Favourites on Friday - Rochester Castle and an Elizabethan Gun Fort - Upnor Castle

Last weekend was gorgeous, warm and sunny, but ever so windy.  Grabbed the chance to get away after a difficult week, and opted for Rochester in Kent.

First stop, Rochester Castle.  It was in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest that the first castle at Rochester was founded, given to Bishop Odo, probably by his half-brother, William the Conqueror.  During the Rebellion of 1088 over the succession to the English throne, William Rufus, the Conqueror’s eldest son, instructed the Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf, to build a new stone castle. Gundulf, a monk from Normandy, had been appointed Bishop in 1077 by the Conqueror who had noticed the monk’s talent for architecture.  In 1078, the Conqueror sent Gundulf to London to supervise the construction of the White Tower, part of the Tower of London.

In 1127, Henry I granted the castle to the Bishops of Canterbury in perpetuity.  The massive stone keep that dominates the castle was built by William de Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The castle was a working one, and saw the face of war more than once.  During the First Barons’ War, in 1215, after King John rejected the Magna Carta, the displeased barons captured the castle from the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton.  The castle was vital to both sides, as it was strategically placed on the route through which continental troops would enter England – either those of the rebels’ chosen leader, Prince Louis of France, or the Flemish mercenaries of King John.

John besieged the castle, and the garrison held out for about 7 weeks.  John’s men set to work undermining the walls of the keep, after which the king sent for “ 40 bacon pigs … least good for eating”; their fat fed the fire which burned the props holding up the tunnel.  Rochester’s mighty walls fell.  Still the garrison held on until hunger brought about their surrender.  But it wasn't long before John lost the castle to Prince Louis of France.  When Henry III succeeded John in 1216, Rochester Castle was taken under direct royal control.

During the Second Barons’ War that began in 1264, the castle was besieged yet again, with the constable, Roger de Leybourne, holding the castle for Henry III against the rebel armies of Simon de Montfort and Gilbert de Clare.  Once again, the garrison resisted until the arrival of Henry himself, and the rebels raised the siege, but not before the castle had suffered extensive damage.

In 1381, during the Peasant’s Revolt, the castle was captured by the rebels on June 6th; faced by the angry crowd, the constable surrendered without a fight, and the rebels plundered the castle.

In 1423, the castle was given to Catherine de Valois, the widow of Henry V, as part of her dower to support her financially.

Even though the castle was captured by Royalists in 1648 during the Civil War, it did not see any fighting, an indication that it was no longer of military importance.  It gradually fell out of use, and was opened to the public in the 1870s, along with its grounds, which is used as a park.

From the outside, the keep looks complete, but the roof and all the floors are missing; still, it is possible to climb to the top.  Of all the castles I’ve seen so far, this is one of the most magnificent, and well preserved, especially when you realise it’s over 800 years old.

View of the castle from Rochester Bridge, over the River Medway

One of the lions guarding Rochester Bridge

Entrance to the castle

The outer wall surrounding the castle grounds

Rochester Cathdral as seen from the path leading to the keep

Looking up at the keep before entering ...

Because of the size of the place, and the way it's laid out, it's difficult to get a good enough picture that encompasses the entire height of the keep ...

View of the cathedral from the first level

The widest castle steps yet!

Even though there are about 200 steps to climb to get to the top, it doesn't feel like that many because you can stop at each level, and it's possible to walk all around before heading up to the next level.

Rochester Bridge as seen from the top of the keep

A submarine in the Medway

Church on the opposite cliff

Rochester Cathedral from the top of the keep

Splash of colour

The netting is there to stop the birds, I think, but there was a clever pigeon that squeezed through a hole to get under the netting :)

Time to head back down ...

The moat used to be where the grass is now

A 'Catalpa' tree, also known as the American Indian Bean Tree, not common in Britain, this one is over 100 years old.

The circular corner of the keep - the only round part of the square keep - was built to replace the corner that collapsed in 1215, during the seige when the fat of "40 bacon pigs" were used to feed the fire.

Just across from the castle is Rochester Cathedral, also built by Gundulf.  According to archaeologist Oliver Creighton, close positioning of castles to churches or cathedrals suggests a link between the two.  And so it is in Rochester – both, castle and cathedral, were owned by the Bishop of Rochester.

Roses in the garden of the cathedral, which was out of bounds

A door knocker on a house opposite the side of the cathedral

Noticed this weather vane while sat on the grass by the keep, enjoying the sun

A helpful gent filled me in a little on the cathedral’s history.  Rochester had suffered 2 great fires over the years, and both times, the fire started in the city but spread to engulf the cathedral.  After the second fire, the rebuilding started from the back of the cathedral, and the rounded Norman arches were replaced with pointed Gothic ones, which was the style at the time.  But not all the rounded arches were replaced – those by the front of the cathedral remain rounded, while the back half of the cathedral has pointed arches.

Gothic arches ...

... Norman arches 


On Sunday, after breakfast, it was off for a quick visit to Upnor Castle, a gun fort built in the 1560s.  

Aerial view of Upnor, included to give an idea of what it looks like (Photo: English Heritage)

Before the castle at Upnor was built, the River Medway was already being used to build and repair warships because of its proximity to London, and its sheltered position.  To protect the fleet, Elizabeth I and her Privy Council ordered that a bulwark be built on the river at “ Upnor in the parish of Frindsbury for the protection of our navy”.  In 1582, in honour of the Duke of Anjou, the Queen held a review of ships at Upnor.

In 1585, William Bourne, the Master Gunner, urged that a chain be laid across the river, as this was more effective at sinking enemy ships than gunfire.  However, the castle remained inadequately manned.

During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which began in 1665, Charles II wrongly believed that the Dutch would remain inactive because they were not in a strong position, having suffered severe setbacks.  But in June 1667, a Dutch fleet, under Lt-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, sailed up the Thames, and burned down the fort at Sheerness.  Although the chain across the Medway was in place, it did not stop the Dutch – either a Dutch ship broke the chain, or a landing party cut it loose.  Meeting very little resistance, the Dutch, over the course of 2 days, destroyed and captured a large number of Royal Navy ships that had been anchored at Chatham.  Upnor’s failing was basically due to a lack of munitions, and in 1668 it was downgraded to be used as a magazine, a store place for barrels of gunpowder.

In 1881, it was transferred to the Admiralty, and in 1945, was declared a museum.

Mindful of the time, as I had a train to catch, I didn’t see much of the place, but did get there in time to see a re-enactment of a drill display.  There were several re-enactments taking place over the weekend; unfortunately it hadn’t been well advertised – I only discovered it was on while in Rochester because of the flyers in shop windows.  If I had known, I’d have spent the Saturday at Upnor, and left Rochester Castle and cathedral for Sunday.  Ah well … the drill display was very good, very realistic, liked the costumes, and the dialogue was brilliant and flowed naturally.  I’m glad I got the chance to experience that at least.

No idea how old this is, but it is the front of someone's house, I think

The 'road' leading down to the fort

This guy's delivery was really good... 

The musketeers used authentic muskets, and black powder.  The only thing that was missing was the lead shot ... 

... as this guy said, it would have been very rude to use lead shot as they were firing in our direction ;)