Rochester, U.K.

Andrew, with Olivia and Katie (Sarah stayed home to study) – plus me, drove off to explore Rochester. It wasn’t a long drive. If you check a map, you’ll find that Gillingham (where we were staying,) Chatham, and Rochester are all bunched together on the south side of the Medway River, near the mouth of the river, in Kent, which is in southwestern England.

Rochester claims Charles Dickens as a famous son, even though he was born in Portsmouth, England (1812), because he was brought by his parents to Rochester as a young child. During most of his adult life, Dickens lived in London, but when he was 48, he moved to Chatham, where he died on June 9, 1870, aged 58.

The buildings and scenery around Rochester and Chatham helped color Dickens’ novels. He was a prolific writer, and very popular during his life – he is buried in Westminster Abbey, despite his wish to be buried at the Rochester Cathedral – but many of his writings languish in obscurity now. The works best known today are probably A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist. David Copperfield, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, still a respectable legacy. In Rochester, the buildings that have been identified in the novels and stories have signs on them, sometimes with information such as the title and character.

Some of the buildings have signs that identify which Dickens novel they are part of, and the character involved. This one is “Mr. P. Toots.” He appears in Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation. (Never heard of it? Me, either.)
Rochester, like many old cities, copes with narrow streets, decidedly picturesque, but challenging for cars.
The local hardware store projects a bookish air.
In this block, there is a great candy store! Surprisingly, it’s not the store with the colorful “C” – the candy store is a couple of doors down.
There were quite a few interesting-looking restaurants and steak houses – this one seemed “uniquely English.” But it was not where we ate lunch. The under-11s requested (drumroll, please)…pizza! There was a not-uniquely-English, but very reliable, Pizza Express, about four doors down.

Rochester’s oldest and biggest claim to fame by far is the Rochester Cathedral. Founded in 604, it is the second-oldest cathedral in England, Canterbury Cathedral being the oldest, founded in 597. The Reverend Canon Matthew Rushton of Rochester Cathedral, in an essay posted on the cathedral’s web page, pointed out that the Canterbury Cathedral was made from King Ethelbert’s palace, whereas the Rochester Cathedral was purpose-built in a new (in 604) building. The Reverend Canon, diplomatically, does not argue about Canterbury, but vaguely poses the question: just how does one define “first?”

That’s me, and that’s the Rochester Cathedral behind me. It’s huge.

The first Rochester Cathedral, which is not the one you see today, was begun in 604 under Bishop Justus on land donated by King Ethelbert of Kent. Unfortunately, the original cathedral was severely damaged by fire in 1178. There is no visible trace of this Saxon cathedral surviving because the “new” cathedral was built on top of it. The oldest part of the building pictured above, which is the Norman cathedral built under the supervision of Bishop Gundulf, is from 1083. Bishop Gundulf also founded a Benedictine monastery and an adjacent priory, to serve the pilgrim traffic.

Pilgrimages were “a thing” in the medieval world, and an important thing, at that. People would show their devotion to God and the Church by traveling to places that were considered especially holy. Canterbury Cathedral was a popular destination for English pilgrims because it held the shrine of St. Augustine, and later added the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. Some of you may have read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which is a Middle English collection of fictional tales told by fictional pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral.

Rochester Cathedral benefited from the pilgrim traffic. It came mostly from London, but other parts of Britain as well, on the way to Canterbury. Rochester was located at the best crossing of the Medway River, which had to be crossed to reach Canterbury. This crossing was so important that Bishop Gundulf built Rochester Castle to protect it – I found out why a bishop built a castle later on. Pilgrims made contributions to the cathedrals and it was an important source of revenue for cathedrals and priories, and especially for those who could muster a holy shrine or two.

St. William’s Gate, pictured from the inside, through which pilgrims passed. At one time, this was part of the Priory’s wall, but the wall is mostly gone. Pilgrims would enter through the gate, proceed to the north transept door of the cathedral, and then along the north choir aisle to the shrine of Saint William of Perth. Pilgrimages were made from the middle of the 13th century until the destruction of the shrine in 1538.
Stepping inside the pilgrims’ door on the north side of the cathedral, this is what I saw. I am standing in the north transept. Straight across from me is the south transept, and to the left is the entrance to the Quire. To the right is the nave, most of which was closed for what looked like a renovation project. To my immediate left, not in the photo, are the “Pilgrims’ Steps,” the path followed by pilgrims to pay homage to the enshrined. The steps are worn from many visitors and now covered with wooden boards to provide level, flat-surfaced steps.

In 2019, the Rochester Cathedral used their very large nave to provide outreach to their community through…Ready? Miniature golf. In the nave. It included replicas of some landmarks. Naturally, the BBC picked up on it, and you can read the article through the link above.

