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Rochester Cathedral is a Norman church, the Bishopric is one of the oldest in England, second only to that of Canterbury. It was founded by Justus, one of the missionaries who accompanied Saint Augustine to convert the pagan English to Christianity in the early 7th century. Justus was given permission by King Ethelbert of Kent to establish a church of St Andrew the Apostle on the site of the present cathedral, which was made the home of a bishopric. The first Bishop of Rochester being Justus himself, with subsequent bishops being recruited from among the Christianised English.

When William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, he gave the church and its estates to his brother, Odo of Bayeux. The church was reduced to near-destitution, a situation only remedied in 1082 when Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury visited and restored some of its lands and staff. Gundulf, the Norman Bishop of Rochester, also played a very active role; a talented architect himself, the bishop commissioned and probably had a major part in designing a new cathedral to replace Justus' church.

The present building is widely regarded as one of the finest Norman cathedrals in the country, with a particularly fine doorway at its western main entrance. The tympanum depicts Christ sitting in glory in the centre, with Justus and Ethelbert flanking him on either side of the doorway.

After Gundulf's death, the cathedral had a somewhat chequered history. It was badly damaged by fires in 1137 and 1179. It was then looted in 1215 by the forces of King John and again in 1264 by Simon de Montfort, during sieges of the city. It suffered a steep decline after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, during which time its estates were confiscated by the Crown, and became dilapidated and disreputable. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, dismissed it as a "shabby place". It underwent some restoration work of mixed success during the 19th century before Sir Giles Gilbert Scott took on the task in 1880, renovating the cathedral and restoring it to a reasonable facsimile of its original 11th century condition.

Rochester has long been technically a city but was accidentally stripped of its centuries-old city status in 1998 due to a local government reorganisation. This was not noticed by Medway Council until 2002; it has since written to the Queen asking for city status to be conferred again.

The city was for many years the favourite of Charles Dickens who lived nearby at Gad's Hill, Higham, and who based many of his novels in the area. Descriptions of the town appear in Pickwick Papers and lightly fictionalised as Cloisterham in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This link is celebrated in Rochester's Dickens Festival each June. The 16th-century red-brick Eastgate House once housed the town's museum. In the 1980s the museum was moved further west to the Guildhall so that Eastgate House could become the Charles Dickens Centre.

In the same decade the High Street was redecorated with Victorian-style street lights and hanging flower baskets to give it a more welcoming atmosphere. The town also has revived the annual Sweeps' Festival, which has ancient roots relating to the Green Man, and is celebrated by a large gathering of morris dance sides.

The Dickens Centre was ultimately unprofitable and shut permanently in November 2004. The future use of Eastgate House has not yet been decided: a plan to move the library there has been rejected.

Rochester has for centuries been of great strategic importance through its position near the confluence of the Thames and the Medway. Its castle was built to guard the river crossing, and the dockyard at Chatham was the key to the Royal Navy's long period of supremacy. The town is surrounded by a circle of fortresses - Forts Amherst, Luton, Borstal, Pitt, Clarence, Delce and others - built during the Napoleonic wars and in the 1860s. During World War II the Short Brothers' aircraft company manufactured flying boats at its factory on the Medway not far from Rochester Castle.