Norman Rochester

Lambarde, the old Kentish topographer, has a curious passage in his ‘Perambulation,’ on the subject of the comparative insignificance of the diocese of Rochester. “The learned in astronomy,” he says, “be of the opinion that if Jupiter, Mercury, or any other planet approach within certain degrees of the sun, and be burned (as they term it) under his beams, that then it hath in manner no influence at all, but yieldeth wholly to the sun that overshineth it; and some men beholding the nearness of these two bishoprics, Canterbury and Rochester, and comparing the bright glory, pomp, and primacy of the one, with the contrary altogether in the other, have fancied Rochester so overshadowed and obscured, that they reckon it no see or bishopric of itself, but only a place of a mere suffragan, and chaplain to Canterbury. But he that shall either advisedly weigh the first institution of them both, or but indifferently consider the estate of either, shall easily find that Rochester hath not only a lawful and canonical cathedral see of itself, but that the same was also more honestly won and obtained than even that of Canterbury was.” Worthy master Lambarde’s enthusiasm here probably carries him a little too far; however the history of Rochester shows decidedly enough that its claims to respect and attention are little if at all inferior to the claims of its more potential neighbour, great as those are. Both were founded under the auspices of the same royal convert from paganism to Christianity, Ethelbert; and if Canterbury had an Augustine for its first spiritual superior, Rochester had for its first bishop one of Augustine’s companions, Justus; whilst, therefore, it was natural enough that the former should rise to the very summit of ecclesiastical wealth and power, it was really extraordinary that the latter should as steadily decline till it became what it remains,—the smallest, poorest, and least influential of English sees. The particular causes of this declension appear to have been the Avars between the different states of the Heptarchy, then the incursions of the Danes, which left the Church in such a state at the time of the Conquest that divine worship was entirely neglected in it, and the four or five secular canons who then remained nominally attached to it, found it necessary to eke out their means of subsistence by the alms of the benevolent. The Conqueror, however, still found something to pillage and confer upon his relative, Bishop Odo; and the see seemed about to perish altogether, when Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury, endeavoured to check the downward progress of Rochester by the appointment of a monk of the Abbey of Bee, for the avowed purpose of achieving a restoration of the old estates and prosperity; and though he died shortly after, his successor was Gundulph, of whom Lambarde says; “He never rested from building and begging, tricking and garnishing, until he had erected his idol building to the wealth, beauty, and estimation of a popish priory.” He too was chosen by Lanfranc from the Abbey of Bec, and a tradition recorded by William of Malmesbury gives us an interesting glimpse of the two friends before the conquest of England was dreamt of, and before, therefore, either had any idea of the future power that would be reposed in their hands. The historian says that Lanfranc foretold Gundulph’s advancement by a trial of the Sortes Evangelicæ, that is to say, opening the book of the Gospels at hap hazard, and taking the first text on which the eye rests as the prophetic one. Gundulph, like William of Wykeham, was one of those ecclesiastics who shed a glory upon the middle ages, by their happy union of comprehensive intellects to devise, and firm purposes to carry out, measures of high importance to the general weal. Whilst he did almost everything for Rochester, recovering, with the assistance of Lanfranc, its former possessions, obtaining the grant of new ones, building a castle, and rebuilding the Cathedral, he signalized himself in other quarters by the foundation of a nunnery (at West Mailing) and by the erection of the famous White Tower, the nucleus around which all the assemblage of buildings now known as the Tower of London has gradually grown up. Among his other doings at Rochester he removed the secular canons and replaced them by Benedictine monks; and he obtained for the monastery from Henry I. the privilege of coining. And that was not the only royal favour conferred upon it, and commemorated in the statues of the king and queen in the magnificent doorway of the Cathedral. Gundulph, who appears to have been confessor to the queen Matilda, obtained through her means many gifts and privileges from her husband. The Cathedral was in the main completed during the life-time of Gundulph, who died in March 1107-8, and was buried in his episcopal vestments with great splendour before the altar of the crucifix placed at the entrance of the choir; but the whole does not appear to have been considered finished till 1130, when, on the day of Ascension, a solemn and magnificent dedication of the pile to St. Andrew took place in the presence of King Henry, assisted by all the chief prelates of the country. The Cathedral was originally “dedicated to St. Andrew as a token of respect to the monastery of St. Andrew at Rome, from which Augustine and his brethren were sent to convert the Anglo-Saxons; and after the church was rebuilt Lanfranc did not change the name of its tutelary saint, as he did in his own Cathedral, the primate having such confidence in this apostle, that he never transmitted by Gundulph any principal donation without entreating the Bishop to chant the Lord’s prayer once for him at the altar of St. Andrew.” [‘Denne’s Memoirs of the Cath. Church of Rochester.’] The festival of St. Andrew was of course kept with great splendour in the monastery; and Gundulph, to enhance the proceedings of the day, made special provision for it, by appointing that there should be reserved out of the estates that he had caused to be settled upon the establishment, what was called a Xenium, from a Greek word, signifying a present given in token of hospitality. Gundulph’s Xenium seems to have been a very handsome affair, consisting of sixteen hogs cured for bacon, thirty geese, three hundred fowls, one thousand lampreys, one thousand eggs, four salmon, and sixty bundles of furze, with a large quantity of oats, &c, the whole apparently intended for the entertainment in the Bishop’s palace of the poor, and strangers generally; for Gundulph expressly says, “If it should happen, contrary to my wishes, that I, or any of my successors, shall be absent from the feast, then, in God’s name and