BBC History Magazine - The Siege of Rochester Castle, 1215

BBC History Magazine - The Siege of Rochester Castle, 1215

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In light of the release of the film Ironclad, BBC History Magazine visited Rochester Castle to see what evidence remains of the siege today.

BBC History Magazine - The Siege of Rochester Castle, 1215 - History

A star of a film telling the story of the siege of Rochester Castle is backing a campaign to restore the ancient keep.

The Rochester Castle Restoration Campaign says James Purefoy, who plays a Templar Knight in Ironclad, has been in touch with them.

Ironclad, released today, tells the story of the siege of Rochester Castle in 1215.

The restoration campaign wants the castle to be fully open to the public.

At 125 feet tall it is the tallest castle in the country.

There has been a fortification on the site since pre-Roman times and it has been a ruin for around 400 years.

In 1088, 1215 and 1264, Rochester Castle was under siege. The 1215 siege was during a civil war and was one of bloodiest in English history.

After he signed the Magna Carta in 1215, King John gathered an army to reclaim his power over England and exert bloody revenge against those who defied him.

Barons rebelling against the king had seized Rochester and control of Rochester Bridge.

After taking control of the bridge from the rebels King John's men laid siege to the castle. It took about two months to capture the castle.

It is thought King John may have set up his command headquarters on Boley Hill during this time.

His forces erected five great stone throwing engines to pound the defences as well as small-arms of bows and arrows.

However, this was not enough and King John's men finally managed to gain entry into the castle grounds by undermining its perimeter wall.

The film, Ironclad, aims to recreate the siege and make the viewer experience a medieval battle in action.

Directed by Jonathan English, the filming was done in Wales where the imposing walls and battlements of Rochester Castle were recreated.

The Restore Rochester Castle Campaign wants to save the walls, floor and roof of the 12th Century building.

Jon O'Donnell, who chairs the campaign's committee, said the medieval castle is "decaying faster and faster", and access is restricted because of falling stone.

Jon O'Donnell added: "We want to see the floors and roof put back in to give the building viability, that will protect the insides and give it some structural integrity.

"We are waiting approval from English Heritage on the final draft of an agreement between Medway Council and the Rochester Castle Restoration Campaign to allow the people to raise the money to begin the work to save the castle."

The Siege of Rochester

The struggle between King John and his barons turned into open warfare at Rochester Castle in 1215. Yet the story of how the fortress came to be besieged has not been fully understood, says Marc Morris.

With all the fuss being made this year about Magna Carta and its legacy, it is easy to forget that, in its original incarnation, the document sealed by King John at Runnymede was a dismal failure. Intended to heal the rift between the king and his barons, it succeeded in keeping the peace for just a few weeks.

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Castles were introduced to England by the Normans in the 11th century and their construction, in the wake of the conquest of 1066, helped the Normans secure their new territory. Rochester was an important city, built on the site of a Roman town at the junction of the River Medway and Watling Street, a Roman road. It has long been assumed that the first castle was located next to the river, just outside the south-west corner of the town walls. The conjectural site of the early castle later became known as "Boley Hill". [1] Archaeologist Tom McNeill has suggested that these earliest castles in England may have been purely military in character, built to contain a large number of troops in hostile territory. [2]

According to the Domesday Book of 1086, the Bishop of Rochester was given land valued at 17s 4d in Aylesford, Kent, in compensation for land that became the site of Rochester Castle. Of the 48 castles mentioned in the survey, Rochester is the only one for which property-owners were reimbursed when their land was taken to build the castle. [3] From the 11th century the castle-guard was a feudal obligation in England. This often took the form of knights garrisoning castles for their lords for a set period. There is no comprehensive list of which castles were owed service in this form, but military historian Cathcart King notes that they seem to have been predominantly high-status castles. [4] Rochester's castle-guard consisted of 60 knights' fees, marking it as a particularly important fortification. [5]

It was probably William the Conqueror who gave the city and its castle to Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the king's half brother. On William's death in September 1087 his territories were divided between his two sons. Robert, the elder, inherited the title of Duke of Normandy and William Rufus became King of England. A significant number of Norman barons objected to dividing Normandy and England, and Bishop Odo supported Robert's claim to the English throne. Several others, including the earls of Northumberland and Shrewsbury and the Bishop of Coutances came out in support of Robert. Odo prepared Rochester Castle for war and it became one of the headquarters of the rebellion. Its position in Kent made it a suitable base for raids on London and its garrison could harry William's forces in the county. William set off from London and marched towards Rochester to deal with the threat. Before he arrived, news reached the king that Odo had gone to Pevensey Castle, which was under the control of Robert, Count of Mortain. William turned away from Rochester and seized Pevensey. The captured Odo was forced to swear to hand over Rochester to William's men. The king despatched a force with Odo in tow to demand Rochester's surrender. Instead of yielding, the garrison sallied and captured the entire party. In response William laid siege to the city and castle. Contemporary chronicler Orderic Vitalis recorded that the siege began in May 1088. Two siege-castles were built to cut off the city's supply lines and to protect the besiegers from sorties. Conditions within the city were dire: disease was rampant, exacerbated by the heat and flies. The garrison ultimately capitulated and terms were agreed. Odo, Eustace, Count of Boulogne, and Robert de Belleme, son of the Earl of Shrewsbury, were allowed to march away with their weapons and horses but their estates in England were confiscated. This marked the end of the castle's role in the rebellion, and the fortification was probably abandoned shortly afterwards. [6] The siege-castles were abandoned after the conclusion of the siege and have since vanished. [7]

