Rochester is a town and former city in the unitary authority of Medway in South East England. It is at the lowest bridging point of the River Medway about from London. The town was for many years the favourite of Charles Dickens, who lived nearby at Gads Hill Place, Higham, and who based many of his novels in the area. The Diocese of Rochester, the second oldest in England, is based at Rochester Cathedral, and was responsible for the founding of King's School in 604 AD, which is the second oldest school in the world. Rochester Castle, built by Gundulf of Rochester, has one of the best preserved keeps in 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.
Rochester, together with neighbouring Chatham, Gillingham, Strood and a number of outlying villages, makes up the Medway unitary authority area. It was, until 1998, part of Kent and is still ceremonially associated via the Lieutenancies Act.
Neolithic remains have been found in the vicinity of Rochester. The town 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 established. 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. The castle saw action in the sieges of 1215 and 1264. The basic street plan was established, constrained by the river, Watling street, the castle and the priory.
Rochester has produced two martyrs; St John Fisher executed by Henry VIII because he refused to sanction the divorce of Catherine of Aragon and Nicholas Ridley executed by Queen Mary as an English Reformation martyr.
The city was raided by the Dutch as part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch, under de Ruijter, broke through the chain at Upnor and sailed to Rochester Bridge capturing and firing the English fleet.
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 the 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 the council 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. Its castle was built to guard the river crossing, and the Royal Dockyard at Chatham was the foundation 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 2 additional forts on islands in the Medway, Fort Hoo and Fort Darnet.
During the First World War the Short Brothers' aircraft company manufactured 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 inter-war period 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 decline in naval power and in shipbuilding in general led to the government abandoning the shipyard at Chatham in 1984, and the subsequent demise of much of the marine 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 saw an unprecedented surge in unemployment to 15.9%. This dropped to 3.5% in 2004.
The Romano-British name for Rochester was Durobrivae, later Durobrivis c.730 and Dorobrevis in 844. The two commonly cited origins of this name are that it either came from "stronghold by the bridge(s)", or is the latinisation of the British word Dourbruf meaning "swiftstream". Durobrivis was pronounced 'Robrivis. Bede copied down this name, c. 730, mistaking its meaning as Hrofi's fortified camp (OE Hrofes cæster). From this we get c. 730 Hrofæscæstre, 811 Hrofescester, 1086 Rovescester, 1610 Rochester. The Latinised adjective 'Roffensis' refers to Rochester.