The West Front, looking – mostly – as it did when it was built in the 1100s. This cathedral has the only surviving cathedral front from the period. The sections of rounded arches distinguish it as Romanesque-style architecture.

The large, central, arched window of the West Front was added in the 1400s. The large spire was added in 1904, which was intended to be a replica of the spire put up by Bishop Hamo de Hythe in 1343. The entire West Front originally was painted – brightly! The stone facing contains traces of pigmentation, revealing that the surface was painted. This was the face of the cathedral seen by pilgrims and visitors as they crossed the Medway River.

Other features of the West Front are the statues on either side of the front door – these are Solomon, King of Israel, on the left, and the Queen of Sheba on the right. They are heavily eroded, and are identified by documentation of the cathedral building. A larger statue, slightly above the door on the left, is Bishop Gundulf, holding a model of the Tower of London, which he designed. I couldn’t find the identity of the statue to the right, but the figure appears to be similar to the William of Hoo Way, mentioned later. The “tympanum,” the semi-circlular carved area above the front door, features Jesus flanked by angels, and winged figures of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John beyond.

The tympanum and statues of the West Front. King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, on each side of the door, are greatly eroded, but visible.
The 2nd oldest door in England! The Gundulf Door in the north quire transept dates to 1080, thirty years after the oldest door which is in Westminster Abbey.
Tomb of Walter de Merton, “one of Rochester’s most dynamic bishops.” Merton served as Lord Chancellor of England under Henry III and Henry’s son, Edward I in the mid-1200s. Also, the founder of Merton College of Oxford University. The alabaster image of Merton was installed in the 1800s.
The view from the Crossing, the junction of the north and south transepts in the center, looking through the Quire at the High Altar. On the left is St. Paulinius, and on the right is Bishop Gundulf, holding a model of this cathedral, which he designed and undertook building.
The Quire, where the monks worshipped each morning and evening. The Anglican offices of Mattins and Evensong are still sung here today. The pattern on the walls dates from 1340s during the Hundred Years’ War with France. It was repainted, exactly the same, in the 1870s during the Victorian restoration.
The “Pulpitum screen” features figures with special significance to Rochester. Also, the organ that was installed around 1870, although it dates from 1791. Its last rebuild was in 1989; it has 88 stops and 3,808 pipes.

The eight statues above represent the following people, from left to right:

  • St. Andrew, the Apostle of Jesus, in whose honor the cathedral was originally dedicated. The crossed sticks he carries represent the cross upon which he was crucified – nailed upside-down to an X-shaped cross.
  • Ethelbert, the first Christian Saxon King of Kent, who gave the land for the original cathedrals in Rochester and Canterbury.
  • Bishop Justus, ordained as the first Bishop of Rochester by St. Augustine, who was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, in 604.
  • St. Paulinius, the first Bishop of York, then became Bishop of Rochester. He died 644. Paulinius had a shrine at Rochester that was reputedly covered in silver, destroyed during the Reformation.
  • Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester 1077 – 1108, remembered as a “man of holiness,” and a prolific builder, apparently with talent that was widely recognized. Founded the Monastery of St. Andrew, and began the building of the present Rochester Cathedral and Rochester Castle. Established Malling Abbey as a Benedictine nunnery. Gundulf was also the architect for the Tower of London and founded the Corps of Royal Engineers.
  • William of Hoo Way, a sacrist of Rochester around 1200, who came from the Hoo Peninsula, and played a significant role in building the cathedral we see today.
  • Bishop Walter de Merton, the Lord Chancellor of England under Henry III and Edward I, described in a photo above.
  • John Fisher, a Bishop of Rochester who was beheaded by Henry VIII because Fisher would not accept Henry as the head of the English Church.

Rochester Cathedral was home to three major shrines during medieval times: St. Paulinius, described above; St. Ithamar, who was the first native-born bishop in Britain (died 655); and St. William of Perth (died 1201.)

St. William of Perth’s story is told by the Reverend Canon Matthew Rushton on the Rochester Cathedral’s website. In 1201, a baker from Perth in Scotland was on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and was planning on continuing to the Holy Land. He lodged at the Priory of St. Andrew (at Rochester Cathedral) but was robbed and killed the next day by his servant, who might have been his adopted son. (Summarized by me.)

“A local woman was apparently cured of her mental illness by festooning the body with honeysuckle and pressing the flowers to her head.” The monks at St. Andrews priory recovered the body and brought it to Rochester Cathedral. Whatever their intent, it turned out to be very profitable.

“Legend has it that it was the second most visited shrine in England after St. Thomas [Becket] of Canterbury. Edward I visited and left a donation.”

The Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, made Henry VIII the head of the church in England, and in 1536, Henry began disbanding the hundreds of monasteries, priories, convents, and friaries in England, Wales, and Ireland. He appropriated their income and assets, including lands, and destroyed the buildings, attempting to break the hold of the Pope in England. It also delivered to Henry the money he needed to conduct his wars in Europe.

Following Henry VIII, Edward VI and the Reformation’s Protestant bishops destroyed whatever shrines they found, and following later still, the Victorian restoration of the cathedral removed whatever traces were left of the shrines at Rochester.

The Crypt, on the lower level, was open. It has a cafe where we took a welcome break, the Ithamar Chapel, and a museum, which is well worth a visit.

The Ithamar Chapel in the crypt.

The museum has created a timeline of events in the life of Rochester Cathedral, and some displays covering life in medieval times. There were two that were particularly interesting – one was an enlargement of an accounting journal. I know that “accounting” elicits glazed eyes, but the expenses listed – day-to-day food, wine for meals, wine for sacraments, candles, charitable works in the area, payments to workmen, and more – are used to illustrate medieval life, and life in the priory in particular. It was a busy place, and this display will show you how and why.

The timeline mentions two events that are easy to forget, but were part of the life of Rochester Cathedral and England, generally. The first is decidedly English – the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 that established the rule of law in England. It was a battle, but the writing was on the wall – the monarch no longer had absolute power. The second was the Plague: in 1348, the Black Death killed half – half – of the English population. Amazing to think about. Half of your friends and neighbors, gone.

The other display I particularly liked was about the Textus Roffensis, which has a history of its own. Written in the “Rochester Prickly” script (unique to Rochester) by a monk in about 1122, it contains documents that were important in their time.

The first part is the earliest known codification of English laws, promulgated by King Ethelbert of Kent, as well as copies of the laws of other Anglo-Saxon kings. It was written in Latin and in Old English, for the first time. The second part is a “cartulary,” a collection of charters that recorded grants of land, property, and rights belonging to the Rochester Cathedral Priory.

How Rochester Castle came to be built: One of the charters records the granting of land in Buckinghamshire to the Rochester Cathedral Priory from King William II around 1100, on the condition that Bishop Gundulf would build a stone castle at Rochester for the king. “The monks seem to have agreed to this, but made it clear that they would not be responsible for the castle’s future upkeep….” [From Textus Roffensis The Rochester Book, a pamphlet of the Rochester Cathedral.] In turn, the land in Buckinghamshire would belong to the monks of Rochester as long as the castle exists. Contracts and their obligations were invented a long time ago.

Olivia and Katie take a short candy break while Dad figures out the next destination.

The next destination turned out to be said castle, which stands right across the road from the cathedral.

Rochester Castle, guardian of the Medway River crossing, was begun during the time of Bishop Gundulf. Its primary importance was as part of the pilgrims’ path to Canterbury, but it also repelled King John, who laid siege in 1215, shortly before he was forced to sign the Magna Carta.

The castle is open, but is not in daily use for centuries, unlike the cathedral. As a result, it has significantly deteriorated. We climbed the steps all the way to the top – if you had been there, we would have waved from the walkway between the two towers above!

We climbed a flight of steps to get to the entrance, so there is some castle below us, but mostly above.
Climbing the steps to the top rampart. These steps and doorways in the castle’s keep used to have floors, and apartments were arranged on at least two floors of the castle. There are railings to prevent accidents from the pathways open to visitors now, you just can’t see them in the photograph. But watch your step! Because you don’t see any lights in the photograph, either.
From the top of the castle, you can get a great view of the Rochester Cathedral, and the city beyond.

When we left the castle, we walked back toward the main road again. Andrew had an errand to do yet, so we were able to peer at some more of historic Rochester.

This alley led from the castle grounds toward the business area. Yes, the house is leaning.
And yet, someone is living there.
Back in the world of Charles Dickens – that’s his profile over the door of the wine shop. There is also a tobacconist – the Old City Cigar Shop – inside. It says “Dickens House” on the sign, but I didn’t see any history of the building, so I don’t know if the profile or the sign designate any historical significance.
Eastgate House, an Elizabethan mansion, built 1590, was used as a girls’ school when Charles Dickens’ lived in Rochester. He “moved” the mansion to Bury St. Edmonds in The Pickwick Papers, named it Westgate House, and described it as “an establishment for young ladies.” Bury St. Edmonds is a real town in Suffolk, U.K. Dickens used the building again in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as the “Nuns’ House,” a seminary for young women, in “Cloisterham,” which is not a real town, but is the name of a street in Rochester.

Errands and sightseeing completed, we headed back to the car, and back to Gillingham.

NOTE: You can read about my visit to Canterbury, A Canterbury Tale and More About Canterbury, posted December, 2017, and January, 2018, respectively.

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