few
feet. Shell keeps, self contained open air wards rather than
sealed towers, are not that common in the UK, the best examples being
Arundel, Berkeley, Carisbrooke, Clare, Farnham,
Pickering, Restormel, Tamworth, Totnes, Trematon, Warwick and Windsor.
In Wales there are Brecon, Cardiff, Powis, Tretower, and Wiston. While France has examples at Chateau Sur
Epte , Chateau Renault and Gisors. There is also Dungarvan in Ireland and the mottless gloriette at Leeds castle in Kent.
Towards the south side is a well within the
keep, though this has mostly been filled with rubble. From
the keep a curtain wall ran down to a twin towered gatehouse at the
foot of the motte. This is tolerably well preserved and shows
that the approach up the motte was within this wall in the thirteenth
century and was approached via the gatehouse at first floor
level. This is somewhat similar to the twelfth century
arrangement at Arundel castle.
The gatehouse at Tonbridge is twin towered, with powerful spur buttresses and stair
turrets to the rear flanks. This makes it similar to other
thirteenth century gatehouses found in Wales, like
Aberystwyth, Caerphilly east
gatehouse, Harlech, Llangynwyd and Llanstephan.
Llangibby and Beaumaris
in Wales are elongated versions of this
style. Similar structures do not appear to exist elsewhere in England,
Ireland, Scotland or France, where the rear stair turrets are all missing. The Tonbridge gatehouse has a
blind basement, a ground floor and 2 upper levels. Entrance
to the towers was gained centrally in the gate passageway, while the
entrance to the keep via the curtain wall passageway was on the first
floor, but the entrance to the wallwalk to the east was on the second
floor, which also contained a hall stretching the entire length of the
structure. All four of these minor doors were protected by
their own portcullises, showing the extreme defensive nature of this
Tonbridge gatehouse is similar to the east, but not the west gatehouse or the outer ones
at Caerphilly, but
dissimilar to Harlech
which remains divided into
four chambers, the upper ‘hall' undoubtedly being for the
constable's use. The Tonbridge crossbow loops are typical
thirteenth century with ball oillets. Unlike most gatehouses,
Tonbridge had its own well in the basement, which although eighteenth
century may mark the site of a predecessor. It has also been
recently refloored to give it something of its original feel.
The bailey was defended by a curtain wall, now with no traces of any
flanking other than the gatehouse. However the 1521 survey
shows that the rectangular Stafford's tower stood under the current
Georgian house built beside the great gatehouse, the octagonal water
tower stood at the SE apex of the site against the Medway and
moat. There was also a SW tower that stood at the foot of the
motte overlooking where the motte moat left the Medway.
Portions of this and the curtain up 25' high can still be seen along the Medway
and ascending the motte, half way along which was a postern.
Internal to this river wall the duke of Stafford was building a suite
of lodgings before his execution. This was probably the site
of the castle's great hall and associated buildings. The town
wall was built in 1295.
Paul Martin Remfry