After the abandonment of Rochester's first castle it was replaced by another on the current site, in the south-west corner of the town walls. Founded between 1087 and 1089, some parts of the castle survive, much altered by use and reuse in subsequent centuries. William the Conqueror had granted Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, the manor of Haddenham in Buckinghamshire – which as of the Domesday Survey had an annual income of £40 – for the duration of his life. In turn, the archbishop had granted the manor to Rochester's monks, so on the Conqueror's death Lanfranc and Gundulf, who was appointed Bishop of Rochester in 1077, had to appeal for reconfirmation of the original grant from the new king. William Rufus demanded £100 in exchange for confirmation of the grant. The two bishops felt such a sum was beyond their means and sought a compromise. Instead it was agreed that Gundulf would build a new stone castle at Rochester. Initially the two bishops were concerned that the cost would exceed the king's original request and that they would be responsible for the castle's upkeep. Henry, Earl of Warwick convinced them that a castle suitable for the king could be constructed for £40, and that following its completion the castle would be handed over to someone else. The actual cost to Gundulf was £60. [8] The bishop was a skilled architect and supervised the construction of the Tower of London's eponymous White Tower on behalf of William the Conqueror. [9] Gundulf's castle was adjacent to Rochester Cathedral. According to archaeologist Oliver Creighton, when castles were positioned close to churches or cathedrals it suggested a link between the two, and in this case both were owned by the Bishop of Rochester. Often the same craftsmen and architects would work on these closely related buildings, leading to similarities in some of their features. Along with Durham and Old Sarum, Rochester is one of the best examples of a closely linked castle and religious building. [10]

In 1127 King Henry I granted Rochester Castle to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William de Corbeil, and his successors in perpetuity. He was given permission to build "a fortification or tower within the castle and keep and hold it forever". Corbeil is responsible for building the great tower or keep that still stands today, albeit in an altered state. [11] The 12th century saw many castles in England rebuilt in stone, an advancement in sophistication of design and technology. Rochester had already been given a stone curtain wall by Bishop Gundulf, and the keep dates from this period. [12] It visually dominated the rest of the castle, towering above its outer walls, and acted as a residence containing the castle's best accommodation. A sturdy fortification, it could also serve as a stronghold in the event of military action. [11] Such was the importance of the keep as a symbol of Rochester it was depicted on the town's seal in the 13th century. [13]

Construction progressed at a rate of about 10 feet (3.0 m) per year. It was probably finished before Corbeil died in 1138 and definitely before 1141, [14] when Robert, Earl of Gloucester, was imprisoned there during the Anarchy of King Stephen's reign. [15] It is likely that after the keep was built there was no further building activity in the 12th century, only maintenance. The castle was held by the Archbishops of Canterbury under the king, but the monarch was still responsible for financially supporting it. [11] Continuous records of royal expenditures known as "Pipe Rolls" began in the reign of Henry II, [16] and included in the rolls are details of expenditure on Rochester Castle's upkeep. During the 12th century, these were generally small figures, but in 1172–1173 more than £100 was spent on the castle, coinciding with the rebellion of Henry II's sons. [17] Following the fall of Normandy in 1204 to the French forces of King Philip II, King John increased his expenditure on the castles in south-east England in preparation for a possible invasion. [18] Amongst these was Rochester and in 1206 John spent £115 on the castle's ditches, keep, and other structures. [17] Under England's Angevin kings royal castles in south-east England were invested in to protect the country from invasion Rochester was one of the most important. [19]

Custody of Rochester Castle remained with the Archbishops of Canterbury until the end of the 12th century. Despite ascending to the throne in 1199 King John did not confirm Hubert Walter as the castle's custodian until July 1202. John may have wished to regain direct control of what was an important castle. [17] The crisis of John's rule began in 1212 with the discovery of a plot to overthrow him. [20] Defeat at the Battle of Bouvines in July 1214 marked the end of John's ambitions to retake Normandy and exacerbated the situation in England. He returned to England in October [21] and a few months later barons in the north of England were actively challenging his rule. A group of barons renounced their feudal ties to John in May 1215, [22] and they captured London, Lincoln, and Exeter. John persuaded Stephen Langton, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, to cede control of Rochester Castle to a royal constable, Reginald de Cornhill. Under the terms of the agreement, the castle was to revert to the control of the archbishop at Easter 1215. This period was later extended to Easter 1216. Letters Patent dated 25 May 1215 requested that other royal constables would take over from Cornhill. The castle would still be returned to the archbishop when the agreement expired or if peace was restored to the kingdom before Easter 1216. In the meantime, control reverted to Langton whom John had asked to hold the castle "in such a way that by it no ill or harm shall come to us or our kingdom". [17]

