The Road to Rochester


Figure 375
Chantry Chapel, Warwick

There are few prospects in England more remarkable, and, in a certain degree, more magnificent, than that which is presented on the approach to Rochester from the road to London. The highest point on the road from Milton is Gadshill, of “men-in-buckram” notoriety. Here the road begins gradually to descend to the valley of the Medway; sometimes, indeed, rising again over little eminences, which in the hop season are more beautifully clothed than are “the vine-covered hills and gay regions of France,” but still descending, and sometimes precipitously, to a valley whose depth we cannot see, but which we perceive from the opposite hills has a range of several miles. At a turn of the road we catch a glimpse of the narrow Medway on the south; then to the north we see a broader stream where large dark masses, “our wooden walls,” seem to sleep on the sparkling water. At last a town presents itself right before us to the east, with a paltry tower which they tell us is that of the Cathedral. Close by that tower rises up a gigantic square building, whose enormous proportions proclaim that it is no modern architectural toy. This is the great keep of Rochester Castle, called Gundulph’s Tower (Fig. 375), and there it has stood for eight centuries, defying siege after siege, resisting even what is more difficult to resist than fire or storm, the cupidity of modern possessors. Rochester Castle is, like the hills around it, indestructible by man in the regular course of his operations. It might be blown up, as the chalk hill at Folkestone was recently shaken to its base; but when the ordinary workman has assailed it with his shovel and mattock, his iron breaks upon the flinty concrete; there is nothing more to be got out of it by avarice,—so e’en let it endure. And worthy is this old tower to endure. A man may sit alone in the gallery which runs round the tower, and, looking either within the walls or without the walls, have profitable meditations. He need not go back to the days of Julius Cæsar for the origin of this castle, as some have written, nor even to those of Egbert, King of Kent, who “gave certain lands within the walls of Rochester Castle to Eardulf, then Bishop of that see.” It is sufficient to believe with old Lambarde, “that Odo (the bastard brother to King William the Conqueror), which was at the first Bishop of Bayeux in Normandy, and then afterward advanced to the office of the Chief Justice of England, and to the honour of the Earldom of Kent, was either the first author or the best benefactor to that which now standeth in sight.” Odo rebelled against William II., and was driven from his stronghold and from the realm. The history of the Castle from his time becomes more distinct:—“After this the Castle was much amended by Gundulphus, the Bishop: who (in consideration of a manor given to his see by King William Rufus) bestowed threescore pounds in building that great tower which yet standeth. And from that time this Castle continued (as I judge) in the possession of the Prince, until King Henry the First, by the advice of his barons, granted to William, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his successors, the custody, and office of Constable over the same, with free liberty to build a tower for himself, in any part thereof, at his pleasure. By means of which cost done upon it at that time, the castle at Rochester was much in the eye of such as were the authors of troubles following within the realm, so that from time to time it had a part (almost) in every tragedy.” Lambarde, who writes this, tells us truly that in the time of the Conqueror “many castles were raised to keep the people in awe.” Such kingly strongholds of oppression were like the “pleasant vices” of common men; they became “instruments to scourge” their makers. Thus, Odo held Rochester Castle against Rufus. The barons successfully maintained it against John. Simon de Montfort carried his victorious arms against its walls, which were defended by the Constable of Henry III. These were some of the tragedies in which Rochester Castle had a part. But the remains of this building show that its occupiers were not wholly engrossed by feuds and by fighting. The splendid columns, the sculptured arches, of its chief apartments proclaim that it was the abode of rude magnificence; and that high festivals, with luxurious feastings, might be well celebrated within these massive walls (Fig. 373). This tower, each side of which at the base is seventy feet long, whilst its height is one hundred and twelve feet, has attached to its east angle a smaller tower (probably for domestics), between seventy and eighty feet in height. A partition wall runs up the middle of the larger tower; and the height was divided into four stories. The joists and flooring-boards have been torn from the walls, but we see the holes where the timbers were inserted, and spacious fireplaces still remain. Every floor was served with water by a well, which was carried up through the central partition. This division of the central tower allowed magnificent dimensions to the rooms, which were forty-six feet in length by twenty-one in breadth. The height of those in the third story is thirty-two feet; and here are those splendid columns, with their ornamented arches, which show us that the builders of these gloomy fortresses had notions of princely magnificence, and a feeling for the beauty of art, which might have done something towards softening the fierceness of their warrior lives, and have taught them to wear their weeds of peace with dignity and grace. Thomas Warton has described, in the true spirit of romantic poetry, such a scene as might often have lighted up the dark walls of Rochester Castle:—

