Rochester Castle is a surprisingly impressive little fortress that’s about 45 minutes from Central London.
The castle isn’t especially photogenic, and so the pictures you’ll see don’t do it justice. However, when I visited the castle in 2012, I was amazed at the strength and stability of its mighty walls.
After all, Rochester Castle is more than 800 years old – and is one of oldest surviving Norman castles in the whole of England.
The castle is located in the historic heart of Rochester, Kent (‘The Garden of England’, to use its tagline). Charles Dickens lived in Rochester during his childhood – between 1817 to 1821 – and returned to live in the area as an adult.
Rochester features in some of Dickens’ novels – for example, Great Expectations. Nowadays, Rochester celebrates an annual Dickens Festival in June – exactly when I visited.
One of England’s Original Castles
Nestled between London and mainland France, Rochester is an important strategic spot for defence and communication. Resultantly, it was one of the very first castles ever to be built in England. The first castle was probably founded in 1066, during the Norman conquest.
In this respect, it has a lot in common with its vast near-neighbour, Dover Castle.
The main part of the castle that you can see today is the mighty square keep, and this dates to around 1130.
It was a ferociously strong construction – it held up remarkably well to the sieges of Rochester (below), and is still a monolithic building today.
On approach to the castle, you’ll notice that there’s an old stone curtain wall which encircles the Keep (the heart of the castle) – acting as a layer of protection for the main castle building.
This wall contains the castle green and this small space is used for fairs and festivals to this day. Interestingly, the curtain wall pre-dates the main castle keep, and was built in 1088 under the watchful eye of the Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf.
Rochester Castle was one of the first stone castles to be built in England, and Bishop Gundulf also supervised the construction of the White Tower within the Tower of London.
1215: A Mighty Siege
The sheer might of Rochester Castle’s stone keep meant that it withheld two brutal Medieval sieges. Indeed, the events which unfolded in 1215 marked one of the most remarkable sieges ever held upon English soil.
The whole siege was due to a struggle between King John and his barons. Those below him had begun to have ideas above their station, because of King John’s increasingly shaky hold upon power.
In 1215, King John recognized the strategic significance of Rochester Castle. It helped protect London, and indeed England, from attack from continental Europe. However, John didn’t own the castle himself (the feudal nature of England placed it in the hands of local barons).
John tried to prise the castle from the local barons, using diplomatic techniques to transfer ownership.
However, despite drawing up an agreement to cede control of the castle to the crown as part of the Magna Carta, the barons reneged on their commitment to John and seized the castle for themselves. They locked themselves inside, with ample provisions, and declared a state of siege.
The Explosive Fat of 40 Pigs. . .!
Hearing that Rochester Castle was held in siege, King John rushed to the castle, arriving on 13 October.
From then, he and his forces began pelting the castle Keep and the curtain walls with mighty stones and ammunition from their trebuchet siege-engines.
Towards the end of October, King John’s forces managed to burrow under the surrounding curtain wall and reach the Keep. But the Keep was made of stern stuff. Despite pelting it with vast rocks, it stood firm, protecting all those who lay siege inside.
Instead, John tried mining under the south-west corner in order to collapse the Keep. It was unsuccessful.
Quite fantastically though, he had another trick up his sleeve. On 25th November, his forces wrote to London requesting “forty of the fattest pigs, the sort least good for eating”. They hadn’t gone insane. In a word before gun-powder, pig-fat was used as an explosive and as a fire-starter.
The pig-fat created a fire strong enough to burn through the mine-shaft beneath the tower, and collapse part of the castle. But the rebels within were undeterred. As the keep is effectively divided into two parts, they scurried to the other side of the tower to continue their siege.
However, in early December, the game was up. The remaining rebels were near-starved and exhausted, and surrendered to the King. King John showed clemency, and all – except one – were spared their lives.
It wasn’t the last time the castle came under siege. It also defended a significant siege in 1264, again with rebels who rose against King Henry III.
The Ruined Castle Today
Wrapped in a cosy curtain wall, the main keep of Rochester Castle is nowadays open to visitors. It’s not huge and it took me about 1.5hours to see it all.
The castle is essentially a stout walled, square based building. It’s got a turret on each corner, with spiral stairs leading up to the ramparts on the top level. Some of the stairs in a couple of the turrets are – sadly- badly worn away.
Although the castle is opened up to the elements nowadays, it would have contained three floors and a basement. These would have been divided by wooden floors – you can see where the wooden supports would have been today, although they’ve long since rotted away.
The second floor looked to have been a grand, residential suite – it enjoyed high ceilings and glorious, detailed window arches. It had two laters without a division – a grand upper mural gallery, which would have looked down onto the festivities and celebrations within this main hall.
Defensively, the main strength of the castle would have been in its super-thick walls: and its windows, which looked out in all directions across the Medway bay. It would have been easy to fire arrows at approaching marauders.
Charles Dickens and Rochester Castle
From 1300 onwards, Rochester Castle’s importance waned. Although King Edward III rebuilt and strengthened parts of the castle, and although the town Rochester was involved in the peasant’s revolt of 1381, the castle didn’t play a significant role in British history.
The importance of the castle quickly declined, and stones and materials from part of the castle were used to built adjacent Upnor Castle – an Elizabethan artillery fort, which began construction in 1559.
Indeed, when it came to the English Civil War, the castle was in such a poor state that it was ignored by both Royalists and Parliamentarians. Of course, this was really a lucky outcome – many surviving castles were intentionally destroyed after the war ended.
When the c18th arrived, the castle began to become a tourist attraction. Indeed, in the late c19th, Rochester captured the imagination of Charles Dickens and he described its winding streets, overbearing arches and mighty cathedral in Great Expectations and also the Pickwick Papers.
Dickens described the adjacent Rochester Cathedral, which faces the castle as though “looking down the throat of time”, and wanted to be buried there after his death within a quiet service. He wasn’t to be so lucky – he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.
Visiting Rochester and the Castle
Visiting Rochester by public transport is a breeze.
Simply hop on a train from London (St Pancras station is your best bet), and the high speed line reaches Rochester in about 45m. The castle is a 10minute walk along the towns Historic High Street.
There’re a couple of other things to see in Rochester while you’re there – an impressive cathedral and the Six Poor Traveller’s House, which was a lodging house for, well, poor travellers, built in Elizabethan times.
This was the inspiration for one of Dickens’ short stories (The Seven Poor Travellers, confusingly), and it’s got a lovely herb-garden out the back to enjoy in the summer.
Rochester’s historic high-street is attractive in part – it’s got some cute cafes, a gargantuan second hand bookshop, and some cute stalls with Dickensian names. However, it’s blighted with some grimy pubs and bars.
If you’re interested in exploring everything Historic Rochester has to offer, the BBC’s History Magazine has written up a handy itinerary of things to do in the town. Even so, there’s not a great amount to fill your time, and the surrounding area is very industrial. Best come visit Rochester Castle as part of a daytrip from London (or even Canterbury).
If you’ve found this page interesting, I’d recommend you to discover more about the nearby Dover Castle. It’s another of England’s first castles, and a defender of our country – right up to WWII.
Uncover the Full Story of the Great Siege of Rochester Castle – Plus Many More Mysteries…
Just what was so fearsome about King John’s trebuchets?
Why are the towers of Rochester Castle asymmetrical?
And who was unlucky enough to be hanged when the siege was over?
If you’d like to unearth more mysteries of Rochester Castle, you need my first print book, Exploring English Castles.