Sunday, 25 April 2010

Phantoms in Rochester, Kent

The main entrance to Rochester Castle is through an ancient archway off The Esplanade, close to where that riverside road meets the A2 on the south side of the bridge over the Medway.

Civil War came to Rochester in 1264, causing a haunting that has persisted ever since.

King Henry III ran a corrupt government in which favoured courtiers helped themselves to the wealth of the kingdom and justice was available only to those who could bribe the right official. The situation was made worse by the fact that many of those lining their pockets so dishonestly were the French relatives of Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Provence. In 1258 the nobles of England met in solemn conference at Oxford and, inspired by Simon de Montfort the Earl of Leicester, they drew up rules to ensure fair, honest government and forced Henry to sign them. In 1264 Henry hired an army of French mercenaries and repudiated his agreement. War broke out.

Rochester Castle was held for the king by Sir Ralph de Capo, who had with him in the castle his betrothed, the beautiful Lady Blanche de Warrenne. Earl Simon moved to besiege Rochester and among his army was one Sir Gilbert de Clare. As ill fortune would have it, Lady Blanche had previously been betrothed to Sir Gilbert, but had broken off the engagement due to his violent temper.

After a siege of some weeks, Earl Simon learned that King Henry was at Lewes with an army much smaller than his own. Sensing a likely victory, Earl Simon abandoned the siege and marched off towards Lewes. As the army marched away, Sir Ralph sallied out to harry his enemies and recover what he could in the way of looted livestock and the like. Seeing this, Sir Gilbert led a small force that battered their way into Rochester Castle, slamming the gates behind them and declaring the castle now held for Earl Simon.

Sir Ralph, at once, rode back toward the castle, but it was too late. He arrived to see his beloved Lady Blanche high on the battlements of the keep fending off the unwanted advances of Sir Gilbert. Without hesitating, Sir Ralph put a bolt into his crossbow and sent it flying at Sir Gilbert. The bolt, however, glanced off Sir Gilbert’s armour and instead struck Lady Blanche. The unfortunate lady died within seconds.

It is the phantom of Lady Blanche who returns to the battlements of Rochester Castle. She appears with long, flowing dark hair which waves gently in a summer’s breeze, no matter what the actual weather may be. He long, pale gown flutters loosely as she paces back and forth along the battlements. She usually appears for only a few seconds at a time, but often enough for there to be no doubt about her presence.

Leave the castle by the way you entered, turning sharp right up a steep, narrow lane named Bakers Walk. At the top of the hill bear right around the castle walls into St Margaret’s Street. Rochester Cathedral is on the left.

Just as persistent as the phantom Lady Blanche is the genial old gent who potters about the burial ground of Rochester Cathedral, over the road from the Castle. This elderly man in a dark suit is seen walking quietly around as if searching for something. He is, in fact, searching for his own tomb. He searches in vain for it is in Westminster Abbey, not here. The ghost is none other than Charles Dickens, the great Victorian novelist. Dickens grew up in Rochester in grinding poverty. At the age of 11 he was put to work in a factory, earning just six shillings per week to help the family finances. As he walked to work each morning, Dickens passed a fine house at Gad’s Hill, Rochester, which he thought the most lovely the world. In 1857 he bought it with money earned by his writing and lived there until his death in 1870.

As he lay dying, Dickens asked to be buried here, but a grateful nation decided to give him a grander burial in London instead. No wonder he returns here to search for his tomb. Presumably he is unhappy that his final wishes were not respected. The phantom Dickens is seen quite often, but never for very long. He ducks out of sight within seconds of being seen.

The cathedral itself is one of the oldest in England. It was founded in 604 by St Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. That early church burned down in the 11th century and was replaced by a massive Norman-style building which was extended in the 13th century to create the church as it stands today, give or take a bit of Victorian work. 

Leave the Cathedral and turn left, walking south along St Margaret’s Street with the castle on your right. About 150 yards south of the castle stands the Cooper’s Arms public house on the right.

The Cooper’s Arms is one of the oldest secular buildings in Rochester. It was built in the 14th century as the cooperage, where the barrels were made and repaired, for the Benedictine monastery that then occupied this area of the town.

The phantom is the shade of one of the medieval monks who used to frequent the building. For some reason he is seen only in the autumn, and then usually only once or twice each year. His appearance is, however, dramatic enough to make up for its infrequency. He walks into the bar by striding through a solid wall, where there was once a doorway. Having thus startled anybody in the bar at the time, the phantom monk looks around with distinct disapproval before turning around and returning whence he came.

Whether the ghostly monk disapproves of the secular use to which the old building  is now put, or if he disapproves of something that existed here when he was alive, nobody can tell.

This is an extract from Ghost Hunter Walks in Kent by Rupert Matthews

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