my own, I order that the whole Xenium be carried to the hall of St. Andrew, and there, at the discretion of the prior and brethren of the church, be distributed to the strangers and poor, in honour of the festival.” The fate of this Xenium forms but one of the many illustrations that the history of our country unhappily furnishes of the fate of the unprotected poor; this provision for a festal day, which must have lightened so many weary spirits by its enjoyments, if it did not even relieve many empty stomachs by its store of food, was ultimately treated as a matter that merely concerned the bishops and the monastery; and hotly enough they disputed it, till the former consented to receive a composition in money in lieu of the provisions in kind; of course we should now look in vain in Rochester for any “open house,” ecclesiastical or otherwise, whether on St. Andrew’s or on any other day. Of Gundulph’s works in the Cathedral the nave forms the principal existing remain, many of the other portions having been seriously injured by the destructive fires that have taken place in Rochester. On the north side of the choir, between the two transepts, there is also a low square tower now in ruins, and known as Gundulph’s, the Avails of which are six feet thick. It has been doubted, however, whether this was really erected by the architect in question. Parts of the Cathedral are recorded as having been built by persons designated simply as monks, rich men, no doubt, who had retired to the cloister of St. Andrew, sick of the vanities and turmoil of active life, and there expended their possessions in the adornment of the house of God. Richard of Eastgate, and Thomas of Mepeham, were the monks who restored and rebuilt the north side of the west transept, after the great fire of 1179; Richard of Waledene the monk, who, about the commencement of the thirteenth century, completed what they had begun, by the erection of the south side. How the upper transept and choir came to be re-erected in the reigns of John and Henry III., forms a curious story, and one strikingly illustrative of the time. In 1201 a rich, benevolent, and pious tradesman, a baker, named William, set out with his servant to perform a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the road to Canterbury, a little beyond Rochester, the servant murdered his master, and fled with the property, which had tempted him to the commission of the crime. The corpse was found and taken back to Rochester, where a fate awaited it that the unfortunate William had certainly never anticipated. The monks were probably at the time very anxious to enhance the reputation of their monastery and church in any way they could, and particularly by rebuilding the parts of the latter that had been damaged in the fires, and were therefore quite prepared to appreciate any remarkable circumstance that might happen in connection with their establishment. And such it seems now occurred when the body of William the baker was placed in the Cathedral. Miracles—of what nature is not recorded—were wrought at his tomb, the repute of which, spreading far and wide, brought hosts of devotees to Rochester, whose offerings filled the treasury, and gave the monks the necessary funds for the erection of the parts of the Cathedral we have mentioned, or, in other words, the whole of the Cathedral eastward of the west transept. In 1254 the pope canonized the murdered traveller, and granted indulgences to all who should visit and make offerings to his shrine,—circumstances that naturally gave a new impetus to the popularity of the tomb and Cathedral. The northern part of the east transept, known as St. William’s Chapel, preserves to this day the remembrance of these events. The tomb itself has disappeared, though the spot where it stood is marked by a slab in the centre of a square, formed of curiously figured mosaics. Pilgrims reached the chapel by a small dark aisle, which, after passing between the choir and Gundulph’s tower, opens into the former. Midway in the aisle is a flight of steps, worn down to something very like an inclined plane by the innumerable feet that have trodden them. The destruction of the tomb probably took place at the Reformation, when the church generally received considerable damage. During the Civil War the fabric was still more seriously injured by the soldiers of the parliament. These are said to have converted one portion of the Cathedral into a carpenter’s shop, and another into a tippling house. From such unpleasant reminiscences it is doubly gratifying to pass to the consideration of the recent doings at Rochester, where the Dean and Chapter have shown that they are fully conscious of the valuable nature of the trust reposed in their hands, and determined to exhibit that consciousness practically. In 1825 a central tower was erected at the intersection of the principal transept, whilst within the last three or four years the interior has undergone a comprehensive repair, including many important restorations of the old details of the structure, such as windows and arches, long filled up, but now once more diffusing a sense of lightness and gracefulness around. The north transept or St. William’s Chapel has in consequence again become what it originally was, one of the most interesting and beautiful specimens of early English architecture that England anywhere possesses.

The other parts of the Cathedral eastward are less decorated, and all those westward, including the nave and west front, are in the main Norman. Of course the perpendicular window in that front (Fig. 650) is the introduction of a much later time. The exceeding richness of the gateway beneath, when the stone was as yet undecayed, and the sculpture exhibited the faithful impress of the artist’s hand, is evident at a glance even in the present state. The Chapter house, now in ruins, also exhibits some remarkably fine sculpture, among which maybe mentioned the statue of Augustine in the doorway. The dimensions of the Cathedral are small when compared with those of Cathedrals generally. The entire length is three hundred and six feet, breadth of the nave and side aisles sixty-six feet; breadth of the west front eighty-one feet. There are numerous monuments and chapels; and beneath the choir, and extending its whole length, is a crypt. Among the many eminent bishops of the see may be mentioned Walter de Merton, the founder of the college known by his name at Oxford; the venerable Fisher, the friend and fellow-sufferer of Sir Thomas More, beheaded by the brutal despot Henry VIII.; and the literary trio, Sprat, the poet, Atterbury, the eloquent divine and delightful correspondent of Pope, Pearce, the critic and commentator.