Castle Rough - Kemsley Down Milton Regis - revisited

originally written for the Historical  Research Group of Sittingbourne

by kind permission of Rob Risbridger



Over the centuries  a “fort “ has been noted , or mentioned, by the Roman scribes,  Saxon chronicles , the Normans and later historian writers such as Kilburn, Harris, Fisher and Hasted. Castle Rough, located at Kemsley Down next to Church Marshes, Milton Regis, the towns original site next to the Holy Trinity Church, in history until 13th century, when the town relocated. But still the debate goes on as to its authenticated history and purpose or origins of this fort and even confusion between ”it” and Bayford Castle abounds in some records... I suggest an initial or preliminary source of reference on this subject in the many informed books and articles written by our own dear John Clancy, allowing me to keep this article brief, but in full support of the past existence of the “Fort”  and without turning this into a 10,000 word essay ! 

Firstly what we do know is that evidence remains of the base of a moated structure exists today.  The most recent, although brief,  entitled "a training project" survey carried out by Swale Archaeological Society, led by Ralph Mills in 1972 proved some interesting finds on the site. Their tally of items from a single trench of sub soils included, Mesolithic flint scrapers and flakes (used for cutting meat) circa 4000 B.C .,  Shards of Roman British period pottery circa 250AD , earthworks disturbance / or workings dated circa 9th century, and Green-glazed Pottery and jugs etc ,dating to 13th and 14th century., and a silver coin issued between 1454 and 1460 A history- .all in one trench,   a complete collection of man’s inhabitance and artefacts at a site referred to as or allegedly “Castle Rough" across a span to date, of at least 5000 years. The “structure” examined now standing only 3 metres high  but on a sizeable site  - half the size of a football pitch, enclosed by mounds and a moat, fed from Milton Creek. This they dated  as 13 -14th century and suggested  a  Large “Fortified " Medieval House. The group were so impressed with their finds, another more in depth survey was suggested, but unfortunately this has never taken place.


Castle Rough

The 1972 archaeologial dig


Photograph © Ralph Mills

Is more proof needed then ?  .. What is - and/or was Castle Rough. A question I have chosen bravely to try to answer, or expand as a reply.  You may agree or disagree with MY version of its history or origins, using research , documented items, artefacts  and other evidence, either direct or indirect, that I have accumulated over the last 30 years in order to fill in the usual missing pieces of any historical puzzle.  Here goes !

Back in the Stone, Bronze and Iron Age, before the Romans, settlements of tribal Britons were often surrounded by mounds , moats, timber stockade fences and watch towers all used as a defensive systems against attack from the land or the Sea. Who is to disbelieve the need for such a timber tower or small fort even then at the Milton settlement sited on the estuary of the Creek and the Swale. After the Romans arrived, in addition to their buildings being mainly of stone or brick and not wood, they brought a new form of defensive system, garrisons along main roads, in main towns, and towers strategically placed around the coast, particularly in Kent and the system known as the Saxon shore Way.  Connected together by means of signals or mounted messengers , these defensive “look-outs “ or early warning systems were used to guard and summon re-inforcements against further invasion forces, mainly from the Norse-Vikings. Swale and Milton Creek would have been an essential coast line site to build a defensive fort and Church marshes area an  ideal site.


An iron age settlement


The name Castle Rough is not unique.  There are two such place names or sites mentioned in England - Kemsley Downs, and Falkirk  both with direct Roman links.  I will expand on these shortly. These two “exclusive” place names, I suggest, were relics of the language of pre - Romano Briton as the Romans had many other words in common use to describe this term or type of structure.    A friend of mine suggested sarcastically..  “they were the first two golf courses in history”-    moving on !

The word Castle , THEN translated as  “a single fortified building or house”  and more accurately should be today’s word Fort or even defensive stockade, whereas today’s accepted meaning and description of the word Castle, came over with the later Normans. The word Rough means  literally as today’s - rough uneven ground, or crude and hastily assembled. Word origins ; Castle from Romano Latin –Castilium, and Castel in Old English and Rough from Ruig or Ranti - Germanic old Norse , therefore originated in the languages of the “Native” Britons, onwards.

The other,( now tourist site)  Castlerough or Rough Castle is at Falkirk, these ruined ground level remains are remnants of a Roman Antonine “fort” , internal size approx 68 sq. metres. The site overall covers one and a quarter acres of rough turf and ramparts. Directly adjacent to Hadrian’s Wall built, circa 144AD , which runs coast to coast between Scotland and England, to keep out the Scottish Celts. This “Castle Rough” was used as a Centurion or soldiers billet, accommodation or a support garrison. Incidentally, the “Scottish Celt” word for castle then was Broch, which rules that connection out. The word Fort in Romano Latin means Strong, and Fort or fortis is Norman French from the middle ages – and different from modern “use” of the word Castle.  In Conclusion, Castle Rough  is of pre Romano native Briton, origin.  When researching the earliest name / word  Milton – from Germanic/ Old Norse, or pre roman native Briton, it reads Myle ton,  which translates as Royal Garrison or place of the Kings Soldiers .... a fact supported by post roman invasion chronicles referring to the pre- existence of Tribal- Kingdoms of Kent, before they arrived.




