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Return to Tonbridge Castle 2012 | by Whipper_snapper
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Return to Tonbridge Castle 2012

Land at Tonbridge was given to Richard Fitzgilbert, Richard of Brionne, following the Battle of Senlac in 1066. At Tonbridge there was an important crossing of the Medway (probably dating back to the Iron Age) where he built a motte and bailey castle. The motte (mound) is huge, about 27,000 cubic metres and the bailey runs partly along the banks of the Medway and was probably served by a water gate. to see the full set.


In addition to Tonbridge he was also given land at Clare, on the Essex/Suffolk borders, where a second castle of his still exists although much altered. He took the name Richard De Clare. As a result of supporting Robert, son of William the Conqueror, in a rising against King William II, the castle and town of Tonbridge were sacked and burned. In the 1090s the De Clares rebuilt the castle and added a stone keep to the top of the motte. Stone keeps on mottes are relatively rare and it is interesting to note that the sister castle at Clare also has the remains of one.


Stone walls were added to the bailey made of dressed local stone front and back with a rubble and morter infill. One section of the surviving wall is 2.6 metres thick. The De Clares later received the titles of Earl of Hertford and Earl of Gloucester and in 1215 Richard the 3rd Earl of Gloucester and his son Gilbert were two of the 25 barons responsible for policing Magna Carta. King John objected and Tonbridge was attacked and seized. It was not returned to the De Clares until the reign of Henry III.


In 1262 Gilbert became Earl (the 'Red Earl' on account of his red hair) and he subsequently backed the barons against Henry III. In 1264 Henry captured Rochester Castle and then swung south against Tonbridge seizing the town, the castle and Gilbert's wife the countess Alice. Gilbert backed De Montfort at Lewes against the King but in 1265 he switched sides because of De Montfort's ambitions and plans to allay with the Welsh.


Gilbert regained Tonbridge but also gained a reputation for inconstancy. It appears the second loss of Tonbridge sparked Gilbert to build the imposing gatehouse which is the principal surviving feature at Tonbridge today.


The gatehouse is dated to the 1262 -1314 period and was probably complete by 1272 when Gilbert played host to the new King Edward I. It consists of a pair of drum towers with substantial foundations jutting out into the moat and once had a barbican (now lost). This barbican probably contained the drawbridge. At the rear are round towers of more slender proportion.


The main structure has gates and portcullises on BOTH sides of the building indicating that the gatehouse could also be held against a breach of the bailey walls or a rebellion by the garrison. Indeed the gatehouse is liberally supplied with at least six separate portcullises. Access to the gatehouse interior is primarily from inside the archway and the small doors on each each side of this passageway have their own portcullis. Additional portcullises also exist at wallwalk level - one of these leading to a covered way which once led up to the keep on the motte. In effect the gatehouse and the keep could be completely isolated from the rest of the site and it was possible to safely walk from one to the other inside the wallwalk.


The gatehouse was also liberally supplied with meutrieres (murder holes) both in the passageway and on the outside but these probably served a fire-fighting function as well as a military purpose. Shooting from the holes in the passageway roof would prevent combustibles being heaped against the side doors which gave access to the gatehouse itself or allow water to be poured on any combustibles which arrived.


There is considerable storage in the basement level either side of the gatehouse with a real-life 'secret passage' linking the two basements below the gate passage itself. The upper level was probably a guard room but a higher level has larger windows, fine carved heads and large fireplaces and this may have been a fine apartment for a constable, visitors or overflow accomodation from the adjacent keep. It was at this level that the main portcullis was operated and, while the gate and mechanism are both missing, Tonbridge Council have installed a light projector to show an image of the missing portcullis upon the wall. A nice touch.


I remember the gatehouse as a gutted shell but Tonbridge Council have reinstated internal access to the gate since 2000 and added a new roof and access all the way to the top of the gatehouse's roof giving an imposing view over the town. Inside there is a substantial museum in one basement containing examples of locally manufactured glass and cricket balls while elsewhere there are figures of 12th/13th century members of the garrison including one chap sitting on the garderobe with a very serious expression on his face - obvious he needs more ruffage in his diet. At another window a man stands ready with a crossbow in his hand.


Elsewhere model guards eat food in the other basement while a clerk checks his paperwork and another guard counts arrows stored in a barrel. It is clear that the council have spent a lot of money on the castle restoration and the interpretation displays and I came away with the impression of money well spent.


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Taken on February 26, 2012