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Haunted Places - Rochester Castle - imposing Norman keep with resident ghosts including Charles Dickens
Rochester Castle was started in 1068 a few years after the defeat of the Saxon King Harold by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It was one of a few castles started by the Normans in this period immediately following the invasion.
The castle was strategically built on a hill on the eastern bank of the River Medway in the town of Rochester, Kent. Between 1087 and 1089 William Rufus (William the Conqueror’s son) asked Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester to extend the existing stone structure and much of this work still survives as the outer castle walls To enable a strong and speedy result this work was carried out based on the Roman town walls using them as foundations.
In 1127 Archbishop of Canterbury William de Corbeil built the massive keep which is seen today. It stands 125ft high and the walls are 12ft thick, tapering to 10ft at the top and is the tallest Norman built keep in the country. Throughout the 12th century the castle remained in the custody of the archbishops.
Just a few months after the signing of Magna Carta, in 1215, this custody arrangement led to conflict between King John and his barons. The castle fell into the hands of the king's enemies after the Archbishop argued with him and then fled the country. King John laid siege to the castle and finding it a strong and seemingly impenetrable fortress decided to tunnel under the keeps south-eastern tower. Using the fat from 40 pigs he set fire to the timber foundation props resulting in the whole south-eastern tower collapsing. The tower was eventually rebuilt to a circular design, explaining the strange irregular appearance of the keep today.
In the mid-1260s England was still ruled by the Normans and, in 1264, Rochester Castle was the subject of an armed dispute between the Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, and the occupiers, Ralph de Capo and his fiancée Lady Blanche de Warenne. The forces of Ralph de Capo had no difficulty in defeating the attackers who withdrew in disarray, resulting in de Capo lowered the drawbridge and followed in hot pursuit. He had reached some distance from the castle when he looked back only to see, what he thought was Lady Blanche being attacked on the battlements of the castle. Furious he stopped, wheeled around and rode full pelt back to the castle. As he got closed he could see that it was indeed his fiancé and the man was an old rival in love Sir Gilbert Clare an ally of Simon de Montfort. The struggle between the two was obviously violent and de Capo was afraid she would be killed before he could reach her. He stopped, drew his bow and fired at Sir Gilbert. Tragically the arrow bounced off Sir Gilberts armour and penetrated Lady Blanch in the heart killing her.
On each anniversary of her death at Easter, it is said she still walks the battlements with an arrow protruding from her chest and her ghostly footsteps can be clearly heard. She has also been referred to in various folk-lore tales as the White Lady.
The castle has a second ghost, believed to be that of the famous writer Charles Dickens, who walks in the Old Burial Ground, situated in the haunted castles moat, on Christmas Eve. Dickens apparently loved Rochester and its castle expressing a wish that he should be buried there when he died. Rochester Castle, by this time, was in a poor state but he mentioned the castle ruins in his books The Pickwick Papers and The Mystery of Edwin Drood .Following his death regrettably this wish was ignored and his body is interred in Westminster Abbey as this was considered the only place suitable for such a great author. However, perhaps his spirit decided otherwise and a least once a year he returns to his beloved castle.
Rebuilt in the reign of Henry III and Edward I, the castle remained as a viable fortress until the sixteenth century after which its condition declined.
Rochester Castle was sold into private hands during the 17th century but the upkeep was poor and it gradually fell further into disrepair. The Corporation of Rochester bought the site in 1884 and the grounds were turned into a public pleasure garden.
In 1896 some renovation work was carried out and more structural repairs in the 1960s. There has been some significant safety work carried out since, but the roof and all the floors are missing from the keep, although you can still climb to the top.
A visit to Rochester Castle can be complemented by lunch or dinner in the old town which is full of antique shops, bric-a-brac and a myriad of everything to do with Dickens. A few miles away is the 80 acre Chatham Historic Dockyard opened around 1598 which is where many of Britain’s finest warships were built. On display there is an 1964 Oberon class submarine (HMS Ocelot) , 1944 C class destroyer (HMS Cavalier) and 1878 Doterel-class screw sloop (HMS Gannet) which you can board and tour. The famous ship HMS Victory was built here but by the time of the Napoleonic wars she had deteriorated to the state of a prison hulk on the river Medway. When Admiral Nelson saw it he took a fancy to it and after an extensive refit at Chatham it became his flagship. The historic dockyard has an extensive series of ghosts and tours are regularly run to explain and possibly meet them.
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© 2012 Peter Geekie