Returning now to Kemsley Down in Roman times and “their” Saxon shore defences and my earlier justification for a “Fort” ( Castle Rough )  at Milton Estuary.., as then  it was a town and port , trade and commerce, roman administration centre, import and export to London and Roman Europe. The Romans noted; that Milton produced the finest quality milled pearl barley in all Briton and the best tasting Oysters ( farmed in the estuary) in all the Roman Empire !  They expanded the town and port, built several temples and many fine houses with records and evidence of Roman elite having country retreats here. 

Fast forward to circa 449AD, the Royal Danish - Jutes army invasion of Kent , led by Hengist and Horsa.  Part of their reinforcement forces landed at Milton Creek and chronicles a military camp here and later built a timber fort-ress, near the remains of a roman fort !  Landing as part of a paid mercenary army, and offered the lands of the Isle of Thanet as payment by Vortigern, King of Kent at the time.  Hengist however reneged on the deal and later took the whole Kingdom of Kent by defeating King Vortigorn. Hengist went on to be the first Anglo Saxon (Viking) King of Kent, and later the south east of England.

Now fast forward to 892AD to another invasion by the Danes. Haestan - nickname the Black landed his invasion force in a creek, at a place (today’s Milton Regis) They recorded ( I think it was a “X” on their charts) as Myleton Royale - “ note again - a royal garrison”, with 80 Ships, this was only part of the invasion force of 250 ships, lead by Jarl Harald -nickname  Bloodhair.  The remainder landed at Appledore,  Romney Marshes, Kent totalling over 5000 men, wives and children, the cause of the invasion - to seek new lands due to a crop failure 2 years running in their homeland of Norse’mandy France. - Sound familiar , Hastings 1066, etc, later in history ! The Saxon chroniclers recall  Haestan hastily built a “fort” and occupied it.  King Alfred the Great responded and dispatched an army and successfully defeated the two Danish forces. Although history recalls many Danes had simply merged into the Kent and Wessex population  by then. The outcome was the construction of a Burh or fort on the opposite bank of the creek  (some say this was called Bayford Castle )  this being added  as part of Alfred’s defensive Burhes system throughout Kent and Wessex, designed to defend against invaders. ( note; not the later Bayford Court )



A Danish Invader lands in Kemsley
Photograph © Chris Procter


Fast forward again to the Norman conquest, and post 1066AD, they too noted Middleton Terra Regis, or royal land, as a port and centre of trade and commerce, and, as has been the way of all invaders /occupiers in history, they all built a series of defensive forts and later castles.   I call this “get in and lock the door behind you” – syndrome.

The importance and strategic commercial, geographic location of Milton Regis and Church marshes placed on it by the Normans, led many fine medieval manors and fortified houses to be built in the area and surrounds. The current site believed or “ labelled “ as a possible Castlerough  but dated as 13 – 14th century – by the 1972 “Dig” could also be just one of the many other medieval properties mainly abandoned during the Black plague of that period. Bear in mind that, throughout history it has been common practise to build or rebuild over existing structures, so who knows what lies underground beneath the foundations there, or any of the “unfound” ruins not yet surveyed, underground, around the estuary.



Castle Rough Dig

The 1972 archaeologial dig


Photograph © Ralph Mills


From  all the earlier references I’ve made to “a ” Castle Rough, from before the Romans of the 1st century to Norman 14th century medieval times, there could be numerous locations dotted all around Milton Creek / marshes, Kemsley and Grovehurst that qualify as “the” Castlerough. Quite obviously, the timber structures towers or forts that history recalls are unlikely to survive and simply rot over a 1000 years. Even stone/ brick structures of fortified manor houses or forts, with many or most in historical ruins now, and the remains of these being eventually “erased” in the last  150 years of commercial farming machinery and the sites of the brick making industries in the general area of Church marshes. I am convinced, and I hope you are too, with at least the evidence,  most of which has disappeared , or maybe not ...now underground. ....therefore I say, -- as presented...case proved,. but unlike the Falkirk site. We simply Can’t find it - underground or erased ! - but the name Castle Rough does refer to a site that existed. !

To add the final chapter to  Hunt the Castle Rough, you may be aware for years past, the local authority has used the Marshes site at the base of Kemsley Downs, as an official dumping ground of domestic and other waste. That section now closed , they have recently covered acres of the lower site in umteen cubic tonnes of concrete, rubble and top soil,  several metres deep, then planted trees , shrubs, wild flora and fauna , in readiness for a proposed Eco friendly Country Park. Try finding any evidence of Early iron age Milton Regis history, under that lot,  now.......


© Rob Risbridger


More details of the 1972 dig can be found at the Kent Archaeological Review site here