John met the rebel barons at Runnymede, and on 19 June 1215 they renewed their vows of fealty. [20] A peace treaty, which later became known as Magna Carta, was sealed. [23] Shortly after the treaty the agreement between John and Langton to appoint a royal constable in charge of Rochester Castle was dissolved, returning control to the archbishop. [17] The peace did not last and the First Barons' War broke out. A group of rebels headed to Rochester to hold the city against John. The events surrounding the rebels' takeover of the castle are unclear, but contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall recorded that the king demanded Langton hand over the castle to royal control and the archbishop refused. Langton held out against the king's demands, but the rebels feared he would eventually cave to pressure from the king and seized control of Rochester Castle for themselves. According to Ralph of Coggeshall, this was done with the consent of the castle's constable, Reginald de Cornhill, who seems to have switched allegiance from the king to the archbishop after John appointed him as royal constable of the castle. Langton left the country that same month, leaving the castle in the hands of the king's enemies. In a letter that year to justiciar Hubert de Burgh John expressed his frustration towards Langton, calling him "a notorious traitor to us, since he did not render our castle of Rochester to us in our so great need". After this point, Rochester Castle was no longer considered to be in the perpetual custody of the archbishops of Canterbury. [24]

At the time, John was in south-east England recruiting mercenaries in preparation for his war with the barons. Rochester blocked the direct route to London, which was also held by the rebels. According to Roger of Wendover, the rebels at Rochester were led by William d'Aubigny, lord of Belvoir. Estimates of the size of Rochester's garrison vary, with the chroniclers' figures ranging from 95 to 140 knights, supported by crossbowmen, sergeants, and others. Hearing the news that the city was in enemy hands, John immediately rode to Rochester and arrived on 13 October. Royal forces had arrived ahead of John and entered the city on 11 October, taking it by surprise and laying siege to the castle. Rochester bridge was pulled down to prevent the arrival of a relief force from London. The siege that followed was the largest in England up to that point, and would take nearly two months. [25]

Boley Hill to the south of the castle may have been used as John's headquarters during the siege. According to the Barnwell chronicler, five siege engines hurled a barrage of stones at the castle's wall day and night. These were supported by missiles from smaller bows and crossbows. The Barnwell chronicler claimed they smashed a hole in the castle's outer walls Roger of Wendover asserted they were ineffective and that John turned to other methods to breach the defences. A letter dated 14 October indicates John was preparing to undermine the castle's walls. He wrote to Canterbury, asking for the production "by day and night of as many picks as you are able" and that they be sent to Rochester. [26] On 26 October a relief force of 700 horse was sent from London. They turned back before arriving, perhaps because they heard the king was advancing to meet them. [27]

When the castle's outer walls were eventually breached, the defenders retreated to the relative safety of the keep. It too withstood the efforts of the siege engines, and once again John turned to mining to bring down the walls. The mine was dug beneath the south-east corner of the keep. A letter sent from Rochester on 25 November offers insight into the methods of medieval siegecraft. John ordered Hugh de Burgh to "send to us with all speed by day and night forty of the fattest pigs of the sort least good for eating to bring fire beneath the tower". The wooden props supporting the tunnel dug beneath the keep were set alight to collapse the mine, bringing down one corner of the keep. Still the garrison held out and sought safety behind the stone partition or cross-wall in the keep, abandoning half the building. The Barnwell chronicler remarked that "for such was the structure of the stronghold that a very strong wall separated the half that had fallen from the other". [27]

Conditions within the keep worsened by the day and the garrison were reduced to eating horse flesh. In an attempt to reduce the demand on limited provisions, some members were sent out of the keep, beginning with those least capable of fighting. Some sources record that they had their hands and feet amputated by the besiegers. On 30 November the garrison eventually surrendered and were taken captive. Initially John wanted to execute them all as was the custom of the time when a garrison had forced a long and bloody conflict. Savaric de Mauléon, one of John's captains, persuaded the king otherwise, concerned that similar treatment would be shown to royal garrisons by the rebels. Only one person was executed: a crossbowman who had previously been in the service of the king since childhood was hanged. Many of the rebels were imprisoned, sent to royal castles such as Corfe for safe-keeping. [28] Of the siege the Barnwell chronicler wrote, "Our age has not known a siege so hard pressed nor so strongly resisted . Afterwards few cared to put their trust in castles". [29] Prince Louis of France, son of Philip II, was invited by the barons to become the new leader of the rebellion and become king in the event of their victory. In 1216 he arrived in England and captured Rochester Castle it is not known how, as no documentary evidence recording the event survives. [30]