“Stately the feast, and high the cheer:

Girt with many an armed peer

And canopied with golden pall,

Amid Cilgarran’s castle hall,

Sublime in formidable stale,

And warlike splendour, Henry sate,

Prepar’d to stain the briny flood

Of Shannon’s lakes with rebel blood.

Illumining the vaulted roof,

thousand torches flam’d aloof:

From massy cups with golden gleam,

Sparkled the red metheglin’s stream:

To grace the gorgeous festival,

Along the lofty window’d hall

The storied tapestry was hung:

With minstrelsy the rafters rung

Of harps, that with reflected light

From the proud gallery glitter’d bright.”

Fenced around with barbacan and bastion on the land side, and girded by high walls towards the river (Fig. 376), the legal and baronial occupiers of Rochester Castle sat in safety, whether dispensing their rude justice to trembling serfs, or quaffing the red wine amidst their knightly retainers. Even Simon de Montfort, a man of wondrous energy, could make little impression upon these strong walls. But the invention of gunpowder changed the course of human affairs. The monk who compounded sulphur, saltpetre, and charcoal, in their just proportions, made Rochester Castle what it is now. The last repairs which it received were in the reign of Edward VI.; and in that of James I. it was granted by the Crown to Sir Anthony Welldone. His descendant Walker Welldone, Esq., was but an instrument in the hands of mutability to work faster than time. He, good man, “sold the timbers of it to one Gimmit, and the stone stairs, and other squared and wrought stone of the windows and arches, to different masons in London; he would likewise have sold the whole materials of the Castle to a paviour, but on an essay made on the east side, near the postern leading to Bully Hill, the effects of which are seen in a large chasm, the mortar was found so hard, that the expense of separating the stones amounted to more than their value, by which this noble pile escaped a total demolition.” (Grose.) The property finally passed into the hands of Mr. Child, the celebrated banker; and it now belongs to the Earl of Jersey, who married the heiress of that house.

The stone bridge at Rochester, over which we still cross the Medway, is a very ancient structure, as old as the time of Edward III. A great captain of that age, Sir Robert Knolles, who, “meaning some way to make himself as well beloved of his countrymen at home as he had been every way dreaded and feared of strangers abroad, by great policy mastered the river of Medway, and of his own charge made over it the goodly work which now standeth.” This is Lambarde’s account of the matter. But the old Kentish topographer has raked up two ancient documents which show us how great public works were constructed in times when men had first begun to see the necessity of co-operating for public good. The older wooden bridge, which Simon de Montfort fired, and which was wholly destroyed twenty years after by masses of ice floating down the rapid river, was built and maintained at the cost of “divers persons, parcels of lands, and townships, who were of duty bound to bring stuff and bestow both cost and labour in laying it.” One of the documents which Lambarde prints is the ‘Textus de Ecclesia Roffensi,’ which was written in Anglo-Saxon and Latin. It is worth extracting an entry or two, to show how this curious division of labour worked in ancient times. Such a mode of repairing a bridge may provoke a smile; but up to this hour do we retain the same principle of repairing our roads, in the ridiculous statute labour of parishes and individuals. “This is the bridge work at Rochester. Here be named the lands for the which men shall work. First the bishop of the city taketh on that end to work the land pier, and three yards to plank, and three plates to lay, that is from Borstall, and from Cuckstane, and from Frensbury and Stoke. Then the second pier belongeth to Gillingham and to Chetham, and one yard to plank, and three plates to lay.” And so runs on the record; meting out their work to bishop and archbishop and king, with the aid of lands and townships. These progenitors of ours were not altogether so ignorant of the great principles of political economy as we may have learnt to believe. They knew that common conveniences were to be paid for at the common cost; and that the bridge which brought the men of Rochester and the men of Strood into intimate connexion was for the benefit not of them alone, but of the authorities which represented the State and the Church and the population of the whole district; and therefore the State and the Church, and the neighbouring men of Kent, were called upon to maintain the bridge. In these our improved times the burden of public works is sometimes put upon the wrong shoulders.


