OMG - he’s accidentally shot his fiancé!
Will the spectre of “Blanche-the-Fair” appear at Rochester Castle this Easter?
This is a type of 'West Side Story' plot that occurred around 750 years at Rochester. It is a story of two men from warring ‘gangs’ who desired the love of one women, and that tragically ends with the death of a pretty young woman - Lady Blanche Warrene - and one of her suitors.
The story starts some 50 years previous, in 1215, with the struggle between King John and the Barons - that was in part played out at Rochester with the siege of the castle in October of that year.
One could perhaps regard the Magna Carta as a compromise agreement as it brought silence but no resolution to the underlying tensions between the Monarch and the Barons. It should therefore come as no surprise that about 50 years later, in 1264, Rochester was again engaged in siege.
At this time Rochester Castle was loyal to Henry III. Henry, as John before him, wanted more money from the Barons to fund a war; the scene was therefore set for what became known as the Second Barons’ War.
The Barons led by Simon de Montfort and Gilbert de Clare - a past suitor of Lady Blanche - decided to re-take Rochester Castle from the King and thereby take control of the bridge.
Responsibility for the defence of the castle fell to John de Warrene, who had made the castle his home, and the crusader known as Ralph de Capo - the other suitor for the affections of the beautiful Lady Blanche de Warenne, and the one to whom she may have been betrothed.
On April 16th, 1264, news reached John de Warenne that Simon de Montfort was heading to Rochester with Gilbert de Clare and a large army. Warenne offered his daughters, Blanche and Maud, the opportunity to leave Rochester for safety of his castle in Lewes. Both decided to remain in Rochester with Blanche even declaring she would, if necessary, wield a sword or use a bow.
The early attacks on the castle by Montfort’s troops were repelled. Stuck on the Strood side of the river Montfort decided to send under the cover of darkness a detachment of men under the command of Gilbert de Clare, to Aylesford. Here they would ford the river and then make their way, via Borstal, to Rochester where they could attack the castle from the other side.
On Good Friday Montfort staged another attack setting fire to the bridge and causing a plume of thick smoke to envelop the castle. The citizens of Rochester recognising the danger they faced put all their efforts into thwarting Montfort’s attack. As they gave chase to Montfort’s retreating men they left undefended areas of the City that they thought were invulnerable to attack - cue the attack by Gilbert de Clare and his men.
Here we definitely move from the historical record to the anecdotal - with chroniclers saying they only report as they were told.
Gilbert de Clare seeing the unprotected Lady Blanche on the battlements, cheering her men on, decided to press his attentions upon her. Perhaps because he was dressed in full armour she thought it was Capo, her fiancé, coming to join her. From down below and from within the heat of battle, Capo saw Blanche trying to defend herself from the unwanted attentions of Gilbert. Being an expert bowman Capo loosed a very accurate arrow towards Blanche’s assailant. It most certainly found its mark - but the arrow was deflected from Gilbert’s armour and fatally pieced the heart of Lady Blanche!
Another account suggests that about a week after the Good Friday battle, when Simon de Montfort was leaving Rochester, having been ordered to end his siege of Rochester Castle, Gilbert de Clare attempted to abduct Lady Blanche.
“Approaching the lady, who was intently watching the movement of troops, Gilbert came behind her, seized her by the waist, and, lifting her up, he carried her struggling down the wooden stairs of the Water Tower, while his men guarded the top of the steps.
“Putting his bugle to his lips, he blew three mots to attract the attention of the men on board the vessel, which quickly made towards the stairs.”
“The sounding of the horn also attracted the attention of Capo, while the clashing of arms upon the top of the stairs told him that treachery was at work. But great was his alarm on seeing the Lady Blanche struggling in the arms of a knight equipped like himself.” As in the previous account, Capo loosed an arrow that “after striking the armour of Gilbert de Clare glanced off and entered the bosom of the Lady Blanche.”
Capo pursued Gilbert and a furious combat occurred on the vessel in which Gilbert was trying to make his escape. During the fight Capo’s foot got tangled in some rope and whilst off-guard “the sword of Gilbert descended on his head cutting clean through helmet and skull.”
“Without a groan de Capo fell at the feet of his enemy.”
It is the story of Lady Blanche’s death and perhaps her searching for her lover, that causes those who have seen a ‘Lady in White’ walking the battlements of Rochester Castle - on Good Friday - believe the apparition is that of Lady Blanche.
Having not witnessed the apparition of the ‘Lady in White’ I can add no more to the story - other than to say I’ve heard an account of a woman who, unfamiliar with the story of Lady Blanche’s demise, reported, on entering the castle grounds, that she sensed a woman had been attacked there, and then felt a sharp pain in her chest!