John died in 1216 and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Henry, with the support of the barons. With no prospect of becoming King of England, Louis returned to France. Rochester Castle was returned to royal control in 1217. Given the damage incurred during John's siege, the castle was in dire need of repairs. Between 1217 and 1237 around £680 were spent on repairs, of which £530 were taken up by work on the keep. In 1225 and 1226 the town walls were enhanced by the addition of a ditch at the cost of £300. The new ditch enclosed Boley Hill, possibly to deny the position to future aggressors who might attack the castle. [30] Repairs began with the castle's outer curtain wall. At the same time a chapel was built within the castle. In 1226 the hall, buttery, and dispensary were repaired. Work probably did not begin on the keep until 1226. It was mostly repaired by 1227, but work continued on it until 1232. [31] During 1230 and 1231 a stone wall dividing the castle's enclosure into two parts was built which no longer survives. [32] While attention was paid to making the castle a working fortification, Henry III also funded construction of residential and other buildings. In 1244, £132 was spent on building a second chapel next to the royal apartments. Stables and an almonry were added in 1248. The main gatehouse was rebuilt between 1249 and 1250 at a cost of over £120. Further repairs were carried out on the keep in 1256, this time costing more than £120. Later in the decade further attention was paid to the castle's defences, possibly in response to Henry III's worsening relations with his barons. [31]

Henry III's reign was in crisis in 1258. He had recently suffered defeat in Wales, there were agricultural problems leading to a famine, and relations with the pope were worsening. Discontent amongst England's magnates led Henry to promise reform, but under continued pressure his authority disintegrated. A royal council of fifteen magnates was formed in June that year, and the rule of the country transferred from the king to the council. With foreign help Henry's reign was restored in 1261 as the council were reluctant to start a civil war. Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, raised a rebellion. In 1264 civil war broke out between those loyal to the king and the baronial forces led by de Montfort. [33]

Rochester's constable in 1264, Roger de Leybourne, held the castle in support of Henry. [34] John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, was the garrison's co-commander. [35] A baronial army led by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Hertford, laid siege to the castle on 17 April that year. Having marched from the earl's castle to Tonbridge the army attacked from the Rochester side of the river, either the south or west. While the army advanced towards the city the royalist garrison set alight the suburbs. The king's hall within the castle was also burned down. An army under Simon de Montfort marched from London with the intention of attacking the city from another direction. The earl's first two attempts to cross the Medway were fought back, but he was successful on 18 April, Good Friday using a fire-ship. The smoke may have been used as cover for the rebels, or the ship may have been used to burn the bridge while the army travelled by water. In a co-ordinated attack that had been pre-arranged, the armies of de Montfort and de Clare attacked the city. They entered Rochester in the evening and that night the cathedral was raided. The following day the rebels captured the castle's outer enclosure and the royal garrison retreated to the keep. Because the next day was Easter Sunday there was no fighting hostilities resumed on the Monday. Siege engines were set up and targeted the keep. As in 1215 the keep proved resistant to missiles, and after a week had not succumbed. According to one contemporary source, the besiegers were about to dig a mine beneath the tower, but the siege was abandoned on 26 April when the earls received news of a relief force led by Henry III and his son, Prince Edward. [34]

Though the garrison had held out within the keep, the rest of the castle had incurred severe damage, but no attempt was made to carry out repairs until the reign of Edward III (1327–1377). It was noted in 1275 that the castle's constables had not only failed to make any effort to repair the structure but had caused further damage: they stole stone from the castle for reuse elsewhere. In 1281 John of Cobham, the constable, was granted permission to pull down the castle's hall and chambers which had been left as burnt-out ruins after the 1264 siege. Numerous surveys in the following century bear testament to the castle's sorry state and follow its steady decline. A survey from 1340 estimated that repairs would cost around £600 another conducted 23 years later stated that it would cost £3,333 6s 8d. Natural weathering worsened the condition of the castle, and in 1362 a "great wind" damaged the structure. By 1369 few of the castle's buildings still stood: the keep, gatehouses, a hall, kitchen, and stable were all that survived, and even then in a state of ruin. [36] The keep was in desperate need of repair, but it was still in use and was the centre of the domestic life at the castle. [37]

Elizabeth de Burgh Queen of Scots, captured by English in 1306, was confined in the castle in 1314 from March to June.

Between May 1367 and September 1370 repairs costing £2,262 were carried out. Records show that sections of the curtain wall were repaired and two mural towers built, one of them replacing a tower on the same site. The towers were positioned north-east of the keep and still stand. More work was undertaken between 1370 and 1377, the year of Edward's death. [38] The royal apartments built during Henry III's reign were never repaired it has been suggested this was because by the 14th century, when considerable sums were being spent on repairs elsewhere in the castle, Rochester had fallen out of favour as a royal residence. As the castle's importance as a high-status residence waned, its role as a barracks and administrative centre came to the fore. [39] The reign of Richard II (1377–1400) saw the investment of £500 in repairing the castle. This was in part in response to French raids on England's southern coast during the Hundred Years' War as England's fortunes in the conflict worsened. The most significant of these works was the construction of a tower at the north end of the castle, overlooking the bridge over the Medway. [40] Records document the sum of £350 spent on a new tower between 1378 and 1383, and it mostly likely refers to the one guarding the bridge. Rochester Castle saw fighting for the final time during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. It was besieged and captured by a group of rebels who plundered the castle and released a prisoner. It has been suggested that the £66 10s spent in 1384–1388 and the £91 13s spent in 1395–1397 may have been partially in response to damage incurred during the revolt. [41]

