Rochester was for many years a favourite of Charles Dickens, who owned nearby Gads Hill Place, Higham, basing many of his novels on the area. The Diocese of Rochester, the second oldest in England, is based at Rochester Cathedral and was responsible for the founding of a school, now The King's School in 604 AD, which is recognised as being the second oldest continuously running school in the world. Rochester Castle, built by Bishop Gundulf of Rochester, has one of the best preserved keeps in either England or France, and during the First Barons' War (1215–1217) in King John's reign, baronial forces captured the castle from Archbishop Stephen Langton and held it against the king, who then besieged it.
Neighbouring Chatham, Gillingham, Strood and a number of outlying villages, together with Rochester, nowadays make up the Medway Unitary Authority area. It was, until 1998, under the control of Kent County Council and is still part of the ceremonial county of Kent, under the latest Lieutenancies Act.
Civic history and traditions
Rochester and its neighbours, Chatham and Gillingham, form a single large urban area known as The Medway Towns with a population of about 250,000. Since Norman times Rochester had always governed land on the other side of the Medway in Strood, which was known as Strood Intra; before 1835 it was about 100 yards (91 m) wide and stretched to Gun Lane. In the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act the boundaries were extended to include more of Strood and Frindsbury, and part of Chatham known as Chatham Intra.
In 1974, Rochester City Council was abolished and superseded by Medway Borough Council, which also included the parishes of Cuxton, Halling and Cliffe-at-Hoo, and the Hoo Peninsula. In 1979 the borough became Rochester-upon-Medway.
Rochester first obtained City status in 1211, but this was lost due to an administrative oversight when Rochester was absorbed by the Medway Unitary Authority. Subsequently, the Medway Unitary Authority has applied for City status for Medway as a whole, rather than merely for Rochester. Medway applied unsuccessfully for City status in 2000 and 2002 and again in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Year of 2012. Any future bid to regain formal City status has been recommended to be made under the aegis of Rochester-upon-Medway.
In Rochester there were three medieval parishes: St Nicholas', St Margaret's and St Clement's. St Clement's was located in Horsewash Lane until the last vicar died in 1538. At this point it was joined with St Nicholas' parish; the church's last remaining foundations were finally removed when the railway was being constructed in the 1850s. St Nicholas' Church was built in 1421 beside the cathedral to serve as a parish church for the citizens of Rochester. The ancient cathedral included the Benedictine monastic priory of St Andrew with greater status than the local parishes. Rochester's pre-1537 diocese, under the jurisdiction of the Church of Rome, covered a vast area extending into East Anglia and included all of Essex.
As a result of the restructuring of the Church during the Reformation the cathedral was reconsecrated as the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary without parochial responsibilities, being a diocesan church. In the 19th century the parish of St Peter's was created to serve the burgeoning city and the new church being consecrated in 1859. Following demographic shifts, St Peter's and St Margaret's were recombined as a joint benefice in 1953 with the parish of St Nicholas with St Clement being absorbed in 1971. The combined parish is now the "Parish of St Peter with St Margaret", centred at the new (1973) Parish Centre in The Delce (St Peter's) with St Margaret's remaining as a chapel-of-ease. Old St Peter's was demolished in 1974, while St Nicholas' Church has been converted into the diocesan offices but remains consecrated. Continued expansion south has led to the creation of an additional more recent parish of St Justus (1956) covering The Tideway estate and surrounding area.
A church dedicated to St Mary the Virgin at Eastgate, which was of Anglo-Saxon foundation, is understood to have constituted a parish until the Middle Ages, but few records survive.
Neolithic remains have been found in the vicinity of Rochester; over time it has been variously occupied by Celts, Romans, Jutes and/or Saxons. During the Celtic period it was one of the two administrative centres of the Cantiaci tribe. During the Roman conquest of Britain a decisive battle was fought at the Medway somewhere near Rochester. The first bridge was subsequently constructed early in the Roman period. During the later Roman period the settlement was walled in stone. King Ethelbert of Kent (560–616) established a legal system which has been preserved in the 12th century Textus Roffensis. In AD 604 the bishopric and cathedral were founded. During this period, from the recall of the legions until the Norman conquest, Rochester was sacked at least twice and besieged on another occasion.
