The fortress has the distinction of being the tallest tower keep in
England and consists of the keep, set within a curtain walled bailey,
with an outer ditch. All is set partially within the city
defences which lie to the east. The fortifications dominate
the point where the Roman Watling Street - originally the main road
between Canterbury and London - crosses the River Medway.
Once more occupation of the castle site began in the Roman period,
showing again that strategic concerns rarely changed across the
centuries. The western curtain wall of the bailey overlies
the remains of the earlier Roman wall, making it likely that the area
of the castle was once within the Roman town of Durobreve.
The earliest references to the castle
are in the Domesday Book of 1086. Here it is stated that the
bishop of Rochester had been given land elsewhere 'in
exchange for the land on which the castle stands'. This shows
that a castle existed in 1086. The first fortification of the
site in stone is generally accredited to Bishop Gundulf after the siege
of 1088, although there is not a shred of solid evidence to back up
this claim. What the evidence, taken from a charter made
between 1087 and 1089 and later copied into the Book of Rochester, does
state is that the bishop agreed to build a stone castle as he was good
at such things.
episcopus Gundulfus, quia in opere
caementarii plurimum sciens et efficax erat, castrum sibi Hrosense
lapideum de suo construeret.
Because Bishop Gundulf knew much of
masonry work and was effective at it, his men would construct the
castle of Rochester for him in stone.
This wording does not imply that an earlier castle, not built of stone,
originally occupied the site. Indeed it proves nothing other
than unspecified stonework was planned at Rochester in the first two
years of the reign of Rufus. Elsewhere in the charter it
states that Gundulf built this ‘castle' at a cost of
£60 as against the expected £40. As the
cost of the castle could not have been known before it was built, it is
obvious that the charter itself was made in hindsight and is not a
reliable source for the building of the castle bailey.
Further it is a pity that we cannot compare what he built at this cost
with work elsewhere. Similarly the idea that the keep was
built in 1127, deduced from a notification of Henry I, is another piece
of wishful reading. The text appears to state that the
archbishop could build a castle, fortress or even a garrisoned site or
indeed a tower if he so wished. Such a structure could well
be one of the mural towers and not the keep which may already have been
standing. However there is no evidence that any such
structure was ever built. As we do know that various towers
were built in other castles for the habitation of the knights who were
to defend their fortresses, this is hardly secure evidence that the
great tower was only built after 1127.
The city walls to the north and east of
the castle are said to be 13th or 14th century mainly because of the
surviving bastions, one to the SE and one to the NE. The
latter is two storeys high and has three lancet loops in the upper
stage. Much of the wall incorporates Roman remains, which
makes the traditional dating difficult. Certainly the city
wall was repaired in 1193 and murage (a tax for building urban
defences) was granted in 1225 and 1262. This strongly
suggests a 12th century masonry wall existed.
Various works were recorded on the
castle and town defences in 1166-1167 and 1170-1171. Further,
the castle itself was strengthened during the reign of Richard I
(1189-1199). During the siege of 1215, the curtain wall and
keep were undermined by King John's engineers in a well known siege
which was made into the modern film Ironclad. Subsequently,
repairs were made to the keep and the curtain wall. The
turret on the SE angle was rebuilt between 1221 and 1222 in a circular
plan against the older turret's rectangular form. In 1237
mention is made of a southern gateway to the castle wall and the
construction of a drawbridge for it. This has now disappeared
above ground. In 1264 the castle was besieged by earls Simon
Montfort and Gilbert Clare. Earl William Warrene and Roger
Leybourne held the fortress for the king. The barons breached
the city wall and the outer defences of the castle, but the great tower
held out and the attackers were eventually forced to
withdraw. Little effort was made to repair the damage caused
by this onslaught, and in the 1340 survey made for Edward III, it was
reported that there were 'dilapidations over the whole extent of the
castle'. It was only in 1367 that a programme of rebuilding
was begun, mainly due to French threats to the south coast.
By 1370 the programme was complete, although, between 1378 and 1383, a
new tower was built on the N angle of the curtain wall.
The main feature of the castle is now
the four-storeyed stone keep, which was certainly in existence by
1138. This is one of the largest keeps in England, being some
70 feet square with walls up to twelve feet thick and 113 feet
high. Throughout the tower decoration was sparingly applied
and can be seen on the exterior of the principal doorways and upper
floor embrasures. Internally the decorations are mainly
chevrons with some shafting, while the central arcade has scalloped
capitals. The work somewhat resembles that seen in the
cathedral just outside the castle defences.
the north of the keep is the
irregular bailey, being some 400 feet N to S. This is still
partly defined by the curtain wall which once enclosed it.
That to the W is probably the oldest and is clearly built on top of the
remains of the Roman city wall. Above this a section of wall in
herringbone masonry, topped by a wall with blocked Romanesque windows.
The dating of the intermediate wall is therefore of great
A long section of wall to the
E still contains two rectangular towers of early design which were
altered in the 14th century. In the SE corner is a
rounded tower which probably belongs to the 13th century.
Beyond the curtain wall on the landward side, but only now visible to
the E and N of the castle itself, are the remains of the castle
For more detailed descriptions of the castle see Kent Archaeology, the Archaeological Journal and Archaeologia Cantiana:
Why not join me at Rochester and other British castles this October? Please see the information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.
Paul Martin Remfry