Rochester Cathedral: South of England

GUEST ARTICLE: The main reason for my trip to Rochester was to see Rochester Cathedral.

However, numerous unexpected themes sprang up from all quarters of the city, including philanthropy, Dickens (again!), and the comings and goings of the late Stuart monarchs.

The cathedral stands on part of the site of the original Saxon cathedral.

The current structure commenced with a fine Romanesque nave built in the 11th and 12th centuries, with later transitional and Gothic additions in the transepts and chancel and the (almost obligatory) 19th century reredos by Gilbert Scott.

The arches in the nave are very nicely carved and the western facade is particularly fine. The latest addition to the decoration of the cathedral is a baptismal fresco which was added in 2004 and fills a wall in the north transept.

It is the work of a Russian iconographer and depicts the baptism of Christ in the Jordan together with some related local events, the baptism of King Ethelbert and Bishop Iustus giving communion to newly-baptised Saxons emerging from the River Medway.

The cathedral also boasts one of the finest surviving pieces of 13th century fresco in England – a small segment of a “wheel of fortune” that was hidden from the Puritans by a well-placed pulpit.

Back in the Middle Ages, every cathedral had to have a shrine to keep the pilgrims coming and the cash flow moving.

The shrine at Rochester, which helped pay for some of the later additions to the cathedral, contained the remains of a very obscure and unsuspecting saint – William of Perth (Scotland).

William was on a pilgrimage from Perth to Canterbury, Rome and the Holy Land, but only got as far as Rochester before he was murdered. His body was found by the local mad woman who, it is said, was promptly cured by the encounter.

The monks took the body and buried it in the middle of the north transept of the cathedral. Several more miracles and canonisation followed and the cult was well-established before Henry VIII brought it all to an end.

The only really disconcerting part of the Rochester experience was a sickly smell coming from the plastic air fresheners perched on each pillar in the vaulted crypt.

I would have thought incense was a far more acceptable solution – have most Anglicans forgotten that, in the 19th century, priests were imprisoned for claiming the right to use incense in the Church of England?

KING JAMES II OF ENGLAND AND VII OF SCOTLAND stayed at Abdication house as the guest of Sir Richard Head before embarking for France on the 23rd December 1688 when he finally left England.

Rochester also boasts a very impressive castle just across the road from the cathedral. Sadly, the keep was close for refurbishments.

The comings and goings of the later Stuart kings is another of Rochester’s themes. In the High Street, the local branch of Lloyd’s Bank is called “Abdication House” and claims to be last place that James II stayed before leaving England for France in 1688. The details of the stay and of his unfortunately-named host are recorded on a plaque out front (see left)

Not far from this building, a little up the hill, stands “Restoration House”, a solid brick building which has a plaque that states:

charles dickens rochester

Built in 1587. It is said that Charles II stayed here on the night of 28th May 1660 at his restoration .. and then adds: The “Satis House” of “Great Expectations”.

This leads to the next theme – Rochester just drips references to Dickens and his works. Dickens spent his early years in nearby Chatham and his final years at nearby Gad’s Hill.

He was, therefore, very familiar with Rochester and, it would seem, used many of its buildings as models in his fiction.

In addition to Satis House, there’s the Guild Hall where Pip of Great Expectations was apprenticed, Eastgate House, a 16th century building said to have been the “Westgate House” of Pickwick Papers and the “Nun’s House” of Edwin Drood, as well as several other buildings associated with Edwin Drood.

RICHARD WATTS ESQr By his will dated 22nd August 1579 founded this charity for six poor travellers who not being rogues or proctors may receive gratis for one night lodging entertainment and four pence each. In testimony of his munificence in honour of his memory and inducement to his example the charitable trustees of this city and borough have caused this stone to be renewed and inscribed AD 1865.

The cemetery in the castle moat has a plaque recording the fact that “Charles Dickens wished to be buried here”. (His wish was not carried out)

Finally, just about every other building in the High Street records the charitable gifts of a local worthy. Among the plethora, too numerous to mention, there’s the French Hospital – a residence for the descendants of French Huguenots.

There are other buildings and institutions supplied at the expense of gentlemen rejoicing in such names as “Sir Stafford Fairbourne” and “Sir Cloudsley Shovel, Knight”. And then there’s one worth recording in full dedicated to Richard Watts Esq (see photo)

If only more philanthropists had been induced to his example, a certain resident of Surry Hills (NSW) would not be facing bread and dripping on his return home!

This travel diary has been written by my friend Joseph Waugh who likes to travel to places with interesting architecture and history.

If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution

5 thoughts on “Rochester Cathedral: South of England”

  1. Hey,
    Thanks for this wonderful update on the trip. The pictures that you have posted down here is really interesting, No doubt that Rochester has lots of historical places to visit which is truly awesome.


  2. As a brit I should visit cathedrals and castles in England but I’m just not sure that people are that interested anymore. Don’t get me wrong they are outstanding pieces of work but would I want to go and visit them for a day? I’m not sure…

    Another top article. Cheers man

  3. I come from Denmark, and I have been visiting England 5 times. One of the reasons why I choose England to visit is the great history of the country. I think a lot of people have the same opinion. Not everybody wants to go shopping in London.

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