During the reigns of Henry IV (1399–1413) and his successor Henry V (1413–1422), Rochester Castle was in the guardianship of William, Earl of Arundel and his brother Richard. The castle was given to Henry V's widow, Catherine of Valois, in 1423 as part of her dower to support her financially. She died in 1437, at which point the castle came under the custodianship of the clerk of the King's works. [42] Despite this, there are no records of building work during the 15th century [43] and almost nothing is known about Rochester Castle between then and the second half of the 16th century. The decline of the castle's military significance is marked by the leasing of the surrounding ditch, beginning in 1564 at the latest. Between 1599 and 1601 stone from Rochester Castle was reused to build nearby Upnor Castle, an artillery fort. [44]

Diarist Samuel Pepys commented on the condition of Rochester Castle, and as early as the 17th century the castle may have acted as a tourist attraction. [45] By this time many castles were in a state of ruin, and Rochester was amongst those in need of repair, although still in use. [46] In 1610 James I granted Sir Anthony Weldon control of the castle. During the English Civil War, Weldon declared for the Parliamentarian cause. The castle did not see fighting during the war, even when the city was captured by Royalists in 1648 this may indicate that the castle was not a serviceable fortification by this point. Weldon's support for the Parliamentarians may have spared the castle from slighting (demolition) in the aftermath, a fate suffered by many other castles. Walker Weldon inherited the castle and carried out the destruction of part of the outer wall in the 18th century to sell off the building material he had originally intended to dismantle more of the castle, but the plans were abandoned. A drawing from around this time suggests that the cross wall had been removed by this point. While other parts of the castle were dismantled, the two towers in the south-east wall were still being used for accommodation. In 1743 prisoners were held at the castle, probably in huts. Rochester Castle descended through the Weldon family until it was bequeathed to Thomas Blechynden in the 18th century. By 1774 Robert Child was in possession of the castle, and it remained in the possession of his family until 1884. There were unsuccessful plans in 1780 to reuse Rochester Castle as an army barracks, after the commander of the Royal Engineers for Chatham, Colonel Hugh Debbieg, asked the Child family for permission. [47] The castle ruins inspired a painting by artist J. M. W. Turner in the late 18th century, one of his first oil paintings. Turner was renowned for his love of nature and was at the forefront of the picturesque movement, [48] during which such ruins became fashionable. [49]

Battle, murder and cruelty

Richard I, through careful diplomacy, had ringed Philip with Angevin allies among the princes and nobles of France, forcing the French king to fight a war on several fronts if he wanted to fight the Angevins.

A rumour circulated that, drunk and possessed by the devil, John had slain Arthur with his own hands.

However, by 1202, many of these allies had either gone on crusade or been won over to Philip's side, leaving John isolated and alone.

On the plus side, John still retained the loyalty of William des Roches, who agreed to support him in return for a say in the fate of Arthur. Also, thanks to Eleanor's skilful diplomacy, a reconciliation had been patched up with Aimeri of Thouars, though John still treated him with suspicion.

So John had no international allies but, apart from Poitou and Brittany, his internal territories were secure. As John raised an army in Normandy to counter Philip, Arthur and the Lusignans managed to trap Eleanor in the castle of Mirabeau, from where she sent a plea to her son for aid.

In a lightning strike worthy of Henry II, John sped south to surprise the rebels unprepared outside Mirabeau on 31 July 1202. Not a single rebel escaped.

At a stroke, John had captured over 200 knights and all the leaders of the rebellion, including Arthur and Hugh le Brun. Yet once again, he threw it all away by taking things too far. Flushed with success, he dismissed the pleas of William and Aimeri, and treated his captives most cruelly - ensuring that 22 noblemen died of harsh conditions.

Worst of all, John was implicated in the murder of Arthur of Brittany. A rumour circulated that, drunk and possessed by the devil, John had slain Arthur with his own hands and thrown him into the Seine.

The truth is almost impossible to ascertain, but it is significant that Matilda, the wife of William de Briouze, captor of Arthur at Mirabeau, refused to hand her sons over to John as hostages on the grounds that he had murdered his own nephew - for that, John eventually hounded them both to death.

How 40 fat pigs helped king capture Rochester Castle

Countless films show how King John was shamed by Robin Hood. We all learnt how John was forced by rebellious barons to sign a document that formed the basis of civilised law.

Yet one of the fiercest dramas of that cursed king’s reign was acted out on the banks of the River Medway: the siege of Rochester Castle in 1215. It was the second of three sieges in its first two centuries.

The castle was built at the time of the Norman Conquest and is mentioned in Domesday Book of 1086. It was rebuilt for King William Rufus between 1087-9 by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, and was one of the earliest castles in Britain to be fortified in stone.

Soon after the conquest, both the city and castle of Rochester were awarded to William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. After William died in 1087, many Norman nobles in England were unhappy at the how his possessions in Normandy were bequeathed. The nobles, including Odo, supported the claims of William’s elder son Robert, then Duke of Normandy, against William Rufus, the younger son who had succeeded to the Kingdom of England.

Rochester Castle was fortified against the Rufus and soon became a stronghold and headquarters for the rebels. Rochester was — and indeed still is — strategically important. To the rebels, it was an ideal place for raids on London and to attack the lands belonging to their enemy Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had crowned Rufus.

