Its castle, high above the swift Medway, is most picturesque; indeed, a prettier picture than castle and river from the opposite bank can scarcely be conceived. There was from early times a fort here; for the passage of the Medway was important, and had to be defended, whether by Romans, Saxons, Danes, or Normans. A great fighting place, therefore, was Rochester, and its castle stood many attacks at that time.
Rochester town and castle were besieged by Rufus during the civil war in Kent in his reign. The town was soon taken, and then the king closely pressed the castle for six weeks Within its walls was Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, the valiant priest who rallied the Normans at Hastings, and he was not likely to yield easily, especially as the castle was his own. A contagious disorder, however, broke out in the garrison, and he offered to capitulate; but Rufus would not accept his terms for a time. At length, persuaded by his barons, he permitted the besieged to march out with their arms and horses, on condition that they should leave the kingdom and forfeit their estates. Odo alone was made prisoner, and was sent to Tunbridge Castle; but afterwards received his liberty and the sentence of banishment.
Rufus probably suspected that Gundulph, the bishop, was inclined to the side of Odo, for he refused (after the castle was yielded up) to confirm a grant of the manor of Hadenharn, in Bucks, which Archbishop Lanfranc had given to the see of Rochester. But being entreated by Robert Fib Hamon and the Earl of Warwick, he consented, on condition that the bishop should spend sixty pounds iv repairing the injuries the castle had received in the siege, and make other additions. Gundulph repaired the walls, and commenced building the great square tower; but he died twelve years after it was begun, and left it unfinished. It is still called Gundulph's Tower. It is quadrangular, and about seventy feet square at the base.
The present ruin is that of the castle built by this Gundulph, a monk of Bec in Normandy, who was Bishop of Rochester and the best architect of his time. He also built the White Tower of the Tower in London.
One enters the pretty gardens now spread beneath the ancient keep, by an ascent formed by two arches turned over the castle ditch, and one finds one's self in a lovely spot, full of roses and lilies; and one is greeted by a rush of wings and the soft coo of doves, as the castle pigeons of all hues flutter round one. They are so tame that they will take food from the hand, and perch on one's head and shoulders. Under the protection of the lodge-keeper they are safe, and know it. What flocks there are of them I
The keep, noble even in decay, is at the southeast angle, and is so lofty that it can be seen twenty miles off.
The points most observable in Rochester ruins are the well, which is built in the centre of the great tower, and its contrivances for supplying every floor with water; the columns and arches of the chapel in the second storey, and the extreme massiveness of the walls, which are twelve feet thick.
From the floor glancing upwards one sees the whole height of the interior. The space enclosed by the walls of the castle is about 300 feet square. The tenure of the fortress is perfect castle guard. On St. Andrew's Day, old style, a banner is hung out of the house of the receiver of the rents, and every tenant who does not pay is liable to have his debt doubled on the turn of every tide in the adjacent river during the time that it remains unpaid. Much land in Kent is held on this tenure from the castle.
Adjoining to the east angle of the tower is a small one, about two-thirds of the height of the keep and about twenty-eight feet square. The grand entrance was by this small tower, ascending by a noble flight of steps through an arched gateway. Here, in old days, was a drawbridge, under which was the entrance to the lower apartments of the great tower, which were probably designed for store rooms, and are very dark and gloomy. Air and light were admitted only through narrow slits in the walls. They are divided by a partition wall with arches in it, by which the rooms communicate. There is a vault under the small tower, which was doubtless the prison of the castle. The great tower is ninety-three feet high, and has a battlement round it seven feet high, with embrasures. At each angle of the roof is a battlemented tower, twelve feet square. The whole height of the keep, including these towers, is a hundred and twelve feet from the ground. The rooms have fireplaces and arched chimney-pieces, but no chimneys; the smoke was supposed to be carried off through small holes made in the outer wall near each fireplace. As we ascend to the next floor, we find a narrow arched passage in the main wall, running all round the tower. In the tower of the castle near the bridge is an open space from top to bottom of the wall for the secret conveyance of provisions to the garrison.
The first event that occurred at the castle after its siege by Rufus was the imprisonment in it of the gallant Robert, Earl of Gloucester, by the adherents of Ring Stephen. He had been the general of the Empress Maud, his half-sister, and was taken prisoner at Winchester after effecting the escape of the empress. There is something absurd in the fact that Stephen himself was at the same time the prisoner of Maud I The king and earl were exchanged.
Among the articles of complaint preferred by Becket against Henry II. was that of the king having unjustly deprived him of Rochester Castle, which had been annexed to the archbishopric by Henry I.
Rochester had a large share of the civil strife in the infamous John's reign. William de Albini held the castle for the barons, and defended it bravely for three months, till famine was added to his difficulties, and the garrison had to kill their horses, and finally to surrender, when John had all the soldiers, except the crossbowmen, hung.
Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, also besieged the castle in the next reign. It held out for King Henry III., however, successfully; and after seven days the great rebel retired, and the force he left behind him was put to flight by the besieged.
James 1. granted Rochester Castle to Sir Anthony Weldon. His descendants destroyed the interior to sell the timber. The noble ruin is now the property of the Earl of Jersey.
Close to the castle is the fine cathedral of Rochester (it is said that there was a subterranean way between the fortress and the church), and in a house near it Queen Elizabeth stayed when on a visit to the town.
The view of the castle towering over the Medway is, as we have said, highly picturesque.
The town also has one or two quaint old houses, and its High Street is interesting. The Bull Hotel is immortalised in "Pickwick," and the place of the duel between Messrs. Winkle and Slammer can be identified on the hill by the military hospital.
Indeed, the localities of Pickwick make both town and neighbourhood interesting. Edwin Drood also belongs to Rochester.