The medieval period saw the building of the current cathedral (1080–1130, 1227 and 1343), the building of two castles and the establishment of a significant town. Rochester Castle saw action in the sieges of 1215 and 1264. Its basic street plan was set out, constrained by the river, Watling Street, Rochester Priory and the castle.
Rochester has produced two martyrs: St John Fisher, executed by Henry VIII for refusing to sanction the divorce of Catherine of Aragon; and Bishop Nicholas Ridley, executed by Queen Mary for being an English Reformation protestant.
The city was raided by the Dutch as part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch, commanded by Admiral de Ruijter, broke through the chain at Upnor and sailed to Rochester Bridge capturing part of the English fleet and burning it.
The ancient City of Rochester merged with the Borough of Chatham and part of the Strood Rural District in 1974 to form the Borough of Medway. It was later renamed Rochester-upon-Medway, and its City status transferred to the entire borough. In 1998 another merger with the rest of the Medway Towns created the Medway Unitary Authority. The outgoing council neglected to appoint ceremonial "Charter Trustees" to continue to represent the historic Rochester area, causing Rochester to lose its City status – an error not even noticed by council officers for four years, until 2002.
Rochester has for centuries been of great strategic importance through its position near the confluence of the Thames and the Medway. Rochester Castle was built to guard the river crossing, and the Royal Dockyard's establishment at Chatham witnessed the beginning of the Royal Navy's long period of supremacy. The town, as part of Medway, is surrounded by two circles of fortresses; the inner line built during the Napoleonic wars consists of Fort Clarence, Fort Pitt, Fort Amherst and Fort Gillingham. The outer line of Palmerston Forts was built during the 1860s in light of the report by the Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom and consists of Fort Borstal, Fort Bridgewood, Fort Luton, and the Twydall Redoubts, with two additional forts on islands in the Medway, namely Fort Hoo and Fort Darnet.
During the First World War the Short Brothers' aircraft manufacturing company developed the first plane to launch a torpedo, the Short Admiralty Type 184, at its seaplane factory on the River Medway not far from Rochester Castle. In the intervening period between the 20th century World Wars the company established a world-wide reputation as a constructor of flying boats with aircraft such as the Singapore, Empire 'C'-Class and Sunderland. During the Second World War, Shorts also designed and manufactured the first four-engined bomber, the Stirling.
The UK's decline in naval power and shipbuilding competitiveness led to the government decommissioning the RN Shipyard at Chatham in 1984, which led to the subsequent demise of much local maritime industry. Rochester and its neighbouring communities were hit hard by this and have experienced a painful adjustment to a post-industrial economy, with much social deprivation and unemployment resulting. On the closure of Chatham Dockyard the area experienced an unprecedented surge in unemployment to 15.9%; this had dropped to 3.5% of the local population by 2004.
Former City of Rochester
Rochester was recognised as a City from 1211 to 1998. On 1 April 1974, the City Council was abolished, being amalgamated into the Borough of Medway, a local government district in the county of Kent. However, under Letters Patent dated 2008 the former City Council area was granted the style of "City of Rochester" to "perpetuate the ancient name" and to recall "the long history and proud heritage of the said City". The City of Rochester's ancient status was unique, as it had no formal council or Charter Trustees nor a Mayor, instead having the office of Admiral of the River Medway, whose incumbent acted as de facto civic leader. In 1979, the Borough of Medway was renamed as Rochester-upon-Medway, and by Letters Patent of 1982 its City status was transferred to the entire borough. On 1 April 1998, the existing local government districts of Rochester-upon-Medway and Gillingham were abolished and became the new unitary authority of Medway. Since it was the local government district that officially held City status under the 1982 Letters Patent, when it was abolished it also ceased officially to be a City. The other local government districts with City status that were abolished around this time (Bath and Hereford) had decided to appoint Charter Trustees to maintain the existence of the city and the mayoralty. However, the outgoing Labour-run Rochester-upon-Medway City Council neglected to do so. The incoming Medway Council apparently only became aware of this when, in 2002, it was advised that Rochester was not on the Lord Chancellor's Office's list of cities. In 2010, it started to refer to the "City of Medway" in promotional material, but it was rebuked and instructed not to do so in future by the Advertising Standards Authority.