Slighting is defined as “the deliberate destruction, partial or complete, of a fortification without opposition”, the purpose of the exercise being to render a structure unusable by opposing forces. During the English Civil Wars a number of medieval castles and other fortified buildings in England and Wales were damaged or destroyed by siege; however, many more buildings were slighted by order of Parliament between 1649 and the early 1650s to prevent their future use by Royalists.
Royalist sympathisers in the Malling area included Sir John Rayney of Wrotham Place, who also owned Malling Abbey and St. Leonard’s Tower (as part of the manor of Ewell, attached to the Abbey estates) between 1621 and 1660, and who joined the Royalist forces against Sir Thomas Fairfax at the Battle of Maidstone on 1st June 1648. Although no skirmishes were recorded when Fairfax and his troops passed through West Malling to make camp at East Malling Heath on the eve
of the battle, the Rayney properties in West Malling might well have been targeted as local Royalists assembled for battle at Penenden Heath.
Visitors to St. Leonard’s Tower will have noticed that the top is unroofed, the wall-heads damaged and the timber floors stripped out (Plate I). The Norman tower otherwise appears to have survived in a remarkably original state of preservation when compared with the ruined remains of hundreds of similar ancient monuments scattered throughout the country. However, closer inspection of the top of the tower has revealed that an upper chamber and its access have been removed; the following article examines the evidence that St. Leonard’s Tower was deliberately ‘slighted’ at some time in the post-medieval period, and most likely in the late 1640s.
In 1782 Edward Hasted recorded that St. Leonard’s Tower “was now used for the stowage of hops”, leading to the belief that it remained substantially intact at least until the early nineteenth century and that the evident damage was the result of normal weathering, stone-robbing or neglect. However, a thumbnail sketch of the roofless tower (Plate II) was drawn in 1705 with the caption “The ruins of St. Leonard’s Chappell” (from which the tower takes its name), and several detailed illustrations, dating from 1772 to 1805, show the top of the tower in much the same condition as it appears today (Plate III).
In addition, the present entrance in the west wall at the foot of the stair turret, which was constructed circa 1863, replaced a gaping hole in the wall with extensive damage to the adjacent base of the stair turret (Plate IV). This, together with the missing roof, would have rendered the tower useless for secure storage. If Hasted’s record is correct it is likely that the tower was only used for the day-to-day collection of the hop harvest before transportation to the kilns.
More importantly, the damage to this part of the west wall was clearly an attempt to bring down the stair turret, probably by the use of gunpowder. The failure of the attempt then led to a campaign of dismantling from the top down, which can be traced in the present remains (below).
Who was the author of this destruction? Between 1660 and 1740 St. Leonard’s Tower and Chapel were owned by the Honywoods of Malling Abbey, who concentrated their efforts on building a new home in the abbey precinct. Although not averse to quarrying the abbey ruins for stone, Fraser Honywood preserved and restored the west tower and parts of the south transept of the abbey church, reusing many windows and doors evidently valued for their antiquity. Fraser Honywood also employed one of his tenants to clear the remains of St. Leonard’s Chapel and remove “the mould and stone-rubbish”, providing the materials to build a new garden wall and terracing for the adjoining property, Malling Place. The exercise probably included the removal of rubble following earlier demolition attempts, and culminated in the exchange of the tower with the later owner of Malling Place (Charles Stewart, d.1780) for the abbey barn and farmyard in Water Lane.
In 2004 scaffolding was erected inside the tower to clean and consolidate the masonry and to replace damaged netting previously installed to exclude pigeons. Inspection of the upper walls showed clear evidence for the removal of a complete top chamber, leaving only the traces of stairs in the stair turret and fragments of window openings and corbels to support the floor. The removal of the top chamber might have been aided by weathering and damage to the mortar in the upper courses of ragstone, but at some point the dismantling effort switched to the spiral stairway, which was built almost entirely of tufa and presumably considered an easier option than further dismantling of the thick ragstone walls (Plate V). The stairway was then dismantled from the remains of the top chamber down to a lobby at the intermediate floor level, leaving the lower stairs from the ground floor to the lobby intact. In practice, the stairs and vaulting must have been systematically removed from the top down in order to maintain a working platform and access for the removal of rubble within the stair turret. That the work was carried out by hand is clear from the tufa walls of the stairway, which are remarkably original and unscathed.
Here one might wonder why the stairway could not have been destroyed with gunpowder, or why it was spared destruction in the lower levels? The answer seems to lie in its unique construction and geometry, in which the stairway formed a continuous vaulted tunnel where half of the available volume is occupied by solid masonry with vaulting up to seven feet in thickness. The resulting strength of the stair turret probably acted as a deterrent against the further use of gunpowder, the effects of which could have been unpredictable and inescapable in a confined space. Manual removal of the steps and vaulting must then have been a tedious and time-consuming alternative which was eventually considered sufficient to put the tower beyond use.
St. Leonard’s Tower has none of the usual defensive features associated with medieval castles and could hardly have been used as a Royalist stronghold. However, the destruction of the upper storey and stairway suggests that its perceived value was as a lookout tower with commanding views over the surrounding countryside (Plate VI). While the failed attempt to demolish the stair turret at its base appears as a hurried act of vandalism, the contrasting time and care invested in dismantling the stairway suggests that the work was reluctantly carried out by the owner in the aftermath of the Kentish uprisings.
Mike North. January 2014
Edward Hasted, History and Topographical Survey of Kent (2nd edition) Volume 4, p.526.
John Thorpe, Antiquities in Kent, within the Diocese of Rochester pp.128-130.
Tonbridge Historical Society (website): Tonbridge Castle.
Maidstone Battlefield Project (Facebook).