Rufus had to take action and, having captured uncle Odo at Pevensey Castle, he made him swear he would yield Rochester to the King. Rufus, rather too trustingly, sent Odo ahead with a small royal force to call upon the garrison to surrender.

The party, however, was captured and Odo taken inside. A furious Rufus rode straight for Rochester, recruiting a large force on the way, and besieged the castle. He was successful. Ancient chroniclers say that in May, 1088, Rufus kept the rebels under constant attack. The garrison, under Bishop Odo, Eustace the Younger of Boulogne and Robert of Belleme, son of Roger of Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, were constantly plagued by heat, flies and disease, and soon surrendered.

The rebels were allowed to march out with horses and arms, but were stripped of their lands and titles in England. Odo returned to Normandy. The castle remained the property of the Archbishop of Canterbury — a fact that kings resented. Especially King John. John particularly disliked Archbishop Stephen Langton — who played a leading role in the barons’ opposition to the king’s powers – and tried to block his appointment by Pope Innocent III. Eventually he stood down and Langton was appointed in 1213.

The reasons for the siege are confusing and many chroniclers contradict each other but they revolve around the ownership of the castle. In a nutshell, the king wanted it from the archbishop the barons had rebelled, he had raised an army and Rochester was a vital strategic possession. The archbishop was having none of that.

In 1215, rebels led by William de Albini of Belvoir seized Rochester to block John’s approach to London. They had only three days to gather supplies and stock the castle before John attacked in October. First they assaulted Rochester Bridge and were repelled by the defenders. On 11 October, John’s forces entered the city and the garrison retreated to the safety of the castle.

The siege lasted more than two months. John set up his base on Boley Hill and brought in five massive stone-throwing engines that pounded the castle day and night. He also tried mining the castle. Neither worked. The castle was too strong.

The barons’ leaders in London attempted to relieve Rochester on 26 October, but John had sent 700 horses to intercept them and they turned back at Dartford, leaving the castle to its fate. John was becoming impatient. It was time to use his secret weapon: the pig.

On 25 November he sent for 40 slaughtered fat pigs and had them placed by the props where the great tower had been undermined. They were set on fire — and the tower tumbled down. The rebelled retreated further into the castle, but eventually surrendered after food ran out and they were reduced to a diet of horseflesh and water.

The tower was rebuilt — but made round instead of square, to repel the battering rams of any future sieges.

Siege of Rochester Castle

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  • Why was Rochester Castle seized by some disaffected knights in 1215 and why was King John so keen to recapture it?
  • This lesson aims to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of Rochester Castle and understand why it was built in such a strategic position.
  • Students have to evaluate the most effective ways of attacking and defending a Castle and learn how difficult medieval siege warfare was.
  • The second aim of the lesson is to examine how and why it was captured in the first place as students continue to analyse the power struggle between the barons and the King.
  • There is a brilliant video link to the siege under Rory’s McGrath’s Bloody Britain series which the students follow and answer questions on.
  • Finally they finally continue to plot the power struggle on a graph by answering the question – who rules in medieval England? The graph plots the power struggle between the king, the church, the barons and the people in a sequence of lessons.

Fun, engaging and challenging tasks

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BBC History Magazine - The Siege of Rochester Castle, 1215 - History

Built at the bridging point where Watling Street crosses the Medway, this was one of the first Norman Castles to be fortified in stone.

Audio tour: small charge

Location: Rochester Castle is located in the city centre, off Castle Hill. 29 miles east of London on the A207-A226-A2, beside Rochester Bridge (A2)

Facilities: toilets, gift shop

There has been a fortification at the important defensive site of Rochester since pre-Roman times.

Under Emperor Claudius, the invading legions fought a major battle here in 43 AD, overcoming fierce resistance by staging an audacious river crossing and encircling the encamped local tribes. Despite this opposition, local governor Aulus Plautius described the people of Kent as the most civilised in Britain. This could perhaps have been a result of their proximity to Europe and important trade routes, and the subsequent mingling of culture and language.

In fact, the name 'Rochester' was derived by the Romans from 'Hroffe's Castre', which in turn was derived from the fortified house of a warrior chieftain, Hroffe, who once lived in the area.

Castle facts: Rochester Castle is known as one of the preserved and finest examples of Norman architecture in England.

With its great keep, square and massive and one of the tallest in the country, made of stone, measuring 113 feet (35m) high, the tallest in England, and is 70 feet (22m) square. It is an excellent example of Norman military building.

The walls of the Castle are between 11 and 13 feet (3.5-4m) thick.

A circular staircase leads up to the battlements from which there is an astounding view of the Kent countryside.

History: It was constructed by the Bishop of Rochester in around 1090 in the angle of the Roman town wall. The four-squared towers were added by Archbishop William de Corbell in 1127.

Rochester Castle was fortified against the King John and soon became a stronghold and headquarters for the rebels.

King John lay siege to the castle in 1215 and took it after two long months. He finally undermined the south east tower and burned the props with the "fat of forty pigs" causing the tower to collapse. The city was well placed for raids on London and it also enabled them to devastate the lands of Kent, particularly those belonging to Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had crowned Rufus and was therefore Odo's and the rebels' enemy.