Figure 377
Painted Window. Two Saxon Earls of Mercia, And Seven Norman Earls of Chester.

Gundulphus the bishop, the builder or the restorer, we know not which, of the great keep at Rochester, was the architect of the most remarkable building of the Tower of London. Stow tells us, “I find in a fair register-book of the acts of the Bishops of Rochester, set down by Edmund of Hadenham, that William L, surnamed the Conqueror, builded the Tower of London, to wit, the great white and square tower there, about the year of Christ 1078, appointing Gundulph, then Bishop of Rochester, to be principal surveyor and overseer of that work, who was for that time lodged in the house of Edmere, a burgess of London.” Speaking of this passage of Stow, the editor of ‘London’ says, “We see the busy Bishop (it was he who built the great keep at Rochester) coming daily from his lodgings at the honest burgess’s to erect something stronger and mightier than the fortresses of the Saxons. What he found in ruins, and what he made ruinous, who can tell? There might have been walls and bulwarks thrown down by the ebbing and flowing of the tide. There might have been, dilapidated or entire, some citadel more ancient than the defences of the people the Normans conquered, belonging to the age when the great lords of the world left everywhere some marks upon the earth’s surface of their pride and their power. That Gundulph did not create this fortress is tolerably clear. What he built, and what he destroyed, must still, to a certain extent, be a matter of conjecture.” And this is precisely the case with the great tower at Rochester. The keep at Rochester and the White Tower at London have a remarkable resemblance in their external appearances (Fig. 377). But we have no absolute certainty that either was the work of the skilful Bishop, who, with that practical mastery of science and art which so honourably distinguished many of the ecclesiastics of his age, was set by his sovereign at both places to some great business of construction or repair. We must be content to leave the matter in the keeping of those who can pronounce authoritatively where records and traditions fail, taking honest Lambarde for our guide, who says, “Seeing that by the injury of the ages between the monuments of the first beginning of this place and of innumerable such, others be not come to our hands, I had rather in such cases use honest silence than rash speech.


Figure 381
381.—St. Mary’s Chapel, Hastings Cliff Castle.

The ruined walls of the Castle of Hastings, and the remains of the pretty chapel within those walls, are familiar objects to the visitors of the most beautiful of our watering-places. The situation of this Castle is singularly noble. It was here, according to Eadmer, that almost all the bishops and nobles of England were assembled in the year 1090, to pay personal homage to King William II. before his departure for Normandy. Grose has given a pretty accurate description of this castle, which we abridge with slight alteration. What remains of the castle approaches nearest in shape to two sides of an oblique spherical triangle, having the points rounded off. The base, or south side next the sea, completing the triangle, is formed by a perpendicular craggy cliff about four hundred feet in length, upon which are no vestiges of walls or other fortification. The east side is made by a plain wall measuring near three hundred feet, without tower or defence of any kind. The adjoining side, which faces the north-west, is about four hundred feet long. The area included is about an acre and one-fifth. The walls, nowhere entire, are about eight feet thick. The gateway, now demolished, was on the north side, near the northernmost angle. Not far from it, to the west, are the remains of a small tower enclosing a circular flight of stairs; and still farther westward, a sally-port and the ruins of another tower. On the east side, at the distance of about one hundred feet, ran a ditch, one hundred feet in breadth at the top, and sixty feet deep; but both the ditch, and the interval between it and the wall, seem to have gradually narrowed as they approached the gate, under which they terminated. On the north-west side there was another ditch of the same breadth, commencing at the cliff opposite to the westernmost angle, and bearing away almost due north, leaving a level intermediate space, which, opposite to the sally-port, was one hundred and eighty feet in breadth (Fig. 381).