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Kent's Castles

Andrew Saunders


Definition: what is a castle?
In the minds of many people a castle is a battlemented stone-walled and moated enclosure with high towers and gatehouse emphasising defensive intentions. A castle, however, was a complex structure. Originally it was not necessarily stone-built but frequently started as a timber and earth structure, either with a raised mound (motte) carrying a wooden tower and usually with an accompanying enclosure (bailey), or simply a self-contained enclosure (ringwork) often with a tower-like gatehouse . Castles were more than just a fortress. They included residential buildings dominated by a great hall for feasting, ceremonial occasions,  a place for holding judicial courts and as an estate office.  As a residential function grew in importance in knightly society, the trappings of military architecture were applied to structures which had ceased to have a primary defensive function, and were more to demonstrate the owner’s military status. The castellated appearance of some country-houses continued this architectural illusion into the 19th century.  


In this survey, emphasis is given to those Kentish castles whose military elements demonstrate clear defensive purposes rather than a largely decorative façade. Moated manor houses, such as Igtham Mote, are excluded. The other exceptions are the Tudor artillery forts such as Deal and Walmer Castles.


Distribution and Exclusions
The castles, which survive in significant form in Kent, number about 30. This is a relatively high density with one castle to about 30 square miles. They range from massive masonry castles to simple earthworks.  Finally, there are the later medieval enclosure castles, which are principally residential in function but may also have serious defences such as gatehouses.

The distribution of Kent’s castles was influenced by geography and strategic considerations. There are few castles in the Weald and in the south of the county but there is a distinct grouping on or immediately below the North Downs. These generally have no strategic significance but appear to relate simply to estates centres. There are concentrations in the Darenth and Medway valleys, and two castles are on the line of the River Stour. Of particular significance was the line of the Roman road from the harbour at Dover, through Canterbury, across the Medway at Rochester and on towards London; the major royal castles of Dover, Canterbury and Rochester lay along this vital communication.

Royal and strategic castles
Both Canterbury and Rochester Castles are located within Roman town walls. Dover Castle occupies the Eastern Heights above the site of the Roman harbour where there were earlier fortifications. Their great stone towers or keeps, were not the first structures to be built. The Dane John mound at Canterbury near the later stone castle suggests a motte. At Rochester, the castle began as an earthwork enclosure cutting off a corner of the Roman defences and was established close to the bridge over the Medway. 

The Royal Castle at Rochester
Image: Rochester Castle


The great towers were built more as status symbols and palaces with their lack of any particular defensive capability. They are isolated within heavily fortified curtain walls, mural towers and strongly defended entrances.

Both Dover and Rochester were subject to famous sieges in 1215/16. At Dover the outer gatehouse was severely damaged in the unsuccessful attempt by the French. At Rochester the great tower was turned into a ‘keep of last resort’. One corner of the castle was brought down by mining and, once it was back in royal hands, the damage was made good in a different form.


The other chief castles in Kent are at Tonbridge, Leeds and Chilham. They too  had their origins in timber and earthwork. Tonbridge was has its magnificent motte  crowned by a stone wall or ‘shell keep’, but its pride is the later great twin-towered gatehouse of c.1300. Both Chilham and Leeds Castles were later remodelled. Leeds Castle, where Edward 1 acquired the site in c.1278, the building of much of the present castle took the form of a large towered enclosure with a fine gateway and barbican, and with the residential ‘Gloriette’ occupying the site of the earlier motte.

Belonging to an early period of castle construction in Kent is Eynsford Castle where the initial stone curtain wall ringed a low, flat-topped mound beside the`River Darenth. There are other early strong towers,  three storeys high, such as St Leonard’s Tower at West Malling. Gundulf’s Tower at Rochester shares some similar characteristics but is thought more likely to be a bell tower along side the cathedral. Stone Castle, near Dartford is another stone tower with little if any surviving associated structures. The square tower at Sutton Valence on the hill slope overlooking the Weald was also a baronial construction. 

 Tonbridge Castle from the air. The original motte is to the right of the later Gatehouse

Image: Tonbridge Castle


Timber and Earth castles
The majority of castles in the county (20) have their origins in earth and timber. The motte and bailey type are   Allington, Binbury,  Canterbury Dane John, Chilham, Coldred, Leeds, Newenden, Stowting, Tonbridge and Tonge The simple enclosures or ringworks are slightly fewer in number (Brenchley, the earlier form of Rochester, Eynsford, Saltwood, Folkestone Castle Hill, Stockbury, Staplehurst, Thurnham and probably Dover). Eleven sites did not undergo later developments in stone that have left any visible trace. At least four of these were held by tenants of Odo of Bayeux, Archbishop of Canterbury. Other castle sites are associated with estates of the lesser baronage. 