By the 17th century, the castle had become neglected, the keep had been burned out, and the site was being used as a local quarry for building materials. In 1870 the castle grounds were leased to the City of Rochester, who turned them into a public park and eventually, in the 20th century, responsibility for this imposing old structure was taken over by English Heritage.

Today, the castle stands as a proud reminder of the history surrounding the old town of Rochester, along with the cathedral, the cobbled streets and the Dickensian reflections.

The History of the Magna Carta

The Magna Carta is seen as one of the most influential legal documents in British history. Indeed Lord Denning (1899 -1999) a distinguished British judge and second only to the Lord Chief Justice as Master of the Rolls, called the document “the greatest constitutional document of all time – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot”. However, its original conception was not nearly as successful.

The Magna Carta, also know as Magna Carta Libertatum (the Great Charter of Freedoms), was so called because the original version was drafted in Latin. It was introduced by some of the most notable barons of the thirteenth century in an act of rebellion against their king, King John I (24 December 1199 – 19 October 1216).

Increased taxes, the king’s excommunication by Pope Innocent III in 1209 and his unsuccessful and costly attempts to regain his empire in Northern France had made John hugely unpopular with his subjects. Whilst John was able to repair his relationship with the Pope in 1213, his failed attempt to defeat Phillip II of France in 1214 and his unpopular fiscal strategies led to a barons’ rebellion in 1215.

Whilst an uprising of this type was not unusual, unlike previous rebellions the barons did not have a clear successor in mind to claim the throne. Following the mysterious disappearance of Prince Arthur, Duke of Brittany, John’s nephew and son of his late brother Geoffrey (widely believed to have been murdered by John in an attempt to keep the throne), the only alternative was Prince Louis of France. However, Louis’ nationality (France and England had been warring for thirty years at this point) and his weak link to the throne as husband to John’s niece made him less than ideal.

As a result, the barons focused their attack on John’s oppressive rule, arguing that he was not adhering to the Charter of Liberties. This charter was a written proclamation issued by John’s ancestor Henry I when he took the throne in 1100, which sought to bind the King to certain laws regarding the treatment of church officials and nobles and was in many ways a precursor to the Magna Carta.

Negotiations took place throughout the first six months of 1215 but it was not until the barons entered the King’s London Court by force on 10 June, supported by Prince Louis and the Scottish King Alexander II, that the king was persuaded to affix his great seal to the ‘Articles of the Barons’, which outlined their grievances and stated their rights and privileges.

This significant moment, the first time a ruling monarch had been forcibly persuaded to renounce a great deal of his authority, took place at Runnymede, a meadow on the banks of the River Thames near Windsor on 15th June. For their part, the barons renewed their oaths of allegiance to the king on 19th June 1215. The formal document which was drafted by the Royal Chancery as a record of this agreement on 15th July was to become known retrospectively as the first version of the Magna Carta.

Whilst both the king and the barons had agreed to the Magna Carta as a means of reconciliation, there was still huge distrust on both sides. The barons had really wanted to overthrow John and see a new monarch take the throne. For his part, John reneged on the most crucial section of the document, now known as Clause 61, as soon as the barons left London.

The clause stated that an established committee of barons had the ability to overthrow the king should he defy the charter at any time. John recognised the threat this posed and had the Pope’s full support in his rejection of the clause, because the Pope believed it called into question the authority of not only the king but the Church as well.

Sensing the failure of the Magna Carta in curbing John’s unreasonable behaviour the barons promptly changed tack and reinitiated their rebellion with a view to replacing the monarch with Prince Louis of France, thrusting Britain head long into the civil war known as the First Barons War. So as a means of promoting peace the Magna Carta was a failure, legally binding for only three months. It was not until John’s death from dysentery on 19th October 1216 mounting a siege in the East of England that the Magna Carta finally made its mark.

Following fractions between Louis and the English barons, the royalist supporters of John’s son and heir, Henry III, were able to clinch a victory over the barons at the Battles of Lincoln and Dover in 1217. However, keen to avoid a repeat of the rebellion, the failed Magna Carta agreement was reinstated by William Marshal, the young Henry’s protector, as the Charter of Liberties – a concession to the barons. This version of the charter was edited to include 42 rather than 61 clauses, with clause 61 being notably absent.

On reaching adulthood in 1227, Henry III reissued a shorter version of the Magna Carta, which was the first to become part of English Law. Henry decreed that all future charters must be issued under the King’s seal and between the 13th and 15th centuries the Magna Carta is said to have been reconfirmed between 32 and 45 times, having last been confirmed by Henry VI in 1423.

It was during the Tudor period however, that the Magna Carta lost its place as a central part of English politics. This was partly because of the newly established Parliament but also because people began to recognise that the Charter as it stood arose from Henry III’s less dramatic reign and Edward I’s subsequent amendments (Edward’s 1297 version is the version of the Magna Carta recognised by English Law today) and was no more extraordinary than any other statute in its liberties and limitations.

