Tonbridge Castle is considered to be one of the best examples of castles of its type in Kent, and its Gatehouse is said to be one of the finest in England.
Occupying the same position as an Old Saxon fort, it was built by the Normans shortly after the Norman Conquest and its original purpose was to protect a forded crossing of the River Medway. The castle has a rich and fascinating history of intrigue and political turmoil. It even played a role in World War 2, and now it is home to the local tax authority.
Here you will discover much of what we know about it.
The original Tonbridge Castle was constructed in a typical Norman style which is known as “motte and bailey”. This kind of castle was unknown in England prior to the Norman Conquest
Motte and Bailey Castles
Like all motte and bailey castles, the original Tonbridge Castle consisted of two parts: the motte, which is a raised mound, on which stands a fortified tower; and a bailey, which is a courtyard that is protected by a wall constructed from large wooden stakes and a ditch or moat.
Such castles were built by the Normans using forced labour and were the dominant form of castle building in England between 1066 and the late 12th century.
The Norman Conquest
To understand the history of Tonbridge Castle it is necessary to take look in some detail at the Norman Conquest.
In 1066 the King of England was Edward the Confessor, but when he died without an heir, the succession to throne was disputed by several rivals. Edward had supposedly promised the throne to Harold Godwineson, and he was duly crowned King Harold by the Archbishop of York on the day of Edward’s funeral. However William, Duke of Normandy; Tostig Godwineson, who was Harold’s exiled brother; and Harald III Hardrada, the King of Norway all laid claim to the throne.
Tostig raided the East of England but subsequently fled to Scotland where he teamed up with Hardrada in order to do battle with Harold. Hardrada’s and Tostig’s combined armies invaded the north of England and were initially victorious against the combined armies of Earl Edwin and Earl Morcar. However, four days later they were met by Harold’s army and the battle of Stamford Bridge ensued. Both Tostig and Hardrada were killed, and Harold emerged victorious, though he and his men were battle weary.
Three days later William’s forces landed in the South of England and began pillaging the lands. Harold’s depleted forces marched south to confront William, gathering more troops on the way. Six miles North West of Hastings the opposing armies engaged in battle. Although Harold’s men took command of a hill, William’s superior strength proved victorious. Harold along with many members of the English aristocracy, were killed; it is said that Harold was killed by an arrow taken in his eye.
But the English refused to surrender and proclaimed Edgar the Aetheling as King. William seized important parts of England around London and constructed a large network of castles Eventually Edgar’s supporters capitulated and William was crowned King.
Richard Fitz Gilbert builds Tonbridge Castle
The English continued to rebel, though the rebellions were poorly coordinated. William handed land in Kent over to Richard Fitz Gilbert and charged him with guarding the River Medway crossing.
Using local labour he erected the original Tonbridge Castle, and the task included shifting 50,000 tonnes of earth in order to make the moat. On top of the still surviving castle mound he erected a wooden keep and the bailey which was protected by a fence of stakes.
Today the bailey is the castle lawn and is open to the public.
Rebellion – Tonbridge Castle is burned to the ground
When William the Conqueror died in 1087 his second surviving son William Rufus was crowned William II, King of England. However in 1088 the de Clares, descendents of Fitz Gilbert were part of a rebellion against William Rufus. A battle ensued and William laid siege to Tonbridge Castle.
After a few days he captured the castle and in revenge he burned it to the ground along with most of the town of Tonbridge.
William Rufus was killed in 1100 by Walter Tyrell who was related by marriage to Gilbert de Clare. Following Rufus’ death the de Clares went on to become rich and powerful.
Following the Magna Carter and the taking of Tonbridge Castle by King John, the castle came into the possession of Richard de Clare the 6th Earl of Hertford in 1212. He set about rebuilding it replacing the original wooden construction with stone. The castle gatehouse, which was built using sandstone, took a full 30 years to construct and was completed in 1260.
Unusually for the time, the gatehouse also served as a residence. It had three floors with a Great Hall housed on the upper one. There was a deep outer moat around the Gatehouse along with a drawbridge and a portcullis and the central entrance was flanked by guardrooms.
The gatehouse was encircled by curtain walls, and towers were built at each corner. There were no compromises, in places the wall was almost three metres thick. A new high shell keep was built on the motte.
The castle remained a dwelling place up until 1521, but apart from a brief time during the Civil War it was not lived in again until the 18th century.
Civil War and Thomas Weller
Thomas Weller the parliamentarian had been charged with the task of extracting local taxes and watching over Tonbridge.
During the Civil War the Castle was owned by Thomas Weller the Parliamentarian and he both strengthened and garrisoned it. He had been appointed to extract local taxes and to watch over Tonbridge. In July 1643 a Royalist insurrection took place in Sevenoaks and the locality, and Weller’s residence was plundered.
A parliamentary force was despatched which resulted on a small battle at Hilden Brook. Subsequently Weller was ordered to dismantle the castle defences and place it beyond military use.
Following the civil war the castle remained unoccupied until the late 18th century. The castle came into the ownership of John Hooker who sold much of its stone for building locks on the River Medway and more stone was used in 1793 to build a mansion alongside the Gatehouse.
What remained of the fortress became a private home, then a military academy and finally a school before being purchased by the Town Council in 1899 for the Council Chamber and offices, with the grounds being opened to the public.
In World War 2 Tonbridge Castle again took on a military role and pill boxes were built in the walls along with anti-tank defences.
In 1999 a millennium project was launched to replace missing floors, thus creating additional rooms, and to repair the East Tower spiral staircase.
Today visitors are able to take a 1 hour audio tour of the castle with life sized figures and take part in interactive displays which recreate the 13th century life in the castle.