Alfred and the Vikings at Rochester

This post is adapted from my book, King Alfred: A Man on the Move, available from Amazon. It would be great if you could support this project by purchasing a copy.

Rochester is a lovely and historic city, worth visiting in its own right. However, this city was clearly a  target for the Vikings. Rochester had already been sacked by the Vikings in 842, before Alfred was born. However, it was attacked by the Vikings again in 884, but this time King Alfred saw them off.

You may wish to open a map application to help you get the most out of the below. Otherwise just relax and read on.

The records indicate that on arrival in 884 the Vikings built a fortress around themselves, and we know that this must have been outside of Rochester’s walls because it is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the inhabitants defended the settlement. Asser tells us that the Viking fortification was at the entrance to the town but, unfortunately for modern-day investigators, there were four entrances, and so the precise location of the Viking fortification has remained unknown. Alfred later arrived with his forces in 885, and locating the site of the Viking fortification could shed light on where and how Alfred might have engaged with the Vikings and saw that they left. Fortunately, the outline of Rochester’s Roman walls is known. It has been suggested that there would be no Saxon-built stone walls, so the configuration of the walls in 885 should have remained perhaps unchanged since Roman times.

Rochester Bridge over the River Medway (looking north)

There had been four gates in the Roman walls. A northern “Bridge Gate” that opened on to the position of the Roman bridge across the River Medway. A north gate, which is more east than north, an east gate that is more south than east, and a south gate that is more west than south. The confusion is explained when one realises that the name seems to indicate the direction in which one could travel  after passing through a particular gate, rather than the orientation of the gate itself.

There is evidence that the East Gate was about where the City Wall Wine Bar on High Street is located. On visiting I noticed that the outline of the gate was helpfully marked out with bricks in the pavement and the road, with a metal plaque in the pavement confirming the location.

The outline of the East Gate on the ground. Easily missed. Had there been a Viking fortification just past the lamp post?

The North Gate appears to be preserved in the current road name of Northgate. It has been suggested that this gate might have just lead to marshy ground. However, there has also been speculation that it may have led to a harbour. Evidence suggests that the Noth Gate would have been approximately where today Northgate meets Corporation Street, being approximately equidistant from Watling Street (which ran along a line close to that of the current High Street) on one side as the cathedral is on the other. This location seems to be consistent with an existing piece of wall that one can see at the back of The Common car park, accessible via Gas House Road and then Acorn Wharf Road. However, the line of bricks in the road at Northgate, outside the Corn Exchange, suggests that at least some person may have thought that the gate may have been not quite as far down Northgate as the junction with Corporation Street. However, I could find no plaque to explain the reason for the bricks embedded into the road at this point.

A line in the road called Northgate which seems to be there to indicate the line of the wall, but might it (and the North Gate) have been a little bit further down somewhere near the junction with Corporation Street towards the right on the photo?

The Romans built a bridge at Rochester and a bridge is recorded as present in 960, so a bridge may well have been maintained in the intervening period, including at the time of the Viking attack in 885. This bridge across the Medway is thought to have remained in approximately the same location as today. The location of the gate by the bridge (which I have seen referred to as both Bridge Gate and West Gate) has not been proved although it must have existed in order to allow access to and from the bridge. The gate would most likely have been more or less in line with the bridge. However, the modern bridge is much wider than it has been in the past. Fortunately, the entrance to the old bridge is marked by  black lions, which perhaps allows us to speculate that the Bridge Gate would have been at the point where a line drawn from the bridge would have met the town wall.

The north end of High Street, looking north towards the bridge. If it still existed the Bridge Gate would surely be in this picture.

It is thought that the South Gate would have been just before where Boley Hill meets St Margaret’s Street, and there is a helpful plaque on a wall that identifies the location. One can wonder whether, if the Viking fortification had been outside this gate, the location would have been where Boley Hill House and Lodge now stand, near the junction of Boley Hill with St Margaret’s Avenue.

The plaque on the wall where the South Gate is thought to have been
The site of the South Gate (plaque on the wall to the right). Looking to the east along Boley Hill

I did not find it possible to exclude any of the entrances as a possible site for the Viking fortification, although I favour the Bridge Gate because the Vikings had a tendency to use waterways and, by blocking the Bridge Gate, they could fend off any support for Alfred from that direction. I was also told by a helpful volunteer at the cathedral that the Bridge Gate currently appears to be the narrow favourite! I thought it unlikely that an attacking force would cross the bridge, because such structures restrict the flow of men, making them more vulnerable. If there really had been docks beyond the North Gate it is possible that they could have disembarked there. Alternatively, the Vikings could have disembarked at Chatham and then came up Watling Street to the East Gate of Rochester.

Plenty to think about. When you get a chance, pay Rochester a visit, have a look for the sites of the gates of the Roman walls, and see what you think! Rochester Cathedral and Rochester Castle are well worth a visit. You can also see the outline of the Saxon church outlined in the ground partly inside and partly outside of the cathedral.

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