Tag Archives: King John

Rochester Castle upon the Medway


Rochester Keep from the North East

The great keep at Rochester - the south-east tower has been repaired since the siege of 1215 removed it.

Travelling south along Watling Street from London towards Canterbury, the seasoned pilgrim cannot avoid the mighty castle at Rochester and nor should he (or she) for this indeed is a castle worthy of the name. Dominated by its keep, tall and proud – I believe the tallest in the kingdom at 117 feet – Rochester is a place to rest and savour the passage of the years and marvel at the ingenuity of earlier times.

And what the years have done to this place! Of course, it is many centuries since last I rode this way in 1216, but looking upon the keep now it is different to how it was when I last saw it – with one of its corners blasted away following a siege by king John.

Oh how sad it looked then! In October and November of the previous year, King John had ordered a mine to be dug under the south east corner of the castle and the building propped on wooden stilts. I was told by a vassal that it took the fat of forty pigs to burn away the props and down the tower tumbled.  

Today of course, it is still a ruin but at least a complete ruin – and one of the most remarkable keeps in all England. That corner of the keep was subsequently rebuilt in the rounded style of a later day and, although it differs but slightly from the original keep erected by William de Corbeil in 1127, the tower stands tall across the land.

Let us go inside for but a few minutes. Ascending the stairway of the forebuilding – now alas without its drawbridge at the top – entry through the old great door reveals the skeleton of what was once a busy and substantial place.

How I remember the grand hall – now only hinted at by the decorated arches high above – and the gallery where lords and ladies gathered for private conversations and where musicians once played! Now bereft of Tharsian tapestry and sendal shifts, the walls are cold but not without power to conjure thoughts of days gone by.

And of course, to my mind one of the most impressive features of that fine palace: the well shaft which ascended a central pillar to bring water to every floor. In all my travels I have not seen such a marvel; I recall how when this tower had floors, the lord’s children used to shout to each other down the shaft and how, if they were unlucky, one of them would receive a bucket of water thrown down on him from above!

Yet all is quiet now. The tower is but an empty shell; its stories, sounds, smells and sentiments there only to dress the mind of an imaginative soul. In the bailey – once vibrant and alive with horses, cooking, tradespeople and castle servants – is but a public park. Even the stone bridge which carried the road across the Medway has long since ceased to echo to the rattling of carts and the shouts of the watchman – being demolished, so I am told, in 1857 and replaced by the current, yet still impressive, iron structure.

Archbishop Stephen Langton – the man who held the place in 1215 and was described by King John as that “notorious and barefaced traitor” – might well have regretted his decision when he “failed to render up our castle of Rochester to us in our so great need”. Yet history shapes all things and architecture – like the English landscape – bears the scars of happenstance in silent obedience to the events of time.

Though kings and traitors,  lords and ladies, vassals and serfs have gone away, Rochester still points to skies and stands with pride upon the river bank. The guardian of the Medway, valiant through the centuries.

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Filed under British History, Castles, Castles of England, English History, Historic places to visit in Britain, Historic towns of Britain, Kent, Rochester, Rochester, Touring Britain, Touring England

The edges of England awash with water


image of spigot mortar mount in Norfolk
Last line of defence: redundant spigot mortar mounts at Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk
Travel into East Anglia my friends and the world suddenly feels less certain. The sky, whether blue or grey, reduces your size to a pinprick on this orb and the land is flat and unremitting.

We are nothing in this landscape and churches pray to heaven lest, one day, the sky should fall in and we are crushed by a firmament of stars. Thus it was I found myself once again in Norfolk; Le Gringalet had brought me to new pastures: the flat beaches of the Wash where (I recall) King John had a lucky escape not so long ago.

What was most strange is that my visit to these marshlands was almost 795 year to the day when the king fell ill and instructed his baggage train to cross the Welland estuary at Fosdyke. I am sorry to say that as well as losing his baggage he also subsequently died of his illness himself, at Newark-on-Trent on the 19th October 1216. Little wonder that these lands, at times, make you wonder when the world will stop for you…

And that’s because the land here moves, like a swamp snake. Clearly, since they were drained from the 1400s (and most dramatically from the seventeenth century onwards) both the land and the waters have changed much since when I first ventured here. Indeed, the marshy reed-land of the Fens has largely disappeared now but, imperceptibly, this soil is alive beneath its calm surface and I have no doubt that when man stops thinking, the world will move again and those waters will rise…

And the waters, whether flowing here or not, have created a strange, melancholy aloofness among the denizens of the Wash. People here could hide for years and never be found at one time and well I recall some local folk wandering around on stilts from place to place. Little surprise – the reeds revealed nothing: staunch guardians of dark secrets, home to the booming bittern and nasty ends in dark pools.

