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8-08-2015, 15:16

The Castle at Rochester

The castle at Rochester, a vital position where the road to London crossed the Medway River, still gives an excellent idea of a Norman great tower (Figure 6). The ancient Romans had recognized the strategic importance of the site and had built a fort. Later, the Anglo-Saxons built their cathedral east of the Roman fort. William the Conqueror, in turn, appropriated the surviving Roman walls and placed his tower in the southwest corner of the Roman camp. Gundolf, the bishop of Rochester from 1076/77 to 1108, rebuilt the castle between 1087 and 1089, but the huge tower we see today dates from the reign of King Henry I (1100–35), who gave the castle and permission to rebuild a tower to Archbishop Corbeil of Canterbury (1123–36). The tower was certainly finished by 1141 although the cylindrical tower at the southeast corner dates from the restoration after a siege in 1216. Early Norman great towers were rectangular buildings usually three or four stories high, with massive rectangular towers rising from buttresses clasping the corners. At Rochester the tower had four floors: a ground floor used for storage, a first-floor room entered from the stair in the forebuilding, a main hall of double height, and an upper floor. A wall divided each floor into two parts, and spiral stairs in the corners provided access to the floors. The principal room was on the second floor, with private rooms on the upper floors; fireplaces, garderobes, and small chambers were built in the thickness of the wall. Admission to the great hall at Rochester castle was by means of a complex and imposing stair and forebuilding. Stairs begin on the west side of the tower, rise along the wall, turn the corner, and continue into a turret to an ante-room at the side of the principal hall. A drawbridge also protected the portal. The unusual eight-foot width of the stair suggests that it had a ceremonial function. A chapel occupied the upper floor of the forebuilding. Here, paired windows lit the impressive carved portal of the chapel. In contrast to Loches, Rochester was the first Norman tower to emphasize height rather than mass. The great tower at Rochester stood about 125 feet tall, including the corner turrets, and had a square plan with an exterior measurement of seventy feet. Corner and wall buttresses strengthen the walls. On the principal floor, wide arches rather than a wall divided the space into two halls (Figure 7). These halls were two stories (twenty-seven feet) high, with window embrasures in the thickness of the upper wall. Wall passages led to these window rooms and to the chapel over the entrance. The principal hall was richly decorated. The arches are carved with chevrons, and columns with scalloped capitals flank large windows that could be closed by shutters. An upper floor provided private rooms for the lord or his castellan and the family. This floor had small chambers, as well as fireplaces and garderobes, built into the walls. In the center of each floor, superimposed openings created an open shaft for a windlass on the roof, which lifted materials such as food or rocks and other weapons from the storage and service areas in the ground-floor room to the halls and the roof. At the top of the walls a crenellated wall-walk gave the soldiers space to watch and if necessary shoot arrows or drop missiles on the enemy. The castle garrison could build wooden platforms and walls, called hoardings, out from the top of the wall to give themselves extra protected space. The great tower stood in a walled bailey, which today forms a public park. The peaceful expanse of grass belies its original use. Originally everyone lived—ate and slept, squabbled, and entertained themselves—in the hall. Only the castellan and his family might have a place to themselves. In the living rooms, charcoal braziers provided some warmth, and open fires or wall fireplaces created smoke-filled rooms (chimneys came later). Sanitation was an important concern to owners of castles, who insisted on having adequate garderobes easily reached from the principal rooms. People bathed in portable tubs. Because of the danger of fire, kitchens and ovens were usually separate buildings in the bailey. Shelters for the garrison, the servants, and the horses and livestock were also in the bailey. A chapel could be an independent building in the bailey, or might be placed in the tower itself, as in the Tower of London, or—as at Rochester—in the forebuilding. The castle had to be self-sufficient. Wars usually consisted of sieges in which the aggressor invested (that is, cut off supplies to the castle) and tried to batter down the castle walls or starve its people into submission. Battering down or tunneling under the walls was usually less effective than starvation. Since early armies were raised by feudal levies and the troops were undisciplined and forced to live off the land, time was on the side of the people in the castle. Tenants usually owed forty days’ service a year in wartime, but only twenty during peace. A feudal army might simply go home when their time had been served. The castle garrison did not need to be very large, and in a well-provisioned castle with a secure water supply it could hope to outlast the siege. (For the siege of Rochester, see Chapter 2.)

 

 

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