Tonbridge Castle was built by the powerful de Clare family shortly after the Norman invasion. It was destroyed by William II but was rebuilt and later embroiled in the civil wars of the thirteenth century when the de Clares rebelled against both King John and his successor, Henry III. The castle was slighted on the orders of Parliament in 1646.
Following the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings (1066), William I granted the Lowy of Tonbridge to Richard FitzGilbert, a Norman Knight who had accompanied him during his invasion. The lands amounted to a substantial portion of Kent and included Tonbridge itself which was strategically important as it controlled a bridge over the River Medway that carried the Hastings to London road. To secure this key nodal point, Richard raised Tonbridge Castle in the form of an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification. The motte was located to the north of the river and would have been topped by a timber palisade and tower. There were two baileys - one to the west which would have hosted the high status and residential buildings whilst a northern bailey was occupied by the ancillary buildings such as stables. Richard later acquired substantial estates in Suffolk, centred around Clare Castle, and accordingly changed his name to Richard de Clare.
William I died in 1087 and his Anglo-Norman inheritance was split between his two eldest sons - Robert Curthose became Duke of Normandy whilst William Rufus became King William II of England. For the Norman magnates, the vast majority of whom had substantial estates on both sides of the English Channel, this was sub-optimal as they foresaw the impossibility of successfully serving two masters. Led by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux a rebellion erupted against William and this was supported by Richard de Clare. In response the King dispatched a force to attack and besiege Tonbridge Castle. Richard was present within the castle at this time and surrendered after he was wounded during the two day siege. Richard was allowed to retire to a monastery and Tonbridge Castle was burnt.
The de Clares ultimately accepted William II and recovered Tonbridge Castle. To replace the destroyed timber structure, Gilbert de Clare commenced construction of a stone Keep on top of the motte. He also refined the water management system around the castle to ensure a ready water supply for both economic purposes and to flood the moats surrounding the motte and baileys. Later in the twelfth century a stone wall, fronted with ashlar but with a rubble interior, replaced the earthwork bank around the Inner Bailey. However, the new castle was eyed with envy by the church. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury attempted to lay claim to it and sent a summons demanding that the then owner - Roger de Clare, Earl of Hereford - pay homage to him in order to retain the castle. Roger was less than impressed and the Archbishop's messenger was cordially invited to eat the summons complete with the wax seal!
Tonbridge Castle was attacked in 1215 by King John. The then owner - Richard de Clare, Earl of Hereford - had been one of the barons tasked with upholding the provisions of Magna Carta. However, when that charter failed to secure peace, England descended into civil war. The King swept into Kent and seized Tonbridge Castle which then remained under Crown control until it was returned to the family by Henry III. The de Clares also supported the rebel cause when the Second Barons' War commenced in 1264 when the then owner - Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester - joined the forces of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Henry responded by attacking Tonbridge seizing the castle and town along with Gilbert's wife, Alice. Undeterred, Gilbert went on to play an important role at the Battle of Lewes (1264) where Henry III was defeated and captured. The following year, the Earl changed sides and supported Prince Edward at the Battle of Evesham (1265) where Montfort was killed and Henry III released. Tonbridge Castle was returned to the family and construction of the gatehouse started at this time.
The male line of the de Clare family failed in 1314 when Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn. Tonbridge Castle passed to his daughter, Eleanor, who married Hugh Despenser the younger. When the latter fell afoul of domestic politics, the castle (along with the Earldom) passed to Hugh de Audley. Thereafter it passed to Ralph, Lord Stafford who added the Stafford Tower and Water Tower. Tonbridge Castle remained with the Staffords until 1520 when Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham was executed by Henry VIII.
When the Civil War started in 1642, Tonbridge Castle was in the hands of Thomas Weller. He was a lawyer and tax collector employed by Parliament and accordingly supported that faction upon the outbreak of hostilities. A Parliamentary garrison was installed at Tonbridge which briefly saw action in June 1643 when a Royalist force sallied into the area from Sevenoaks. The castle remained in Weller's control but, following the end of the war, Parliament ordered the defences to be slighted to prevent further military use.
During the eighteenth century, Tonbridge Castle was plundered for its stone specifically to support modifications to the River Medway to make it navigable for ships. Attempts were also made to convert the gatehouse into a fashionable residence but these failed and instead further stone was removed from the curtain walls to construct a small mansion which remained occupied until the nineteenth century. In 1897 the castle was purchased by Tonbridge Urban District Council who used the mansion as their new offices whilst the grounds were opened to the public. The castle was briefly fortified during World War II as part of the 'Ironside Line', a series of anti-tank defences and pillboxes devised by General Edmund Ironside and designed to slow a German invasion of mainland Britain following the defeat at Dunkirk.
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Tonbridge Castle consists of an impressive thirteenth century Gatehouse, curtain wall and motte (topped with the foundations of a Shell Keep).
Tonbridge Castle Layout. The castle's motte was originally completely encircled by a wet moat. The Inner Bailey also had a flooded moat on the east and north-east sides.
Gatehouse and Motte. The Outer Bailey no longer exists whilst the Inner Bailey and Motte are now a public park.
Inner Bailey Gatehouse. The double drum gatehouse was constructed from sandstone ashlar. It was started following the recovery of Tonbridge Castle by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester after the Second Barons' War and was originally fronted by a water filled moat whilst a bridge, protected by a barbican, provided access. The design of the gatehouse is similar to Gilbert's later fortification at Caerphilly Castle in Glamorgan.
Gatehouse Interior. The upper levels of the gatehouse occupy the whole area of the building but may have been partitioned by wooden walls.
Inner Bailey Curtain Wall.
Motte. The motte is similar in size and scale to Clare Castle, which was also built by Richard FitzGilbert. The zig-zag path to the summit is modern.
Shell Keep. The motte was topped by a Shell Keep. Whilst the foundations are original, the walls have been partially rebuilt in modern times.
Moat. The motte and Inner Bailey were both surrounded by a water filled moat.
Inner Bailey. The Inner Bailey is now a public park. The 1792 mansion can be seen just beyond the gatehouse.
Tonbridge Castle can be found on the northern bank of the River Medway in the centre of the town. There are numerous car parking facilities nearby including one directly adjacent to the castle (details below).
Bank Street, TN9 1BL