Travelling here too was a leap of faith in those days. Navigation beyond the road to Lynn was very much one of following your horse’s nose. For the traveller heading north, once the isle of Ely was behind you, the horizon was but a sea of reeds, your only hope to turn back and use the great lantern of Ely cathedral as your guide; ever taking you back to God – or at least you hoped.

And in those reeds, then as now, the people – water-crinkled by nature – were sullen folk, proudly independent and tending their lands in summer, surrendering to the floods as they rose in winter months. Black and dangerous were these lands when John last rode this way. And as the anonymous “Fen Parson” was to write in the 1770s:

The moory soil, the wat’ry atmosphere,

with damp, unhealthy moisture chills the air.

Thick, stinking fogs and noxious vapours fall,

agues and coughs are epidemical;

Hence every face presented to our view

Looks of a pallid or a sallow hue

So that was then but what of today? Lest you journey to Wicken Fen, reader, there is little left to tell the story of this landscape of rustling and silence. But in its place comes still a flatness and a threatening calm. In place of the stiltmen you have the sugar beet lorry, wending its lonely path up clogged arterial roads. In place of the rustling reeds you have the endless horizons. In place of the marshes, you have the brown murk of the Wash – only navigable by the Lynn river among the dangerous sandbanks.

Yet it’s on the beaches of the Wash that, perhaps, nothing has changed and this is where threat of this brooding place still breathes roughly. At the mouth of the Wash by Holme-Next-The-Sea, walking beyond the village and over the dunes, the salt marshes and lowlands are just as I remember them, just as they have always been.

Look along these beaches and touch the sheer futility of the concrete mounts for spigot mortars – a last hopeless line of defence against German invaders; now forlorn and forgotten in the sands. And then look behind the dunes to the village beyond. It is lonely, quiet and flag-less, in the autumn evenings, flickering lights are turned on in living rooms just as serfs gathered in hovels in my time: their company sole comfort against the uncertainty of the unknown.

Holme-Next-The-Sea hides behind the dunes but it does so on borrowed time. It lies on land which appears lower than the sea beyond the dunes. These lands are beyond the Fens but not beyond the power of water. Water, like the dunes of the Sahara, waits and moves imperceptibly. One day soon these waters will rise again and England will lose yet more treasure to the Wash.

As the Fen Parson writes of the life of man in these places: “His varied scenes of life, now make him see, Nothing is certain but uncertainty“.

Reader, though times have changed, some things forever remain the same.

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The mediaeval graffiti at Anstey, Hertfordshire


Entrance to Anstey

Through the door: the ancient doorway to an older church at Anstey

Ah reader, when you point an old mare like Le Gringalet at an ancient road of the type which criss-crosses Hertfordshire, you are always sure to find a quiet surprise. And no more so than at the quiet village of Anstey in the north of the county. Well, a village now but in my time…

Sheltering below the great mound of the castle is a quite wonderful church. Here, as my anonymous friend wrote in his beautiful poem Pearl, we find something, “sette sengeley in synglere” (always one for the words, my Staffordshire friend!).  Here at Anstey, we have the silent graffiti of long lost souls.

Of course, I knew him well whose hand turned point to stone – but to inform you who inscribed these scratchings would be telling. I don’t want to get them into trouble with the priest: the last person who was caught ended up losing his hand – hardly a fitting end for a friend talking to the future! And besides, Nicolas de Anstie lost a lot more when he sided against King John so I think it’s best to keep quiet on these matters…

So instead, dear reader, I’d just like to affect an introduction to what I see as some of our scribe’s more exquisite creations… Look around and you see some treasures of my age, perhaps the finest of which are some wonderful jousting helms carved into the pillar near the centre of the church.

While these helms may be unfamiliar to you, I can recall well the merry jousters who once played for sport on the fields outside this church – royally entertained by Sir Nicolas himself.

But these shields are somewhat newer – I would say perhaps around 1300. Look closely and you see no idle scratch but the work of someone who knows what he studies: the breathing holes on the helm face, the continental crest with its horse and reins, the flowing decoration to the rear.

If I’m not mistaken, one crest resembles the ragged staff of the Earls of Warwick but without the bear: I don’t recall the knights in question but perhaps he is one of the Balliol family – a long way from home if he is!

Elsewhere, there are scallops – the sign of pilgrims – and pleas for help from Our Lady.And look further, scattered around are wagons, merchants in padded clothes, a three-legged pot – and a curious inscription near the beautiful font with its mermen. Alas, since last I was this way someone has “restored” the church and painted over this writing – it is difficult to decipher now.

But these changes succeeded in preserving the best. Yes, I know the delightful wall paintings I once knew are long gone save for a few remains, but Anstey is a special place. Reader, should you need some time for quiet reflection, come upon Anstey on a lazy day and share its cool shade. You will be richly rewarded with a mirror onto a distant age.

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