Tonbridge Castle was originally built in 1070, soon after the Norman Conquest. Early Norman castles were designed to be built quickly. A huge mound of earth was thrown up and a wooden enclosure built on top. Later these wooden defences would be replaced with stone walls. Nearly all of them worked by creating a sense of intimidation rather than being involved in actual fighting. Ironically the first time Tonbridge Castle was involved in fighting was during a struggle between different Norman factions. The de Clare's who were granted Tonbridge Castle by William the Conqueror rebelled against the rule of the Conqueror's son William I. William's forces besieged Tonbridge Castle, and burnt the town. For the rest of William's reign the de Clare's kept a low profile. But then in 1100, King William was killed on the New Forest in a hunting accident. The man who shot the stray arrow which killed William was Walter Tyrell, the son in law of Gilbert de Clare.
Following the king's death the de Clare's fortunes revived. They rose to become one of England's most powerful families. From this point Tonbridge Castle and its resident earls chart a famous thirteenth century struggle between England's barons and the monarch. Sometimes this history is presented as the establishment of law protecting subjects from government power. But the powerful barons involved had no vision of a better, fairer society. They were not revolutionaries. They were instead conservatives looking after their own interests, trying to maintain their traditional privileges. The barons did not want the king bringing in people to government from outside their charmed circle. They did not want a meritocracy. They struggled to maintain their position by insisting King John sign the Magna Carta which confirmed their rights in the face of royal authority. Ironically, however, in the long run these efforts would help end the rule of aristocracy.
Gilbert de Clare and his son Richard were part of the group of barons who forced King John into signing the Magna Carta in 1215. By 1219 Gilbert de Clare had become Earl of Gloucester, and leader of England's barons. Richard de Clare supported John's son King Henry III, who allowed the building of Tonbridge Castle gatehouse much as it appears today. De Clere's support for the monarch would, however, soon disappear in the treacherous shifts of thirteenth century politics. Gilbert de Clare would play a major role in the rebellion against Henry III, and would lose Tonbridge Castle as a result. Only when the next generation of de Clares showed loyalty to Henry III's son, Edward I, would the castle return to its former owners. Then it was during the reign of Edward's successor, Edward II that the de Clare family finally ended its time as owners of Tonbridge Castle. Gilbert de Clare was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. His lands passed via his daughter to the fearsome Hugh Despenser, who was busy exploiting his close friendship with Edward II to build his own powerbase. Hugh, showing typical greed and impatience, seized Tonbridge Castle in May 1315, even though Gilbert's will would have granted it freely to him if only he had waited. This caused outrage. Tonbridge Castle clearly was such a prize, such a symbol of power, that young Despenser could not wait to get his hands on it. Although the time would come when Hugh Despenser would, for a short while, become powerful enough to do whatever he liked, at this point early in his career, he was forced to give up his prized castle to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Ironically Tonbridge Castle would not remain a great prize for long. By the end of the fourteenth century Tonbridge Castle had ended its time as an important location in English history. By the eighteenth century it was being used as a quarry, the stones of its massive walls being carried off for other buildings. It was not until the 1950s that consideration was given to protection of what little remained, and it was only in 1992 that the castle opened as a tourist attraction. But for hundreds of years in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Tonbridge Castle lay at the centre of treacherous political divides, which were to create great changes in the way governments were organised.
Tonbridge Castle offers an audio tour, in English, French, Dutch and German. There are also interactive displays and life size figures recreating Norman life at the castle. Groups and schools must pre-book tours.
Address: Tonbridge Castle, Castle Street, Tonbridge, Kent TN9 1BG
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Directions: The castle is right in the centre of Tonbridge, just off the High Street. There is ample car parking nearby. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on Tonbridge Castle.
Access: Wheelchair access to the gatehouse is limited to the ground floor only. There are steep slopes on the site.
telephone: 01732 770929