Countless films show how King John was shamed by Robin Hood. We all learnt how John was forced by rebellious barons to sign a document that formed the basis of civilised law.
Yet one of the fiercest dramas of that cursed king’s reign was acted out on the banks of the River Medway: the siege of Rochester Castle in 1215. It was the second of three sieges in its first two centuries.
The castle was built at the time of the Norman Conquest and is mentioned in Domesday Book of 1086. It was rebuilt for King William Rufus between 1087-9 by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, and was one of the earliest castles in Britain to be fortified in stone.
Soon after the conquest, both the city and castle of Rochester were awarded to William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. After William died in 1087, many Norman nobles in England were unhappy at the how his possessions in Normandy were bequeathed. The nobles, including Odo, supported the claims of William’s elder son Robert, then Duke of Normandy, against William Rufus, the younger son who had succeeded to the Kingdom of England.
Rochester Castle was fortified against the Rufus and soon became a stronghold and headquarters for the rebels. Rochester was — and indeed still is — strategically important. To the rebels, it was an ideal place for raids on London and to attack the lands belonging to their enemy Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had crowned Rufus.
Rufus had to take action and, having captured uncle Odo at Pevensey Castle, he made him swear he would yield Rochester to the King. Rufus, rather too trustingly, sent Odo ahead with a small royal force to call upon the garrison to surrender.
The party, however, was captured and Odo taken inside. A furious Rufus rode straight for Rochester, recruiting a large force on the way, and besieged the castle. He was successful. Ancient chroniclers say that in May, 1088, Rufus kept the rebels under constant attack. The garrison, under Bishop Odo, Eustace the Younger of Boulogne and Robert of Belleme, son of Roger of Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, were constantly plagued by heat, flies and disease, and soon surrendered.
The rebels were allowed to march out with horses and arms, but were stripped of their lands and titles in England. Odo returned to Normandy. The castle remained the property of the Archbishop of Canterbury — a fact that kings resented. Especially King John. John particularly disliked Archbishop Stephen Langton — who played a leading role in the barons’ opposition to the king’s powers – and tried to block his appointment by Pope Innocent III. Eventually he stood down and Langton was appointed in 1213.
The reasons for the siege are confusing and many chroniclers contradict each other but they revolve around the ownership of the castle. In a nutshell, the king wanted it from the archbishop; the barons had rebelled, he had raised an army and Rochester was a vital strategic possession. The archbishop was having none of that.
In 1215, rebels led by William de Albini of Belvoir seized Rochester to block John’s approach to London. They had only three days to gather supplies and stock the castle before John attacked in October. First they assaulted Rochester Bridge and were repelled by the defenders. On 11 October, John’s forces entered the city and the garrison retreated to the safety of the castle.
The siege lasted more than two months. John set up his base on Boley Hill and brought in five massive stone-throwing engines that pounded the castle day and night. He also tried mining the castle. Neither worked. The castle was too strong.
The barons’ leaders in London attempted to relieve Rochester on 26 October, but John had sent 700 horses to intercept them and they turned back at Dartford, leaving the castle to its fate. John was becoming impatient. It was time to use his secret weapon: the pig.
On 25 November he sent for 40 slaughtered fat pigs and had them placed by the props where the great tower had been undermined. They were set on fire — and the tower tumbled down. The rebelled retreated further into the castle, but eventually surrendered after food ran out and they were reduced to a diet of horseflesh and water.
The tower was rebuilt — but made round instead of square, to repel the battering rams of any future sieges.