Rochester Cathedral

Rochester diocese was founded by Justus, one of the missionaries who accompanied Augustine of Canterbury to convert the English to Christianity in the early seventh century.  Later the Venerable Bede (d.735) described the burial of St Paulinus as taking place 'in the sanctuary of the Blessed Apostle Andrew which Æthelbert founded, just as he built the city of Rochester'.  Presumably then Æthelbert was responsible for the building of the church as well as maintaining the Roman defences.  Excavation has shown that this first cathedral was 42' long and 28' wide.  Its site is now marked on the floor of the current cathedral as well as outside.  After the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror granted the cathedral to his half-brother, Odo, who reduced the cathedral to near-destitution.  During his term of office it was found that although the building was ancient it was decayed, so that it was only served by 4 or 5 canons 'living in squalor and poverty'.  Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, amongst others, brought Odo to account at the trial of Penenden Heath and following Odo's final fall, Gundulf (d.1108) was appointed as the first Norman bishop of Rochester in 1077.

Gundulf's first undertaking is claimed to have been the construction of a new cathedral in about 1083 of which all that remains are the west end and the so-called Gundulf tower [left].  This bishop is also alleged to have built Rochester castle as well as the Tower of London as he was appointed overseer of works in 1078.  Gundulf is also credited with building St Leonard's Tower at West Malling and also Colchester castle on the spurious grounds that it superficially looks like the Tower of London.  Funnily enough he is not accused of building Ivry castle which does have a similar keep to the Tower of London.  Similarly the linking of Gundulf's tower [left] to Gundulf is simply the work of assigning a major chunck of masonry to a well-known builder and has zero evidence to back the claim.  Indeed the tower is of an utterly different style to the other surviving 'Norman' parts of the cathedral in the acarde, cloisters and west end.  As it is crudely built, with thick walls and buttresses, together with a much altered triangular headed approach, it is far better to think of this as Saxon, rather than Norman.

The 'Norman' cathedral of Rochester seems to have had a presbytery of six bays with aisles of the same length.  The four eastern bays stood over an undercroft which forms part of the present crypt, while to the east was a small projection, probably for the silver shrine of Paulinus which was translated there from the old cathedral.  The transepts were 120' long, but only 14' wide.  To the south there was another tower like the so-called Gundulf's tower, but no tower over the crossing.  This cathedral is claimed to have been completed during the episcopates of Ernulf (1115–24) and John (1125–37).  Ernulf is also credited with building the refectory, dormitory and chapter house, only portions of which remain.  Finally Bishop John translated the body of Ithamar from the old Saxon cathedral to the new Norman one, the new cathedral being dedicated in 1130 by the archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by 13 bishops in the presence of Henry I.  This would tend to indicate that some of the old cathedral was still standing at this point and therefore that the west end was not completed until after this date, although the old west end definitely lay further west than the current one as excavation has proved.

The occasion of the 1130 dedication was marred by a great fire which nearly destroyed the whole city and damaged the new cathedral, which was badly damaged by fires again in 1137, when the nave roof was burned and the choir damaged, and 1179.  One or other of these fires was sufficiently severe to badly damage or destroy the east end and the transepts.  Ernulf's monastic buildings were also damaged.
Possibly from about 1190, Bishop Gilbert Glanville (1185–1214) commenced the rebuilding of the east end and the replacement on the monastic buildings.  The north quire transept may have been sufficiently advanced to allow for the burial of St William Perth in 1201, alternatively the coffin may have lain in the north quire aisle until the transept was ready.  The new presbytery was roofed by 1214.  The cathedral was then looted in 1215 by the forces of King John when he was besieging Rochester castle.  Edmund Hadenham recounted that there was not a pyx left 'in which the body of the Lord might rest upon the altar'.  In 1227 the quire was again consecrated.  The cathedral was rededicated in 1240 by Richard Wendover who had been translated from Bangor.  The new building works were paid for by the pilgrims making offerings at the shrines of saints Paulinus, William Perth and Ithamar.

In 1264 baronial forces desecrated the cathedral and armed knights rode into the church and dragged away refugees.  The standard cry went up that the monastic buildings were turned into a stables and that gold and silver were stolen and documents destroyed.  As the cathedral was so near to the castle, which held out, it would seem unlikely that valuable horses would have been stabled so near a hostile garrison, unless they were there as a lure to bring the royalists out.

In 1343 Bishop Hamo Hythe had the central tower built and possibly the chapter room doorway constructed.  By 1635 the cathedral was described as:

small and plaine, yet it is very lightsome and pleasant: her quire is neatly adorn'd with many small pillars of marble; her organs though small yet are they rich and neat; her quiristers though but few, yet orderly and decent.

Unfortunately by this time the funerary monuments of the cathedral and:

divers others also of antiquity, so dismembred, defac'd and abused. 

This was six years before the despoliation of the cathedral by Parliamentarian soldiers in the wake of the English Civil War and shows that much damage to monutments often occurred outside the traditional times of iconoclasm.  Finally, Samuel Pepys dismissed the cathedral as a 'shabby place'.

Lying beneath the church is the crypt.  The westernmost 2 bays are thought to be a part of Lanfranc's works from the 1080s, while the rest of the chamber is throught to be from at least a hundred years later.


Copyright©2022 Paul Martin Remfry

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