Ringwork Castle at Thurnham

Image: Thurnham Castle (Stuart Cakebread)


Realities of  military attributes
In terms of military engineering, the key example in the development of the castle is Dover; one of the most technically powerful castles in medieval England and described as ‘the key to the kingdom’. The early castle was transformed initially by Henry II. Much expense was devoted to building the free-standing palace-like great tower, but the outer curtain and its rectangular mural towers are of equal importance. The main gates wee protected by barbicans. The construction of the concentric defences was continued by King John, This phase,  at the turn of the 13th century, saw the employment of D-shaped mural towers. Crucial to the castle’s later improvement was the siege of 1216. Lessons were learnt about the castle’s vulnerability to attack from the north, and the old north entrance was sealed by the Norfolk Towers, The complex Constable’s Gate on the western side replaced it.


The other notable siege that had repercussions on a castle’s development was that of Rochester Castle in 1215. This too demonstrated the power of mining in siegework. First the curtain wall was brought down by King John’s sappers, then the south-eastern corner of the Great Tower followed. Subsequently the Round Tower was built at the south-east angle on the line of the bailey wall – bristling with arrow loops.The south-east angle of the Great Tower was rebuilt on a semi-circular instead of a rectangular plan., In 1264 the castle underwent another siege.


Another landmark in castle development was Queenborough Castle on Sheppey, the only wholly new castle built in England during the later Middle Ages (begun in 1361). It was demolished in the 17th century but its general plan was recorded. It was of concentric form with a circular open courtyard with continuous ranges of room around it. On the outer face were six attached towers, two of which were brought together to defend the entrance, Enclosing a large open area outside the core was another circular curtain wall with an outer entrance or barbican. In a number of respects the fourteenth century concentric plan anticipated the forts of Henry VIII, in particular those of Deal and Walmer.   


In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as the royal works at Leeds Castle show, the nature of castle life had evolved and the lodgings and entertainment that were part of it required ranges of buildings inside the curtain walls This was the pattern at Allington, Leybourne, Saltwood, Scotney and Westenhanger. During the fourteenth century the planning of the accommodation within castles became more compact and regular. Hever is a good example of this with its massive gatehouse occupying almost the whole of one side.


Many of Kent’s castles seem to employ water defences. Eynsford is built on the bank of the Darenth, and it is likely that the river was diverted in to the surrounding ditch. Other early earth and timber castles are sited alongside present-day water courses, which may originally have contributed to their defence. Among these are Stowting, Staplehurst and TongeSaltwood and Leeds Castle have water defences on a more grand scale being set in the middle of artificial lakes created by dams. Water was also extensively employed in a defensive role at Scotney, Hever and Westenhanger. A further possibility, stemming from the example at Bodiam Castle, Sussex, is that these associated lakes may have been created with landscape and aesthetic considerations in mind. A noteworthy feature in Kent is the use of barbicans in advance of gateways. A particularly fine example is at Leeds Castle alongside a fortified mill building and there is another at Allington. Dover Castle has early examples of this feature, particularly in front of the King’s Gate.


Defence against coastal raiding in 14/15th centuries
Some of these later castles coincided with the strengthening of town walls built with coastal defence in mind. French raids were common in the late fourteenth century and the second half of the fifteenth. The most significant example of coast defence was the royal creation of Queenborough. Another vulnerable location was Cooling Castle on the south bank of the Thames. Saltwood Castle overlooked the Cinque Port harbour of Hythe and Westenhanger was also close to the coast. It has been proposed that these castles may have had a dual role, giving a landholder and his household protection against peasant unrest as well as against the foreign threat.


A significant feature of these fourteenth century castles and town walls was the introduction of gunpowder artillery and gunports into essentially traditional medieval forms of defence. At Cooling these first gunports are documented and dated to c.1385. Gunports also appear at Saltwood Castle in association with elaborate arrow loops and at Hever Castle’s gatehouse. Kent is in fact a key location for studying the early introduction of gunpowder weapons into England. With the danger of raid or invasion continuing into the sixteenth century inevitably the next major development in English artillery fortification took place in Kent at Deal and Walmer under Henry VIII.   

  Cooling Castle

Image: Cooling Castle