It was not until the English Civil War that the Magna Carter shook off its less than successful origins and began to represent a symbol of liberty for those aspiring to a new life, becoming a major influence on the Constitution of the United States of America and the Bill of Rights, and much later the former British dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the former Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). However, by 1969 all but three of the clauses in the Magna Carta had been removed from the law of England and Wales.

Clauses still in force today

The clauses of the 1297 Magna Carta which are still on statute are

  • Clause 1, the freedom of the English Church.
    Clause 9 (clause 13 in the 1215 charter), the “ancient liberties” of the City of London.
    Clause 39 (clause 39 in the 1215 charter), a right to due process:

“No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land.”

And what of the Magna Carta’s relevance today?

Although the Magna Carta is generally thought of as the document that was forced on King John in 1215, the almost immediate annulment of this version of the charter means it bears little resemblance to English Law today and the name Magna Carta actually refers to a number of amended statutes throughout the ages as opposed to any one document. Indeed the original Runnymede Charter was not actually signed by John or the barons (the words ‘Data per manum nostrum’ which appeared on the charter proclaimed that the King was in agreement with the document and, as per common law at the time, the King’s seal was deemed sufficient authenticity) and so would not be legally binding by today’s standards.

Unlike many nations throughout the world the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has no official written constitution, because the political landscape has evolved over time and is continually amended by Parliamentary acts and decisions made by the Courts of Law. Indeed the Magna Carta’s many revisions and subsequent repeals means that in reality it is more of a symbol of freedom of the (not so) common people in the face of a tyrannical monarch, which has been emulated in Constitutions throughout the world, most famously perhaps in the United States.

In perhaps a telling sign of the opposing views of Britons today, in the BBC History’s 2006 Poll to find a date for ‘Britain Day’ – a proposed day to celebrate British identity – 15th June (the date the King’s seal was affixed to the first version of the Magna Carta) – received the most votes of all historical dates of significance. However, in ironic contrast a 2008 survey by YouGov, the internet-based market research firm, found that 45% of British people did not actually know what the Magna Carta was…

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 castle well has obviously been recently restored (check the date on it!), but it helped those in the castle hold out for months during the siege of 1215. (Own photo)

BBC History Magazine - The Siege of Rochester Castle, 1215 - History

Only open at certain times

Only open at certain times

he site on which Rochester Castle is built was originally a Roman castrum, or military camp. Shortly after the Norman Invasion of 1066 a new castle was built on a hill near the site on which the current castle now stands. This early castle would have been a wooden motte and bailey construction. The castle is built overlooking the River Medway which is an important route in and out of southern England.

In 1088 Rochester Castle came under attack during the conflict between William Rufus and Odo the bishop of Bayeux. In 1087, after William the Conqueror had died, control of Normandy was disputed. Odo, along with many others, supported William's elder brother Robert, Duke of Normandy, while others supported William Rufus, the Conqueror's younger brother. Odo had control of Rochester Castle and it became the headquarters for the rebels. The castle fell to William Rufus' army and Odo was forced into exile. Gundulf, the bishop of Rochester, orchestrated the construction of a stone castle alongside the Norman cathedral. King Henry I granted the castle of the bishops of Canterbury and in 1126 the construction of a new large keep was begun by William de Corbeil, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Over the centuries the castle was the scene of many conflicts including King John's attempt to regain the castle from the Barons and in 1264 Simon de Montfort's rebellion. It was during King John's siege of the castle that undermining brought down one of the southern corners of the keep. The destroyed corner tower was later rebuilt.

Gundulf used existing sections of Roman walls in the construction of Rochester Castle. These were repaired and their height increased. New walls were constructed to enclose a large bailey with a ditch on the outside. Not much of Gundulf's original castle survives as it was rebuilt by William de Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury, sometime after 1126. At 125 feet high the keep he built at Rochester is the tallest in England. The keep has a square ground plan and has four corner towers that project slightly. On three of the four faces of the keep are pilaster buttresses at the centre and at each end of the walls. The north-east face having two buttresses.

Access to the keep is via a series of steps along the north-west and north-east sides. A square tower or forebuilding originally protected these steps but it has been demolished. A drawbridge separated the forebuilding from the entrance to the keep for extra protection. Directly inside the keep is a lobby where guards would have positioned. To the right of the main entrance is the door to the keep and in this doorway are slots for a portcullis. The lobby is lit by three small typical Norman round-headed windows. Below the lobby are two floors of rooms for storage or possibly a dungeon and above it is the chapel.

The castle is divided into two halves by a central wall oriented north-west to south-east. This central wall has a central well-shaft so that water could be accessed from each floor. The central wall supported two low-pitched rooves. A large spiral staircase can be found in the eastern tower of the keep that is used to access all floors from the basement to the wallwalks. A similar staircase in the western tower starts from the first floor and reaches to the top. The ground floor was most likely used for storage. The main hall of the keep is on the second floor and on this floor the central dividing wall is pierced by an arcade of columns with round-headed arches decorated in typical cheveron designs. The hall floor is very high and has a barrel-vaulted gallery running around the top, both providing extra light and somewhere to watch proceedings from.

Watch the video: BBC History Magazine explores the siege of Rochester Castle, 1215


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