Tonbridge Castle is, unremarkably, in Tonbridge, Kent. Tonbridge's history goes back a long way. People in the Iron Age used the river crossing here, as the Romans must have done later. A Saxon settlement may have grown up beside the river, before the Normans came and built the motte-and-bailey castle. Its massive gatehouse is now one of the finest surviving in the country.
Tonbridge’s first castle 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. 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.
The wooden castle probably only survived about twenty years. Descendants of Richard Fitzgilbert 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".
In 1088, the de Clare family (descendants of Fitz Gilbert) rebelled against King William II. 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.
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.
A later owner, John Hooker, sold stone from the castle to build locks on the River Medway, and in 1791 his son Thomas took more stone from the ruined walls to build the residence that now adjoins the Gatehouse. What was left of the once-proud fortress became in turn a private home, a military academy and a prep school until in 1899 it was purchased by the Town Council. The residence became the Council Chamber and offices, and the grounds were opened to the public. 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.
For those of you who are fans of our beloved Jane Austen, you can have an MP3 audio guided tour of the monuments in the Church of St Peter and St Paul; these include the tomb of Jane Austen's grandparents, other Austen's and people they knew narrated by Louise Jamseon. There is also a circular walk of Tonbridge with associations to Jane Austen with an audio guide.
The Castle tour, an audio tour of approximately one hour, is a recreation of medieval life, it is dark in places, has life-like models and involves climbing many steep steps. Therefore it may be unsuitable for very young children. All children must be accompanied by an adult. Disabled access is limited, only the ground floor is accessible for disabled visitors, which does have a virtual tour facility of the whole gatehouse. All of the Castle Grounds have disabled access. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Tonbridge Castle, Castle Street, Tonbridge, Kent TN9 1BG
Transport : Tonbridge (National Rail) then 10 minutes. Bus Routes : 148, 202, 204, 210, 211, 218, 401, 402, 442, 572 and 577 stop outside
Opening Times : Monday to Saturday : 09.00 to 17.00; Sunday and Bank Holidays: 10.30 to 16.30
Tickets : Adults £8.50; Concessions/Children (5 - 16) £5.00
Tel. : 01732 770929