A very abridged outline history

Today, the Rochester Bridge Trust had an open day.  My curiosity was piqued by the fact my Grandmother used to work for the Trust, and we went to look round the offices, chapel, and boardrooms; their historic roles are still performed today.

The bridge, as the Trust’s website notes, was ‘newly constructed’ in January 1393 by Sir John de Cobham.  The 1684 church history, Anglorum Speculum (G.S.), notes the importance of its benefactor, John Knowles, who ‘gave bountifully to the Building of Rochester-Bridge, founding a Chappel and a Chantry at the East end thereof’.  The fruits of Knowles’s benefaction and Cobham’s labour is still visible, including a very dated and warped wooden gallery and marked holes where the rood screen would have been suspended.

Of course, Rochester was a very important city in both medieval and early modern England.  William Lambarde, the travel writer, dismisses local myths about Rochester’s origins in Julius Caesar’s reign, but admits that it certainly has Roman heritage.  John Speed’s 1611 map of Kent, on display in the Bridge Trust’s chapel, reveals its centrality to the county, second only in importance to Canterbury (see the bottom right city map):

The Bishop of Rochester is a frequent name in early modern histories (and a notorious one in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – especially Dr. Fisher), and Rochester was both a religious and economic centre – not least because of the bridge, which provided an essential crossing over the Medway.  Writing in about 1576, Lambarde appreciates the identity and importance of this crossing; he divides Rochester into four parts: the City, the castle, the ‘Religious buildings’, and the bridge.  As we shall see, he holds concern for its preservation.

My Grandmother fondly recalls transcribing a number of old documents during her time at the Trust – with their curious spelling and typography. It is with amusement, then, that I find the endearing and digressive Lambarde doing the same.  He peruses old volumes ‘of Rochester Librarie’ and provides a number of transcriptions – including one in old English with a Latin translation – and puts into print a couple of extracts from the old manuscripts.  In the Saxon text, we are offered some basic information about crossing the river before the ‘new’ bridge was built.  In Lambarde’s words, ‘this auncient bridge consisted of nyne Arches, or peres, & conteined in length about twentie and sixe roddes, or yardes, as they be here termed’ (Qq5v).  Indeed, the rudimentary bridge served Kent well, as the Latin notes:

Et sciendum est, quod omnes illae suliuae quae in ponte illo ponentur, tantae grossitudinis debent esse ut bene possint sustinere, omnia grauia pondera superiacentium plaucarum, & omnium desuper transeuentium rerum.

And it is to be known that all those [arches/pillars?] that are put down on that bridge to be of so great a density they keep back and are well able to support all heavy weights lying upon it […] and all crossings of things above it.

To ensure the ‘reparation and maintenance’ of this old English bridge, ‘diverse persons, parcels of lands, and townships…were dutie bounde to bringe stuffe, & to bestow both coste & labor in laying it’.  In his own era, though, Lambarde doesn’t see a very trustworthy Trust maintaining it, as he laments

but nowe in our time, by reason that diuers Landes are purposely giuen to mainteine the newe Bridge, all this auncient dutie of reparation is quite and clean forgotten…(Rr recto)

Noting the absence of the collective spirit that once cared for the bridge, Lambarde reveals his familiar if paradoxical combination of nostalgia for the old merry world and disgust at its Catholic misdemeanours – a tension often present in the travelogue.  Indeed, he fears that ‘the newe Bridge it selfe…bothe presently lacketh helpe, and is like hereafter (if remedie in time be not applied) to decline to great ruine and decay’.  Its importance not to just Kent but to England as a whole relies upon the upkeep of the crossing, for the bridge’s disrepair

is so muche the more to be foreseene, and pittyed, as that the woorke is to the founder a Noble monument, to this citie a beautiful ornament, and to the whole Countrie a great benefite, commoditie, and casement. (Rr recto)

I’m sure he would be pleased to see that the Trust heeded his words.  The history of the bridge is also repeated by Lambarde, as it appears too in Fabyans Cronicle (1513), Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577), and Thomas Fuller’s The church-history of Britain from the birth of Jesus Christ until the year MDCXLVIII (1655).  In the latter, we learn that during Edward III’s reign (presumably not long after the bridge was built) a certain Archbishop Morton, made a Cardinal by the Pope, was empowered with dispensing pardons. With this bargaining tool, he assured the Kentish Men and Men of Kent that they would be ‘bestowed remission from Purgatory for all sins whatsoever committed within the compass fourty dayes, to such as should Bountifully contribute to the building’ of the Bridge.  It is amusingly marked in the margins as ‘Rochester Bridge repaired by Pardons’ (Ddr):

To think that spiritual power, or rather spiritual ‘persuasion’, once bridged the Medway!  As the paintings and sketches on display at the open day reminded us, the bridge that stood in early modern England is not the same as the one that stands there now, gloriously (if that is the right word) linking Strood and Rochester, beside the train crossing.  With the Medway tunnel in place, its importance is somewhat diminished (and the traffic is always busy), but its history is certainly curious.


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