Tonbridge Castle

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Tonbridge Castle
Kent, Kingdom of England
Tonbridge Castle Gatehouse
TypeMotte and bailey, with later shell keep
Site information
OwnerTonbridge and Malling Borough Council
Open to
the public
ConditionThe motte and gatehouse survive
Site history
Battles/warsDe Clare rebellion, 1088

Tonbridge Castle is situated in Tonbridge, Kent, Kingdom of England. It was built by the de Clare family in the 11th century following the successful conquering of England by the Duke of Normandy. It was a simple fort of earth and timber, thrown up – like hundreds of others – by Norman invaders for self-protection soon after they arrived in 1066. It stood on land overlooking the Medway crossing which William the Conqueror had given to his kinsman Richard FitzGilbert, 1st Lord of Clare. Local labour would have been used to shift the 30,000 tonnes of earth required to form the moat and the motte – the ’castle mound’ which still survives. A wooden keep would have been built on top of the motte, with an adjacent area, the bailey (now the Castle Lawn) protected by a fence of stakes.


Reconstruction of Tonbridge Castle in the 13th century
The motte, which was surmounted by a wooden keep and later a twin walled shell keep.

The wooden castle first built by Richard FitzGilbert, 1st Lord of Clare probably only survived about twenty years. Descendants of Lord de Clare gradually replaced the earth and timber structure with stone, repairing the effects of decay, fire and warfare and reinforcing their stronghold against improved methods of attack. Their final castle had a noble gatehouse and was encircled by massive curtain walls connecting great towers at each corner, while a high shell keep crowned the motte. In places the castle walls were almost three metres thick, with sandstone facings from nearby quarries. Kings fought and were entertained at Tonbridge Castle, archbishops quarrelled over its guardianship, and Henry III’s niece and Edward I’s daughter were both mistresses of the castle. In Henry VIII’s reign the gatehouse was deemed to be "as strong a fortress as few be in England".

House de Clare Rebellion

In 1088, the de Clare family rebelled against King William II of England. His army besieged the castle. After holding for two days the castle fell and as punishment the king had both the castle and the town of Tonbridge burnt to the ground. Before 1100, the de Clares replaced the wooden castle with a stone shell keep. This was reinforced during the thirteenth century, and in 1295 a stone wall was built around the town. The twin-towered gatehouse was built by Richard de Clare, third Earl of Hertford or his son Gilbert. Construction of the gatehouse took 30 years, being completed in 1260. The gatehouse shares many similarities with the ones at Caerphilly Castle built by Gilbert in 1268-1271. The great seal of England was temporarily kept here during one of Edward I's visits to France. The castle was not lived in between 1521 and the late 18th century, except for a short period during the English Civil War

English Civil War

In the Civil War the Castle was strengthened and garrisoned. Thomas Weller, who owned it at that time, was a Parliamentarian. He joined other West Kent gentlemen in opposing local unrest at Sevenoaks in 1643, and there was a three-hour skirmish on the outskirts of Tonbridge at Hilden Brook. The river crossing was fought over but not, it seems, the castle itself – though the Roundhead garrison wreaked havoc in the grounds. Later Weller was ordered to put the castle beyond military use by dismantling its defences.

Modern history

The site was purchased by the Tonbridge and Malling Council in 1900, who now use the mansion as offices, and who made the grounds a public park. The castle is also the start of a 6-mile cycle ride to Penshurst Place called The Tudor Trail. Nearly 900 years from its first construction, Tonbridge Castle saw military service once more, as part of a defensive line against possible German invasion in World War 2. Anti-tank defences and a machine-gun emplacement were constructed, and two pillboxes built into the 13th century walls.


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