Based on the following accounts of two chroniclers/poets, the best time to visit the castle, in the hope of seeing Lady Blanche, would appear to be between 11pm and midnight - she may not be aware we now change the clocks - and on Good Friday. As Good Friday does not fall on a fixed date perhaps it would be best to attend every night between Good Friday, when Montford first entered the outer castle, and the 25th April when he left Rochester and the fair Lady Blanche may have met her tragic end.
The battlement on which Blanche may have been attacked could have been along the now Castle Hill. From here she would have been visible to Capo who would have been pursing Montfort’s men in the direction of the wooden bridge [positioned where the railway line now crosses the river]. She could have also witnessed from this vantage point the withdrawal of Montfort’s troops. However, another account suggests she was killed on the southern battlement [Boley Hill].
The ‘historical’ basis of this story is drawn from the “Third Siege of Rochester Castle” by Edwin Harris, published in 1902. Harris’s account was based on the prose of earlier writers - neither of whom were contemporary. Both describe the tragic events that led to the death of Lady Blanche. The first account, published in 1829, states, with a sceptical qualification, that Blanche can be seen leaning against the battlement on which she died when the Priory bell strikes midnight:
Mark well the southern battlement, for there
Earl Warrene’s lovely daughter, Blanche the fair,
Fell like a flow’r, which is by some rash hand
Cut down, before its beauties can expand.
Ann arrow ’twas, from noble Capo’s bow,
That pierced her heart and laid the maiden low
And it is said - (how true, we ne’er can tell) -
Ever at midnight, when the Priory bell
Proclaim’d that boding hour, the maid was seen
Against the fatal battlement to lean! Anon. 1829.
There was also a song, to be sung in “an unearthly strain”, that provides details of Capo’s character and his adventures. It also describes the battle and the eevents that led to Lady Blanche’s untimely demise.
“Ah, me! that I, the gentle maid would cry,
Should be by Capo’s hand thus doomed to die.
Oh! fatal night, when real Montfort came
With his vile host, these Castle walls to gain.
It was by yonder hill the traitors lay,
Incas’t in steel, on Friday Holy day!
But when the sun had gone his daily round,
And night had cast its gloomy shades around:
Then, in array ‘gainst Henry’s crown, they form,
And vainly tried these solid walls to storm.
But lordly Warrene, my most gallant sire,
Did with true courage his bold knights inspire:
And they with frightful carnage often drove
False Montfort’s men, as in the ditch they strove
Our goodly Castle’s outer-works to take,
And in our walls a fatal breach to make.
Yet oft they came, and fierce the combat rag’d,
When knight to knight, and man to man engag’d.
The spear, the sword, the arrow, and the dart
Oft found their way to some bold warrior’s heart.
Ah’ mothers, maids, and wives, with grief can tell
How many valiant men this night there fell.
For oft as they dared our high walls t attack,
So oft were they with slaughter driven back;
And were pursued: but fatal pursuit this!
It took from me the joys of earthly bliss!
For Capo chas’d the rebels in their flight,
And to the grave sent many a gallant knight!
For he was brave; yet had a heart most kind.
And he excell’d in person and mind
All gentle knights: for great was he in fame,
And from a stock of noble lin’age came.
Tall was his stature, and his fine form’d face
In beauty shone with ev’ry manly grace!
I lov’d him well! and was by him belov’d!
And our fond loves were by our friends approv’d.
Ah! oft we met by moonlight and unseen,
Within good father prior’s shady green!
And there have sat, whilst he would tell
What ills on him in Palestine befell:
What he endur’d among the cruel Moors,
When shipwreck’d was upon their bar’brous shores.
Indeed, his sufferings would good Christians move
Their soles to pity, and their hearts to love.
But ah! these scenes I ne’er no more can see!
Yet, for these scenes, no rest’s in store for me!
No unction I, that holy church ordains,
Receiv’d, to soothe my purgatory pains!
For in my sins, me, Capo’s arrow slew -
Tho’ Capo, when the bow-string pull’d, ne’er knew
That it was destined for his mistress’ breast,
To slay the maid that he so oft cares’d!
For thus it was: when he by zeal was led
To chase the rebel Montforts as they fled;
When far he from the Castle walls had gone,
And found himself amidst his foes alone!
Then, to retrace his daring steps he tried,
And thus, alas! too fatally espied,
Mounting upon our outward walls, a foe,
Who to destroy he bent his erring bow -
For here it struck! - Thus said, a horrid scream.
The maid would shriek! - whilst from her heart a stream
Of purple blood would down he blossom run!
Then disappear before the rising sun!
Thus ancient chronicles are records say, -
But then, their truth, who likes to doubt them may;
We ne’er shall try to turn the sceptic mind,
We merely state the facts as them we find.”
Another of Geoff Rambler's City Ramblings.