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St Leonards Tower, West Malling

In the civil parish of West Malling.
In the historic county of Kent.
Modern Authority of Kent.
1974 county of Kent.
Medieval County of Kent.

OS Map Grid Reference: TQ67595708
Latitude 51.28821° Longitude 0.40199°

St Leonards Tower, West Malling has been described as a probable Masonry Castle, and also as a certain Palace.

There are major building remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.
This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law*.


The tower keep castle at West Malling survives comparatively well as a ruined structure and in the form of associated buried and earthwork remains. It is an early example of this type of castle, providing evidence for Early Norman architectural fashions and construction techniques. The castle is relatively unusual in that its defences remained largely undeveloped during the later medieval period, thereby better preserving its rare, early features. The proximity of the monument to the nearby, associated contemporary nunnery, the subject of a separate scheduling, provides evidence for West Malling's role as a religious and administrative centre during the Norman period. The monument includes a tower keep castle, known as St Leonard's Tower, situated on a natural sandstone ledge near the head of a narrow valley on the south western edge of the village of West Malling. The castle was built between 1077-1108 by Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, who also founded St Mary's Abbey situated around 700m to the north east. The castle survives as a ruin and in the form of associated earthworks and buried remains. Its most prominent feature is the tall, square ruined keep, constructed of coursed Kentish ragstone rubble, in which some herringbone work is visible, with tufa ashlar dressings. The walls are c.2m thick, with each face measuring around 9.75m in length at the base. Additional support is provided by corner pilaster buttresses and a central buttress on the south eastern face. The keep survives to a height of up to 20m and originally contained a basement and three floors, although only the outer walls are extant. The original entrance was through the north eastern face at first floor level around 3m above the ground and was reached by a wooden staircase which does not survive. This has been blocked and a new round-headed archway pierced through the south western face at ground level. The upper floors of the keep provided accommodation for the bishop whilst his servants would have been housed on the first floor. Battlements and a fighting platform originally topped the keep, although these have been destroyed. Access to the upper floors was provided by a spiral staircase housed in an external angled turret pierced by arrow loops attached to the north western corner. The keep is lit by round-headed windows. The north eastern face is the most ornate with five round-headed arches at second floor level, of which the outer four are blind, headed at third floor level by two further windows. This arrangement is continued on the south eastern face with a blind arcade of four arched openings with one window over. Associated with the keep are two low stretches of medieval walling incorporated within a later, post-medieval garden boundary wall running for c.39m towards the north east from the north eastern corner of the keep. The first stretch of medieval walling forms the first few courses of the garden wall and runs for around 23m from the keep. Traces of herringbone work indicate an 11th or 12th century date. The second stretch is shorter and lies around 5m to the north east. Both will date to the period in which the castle was occupied and have been interpreted as forming part of an enclosure attached to the castle or a forebuilding designed to protect the original entrance to the keep. Surrounding the keep to the east, south and west is a roughly rectangular area of undulating ground which will contain traces of buried structures, including timber service buildings, artefacts and environmental evidence associated with the castle. The monument is in the care of the Secretary of State and open to the public. The castle keep is Listed Grade I. (Scheduling Report)

Former castle, Built by Gundulf Bishop of Rochester 1077-1108 as his fortified residence or castle. It is one of the best examples extant of an Early Norman Keep. Built of stone with tufa dressings, 32ft square at the base, 60ft high on its north and east faces and 70 ft on the 2 other faces, the difference due to the inclined surface of the rocky shelf on which it is built. Corner buttresses. 3 stages. The 1st stage has traces of herringbone-work. Central buttress to left side elevation. 2nd stage has 5 round-headed arches on the east side, only the central one open, the rest blank. 2nd stage has 2 round-headed arches to east side and one to south side. West side has round-headed entrance to ground floor, round-headed arch to first and second floors and loop lights to buttresses. North side has 1 round-headed window. Internal evidence to suggest there were upper and lower floors, the lower only about 5ft above ground level. (Listed Building Report)

There has been discussion as to the nature of this tower and it is sometimes dismissed as a belfry. It is possible that misconceptions about the military nature of castles has distorted perceptions of the tower. The loss of the surrounding building, presumably mainly of timber, may also have effected perceptions.
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Sources of information, references and further reading
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This record last updated 26/07/2017 09:19:31

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