Canterbury Castle

The fortress stood towards the southern line of the medieval town just within the city wall.  Indeed this wall formed the south boundary of it's inner bailey.  It is one of the earliest castles in the country and marked a continuation from Roman occupation.

The city walls and a probable motte were built, or rather reconstructed, quite early in the Norman period (1066-1154).  The city defences follow the line of the ancient Roman wall and were further rebuilt in stone in the late 14th century when French raids were a problem during the Hundred Years' War.  Murage, a tax to build town walls, was granted to the citizens in 1378, 1379, 1385, 1399 and 1402.  More than half the city circuit survives, equipped with bastions fitted with early gunports.  The Westgate is the largest surviving city gate in England and is built on the site of the Norman entrance.  Possibly there was a Roman gate here before that, although it is not clear if the early settlement extended this far.  The early gate had the little parish church of Holy Cross built over it.  In 1379, both church and gate were taken down, the church being rebuilt in its present situation adjacent to the gatehouse.  This work was ordered by Simon Sudbury, the archbishop who met his death at the hands of the revolting peasants when they occupied London in 1381.  The gate consists of two huge drum towers, 60 feet in height, flanking a great entrance.  Even now it is large enough to accommodate the biggest double-decker bus.  The gateway was originally protected by a drawbridge, wooden doors and a portcullis.

Within the Roman town walls a castle was probably founded soon after 1066.  This may initially have consisted of a wooden motte and bailey.  The motte, since 1640 called the Dane John, seems to have been scarped out of a Roman barrow which possibly had a Bronze Age origin.  Only this one mound survives as an earthwork in what may have been a cemetery.  From its original use, the mound was apparently enlarged for use as a motte, presumably by the Normans, although there were over a dozen castles in the kingdom before 1066.  When the stone castle was built, the motte was abandoned and became a windmill mound, before being  used as a Civil War (1642-46) gun emplacement.  It was finally incorporated into a public garden after 1790.

Excavations in 1981 on the site immediately adjacent to the west side of Dane Gardens, about 100 yards north of the Dane John mound, found that later disturbances had removed all but a few Roman deposits.  The destructive phase consisted of a large ditch, 55 feet across and ten feet deep.  This was interpreted as a part of the castle bailey ditch for the early Norman castle.  If this is correct, the present Dane John mound was probably abandoned as the stone castle was constructed, as a motte and a great tower keep were not both necessary for the defence of the castle.  In the late 12th or early 13th century the bailey defences were probably razed and the ditch partially backfilled.  This may have occurred with the military abandonment of the motte and its probably wooden tower.  A number of features, including pits, wells and small ditches, were then dug in the area.  The features were later further disturbed. The partly backfilled bailey ditch was re-cut at this time, with a channel at the sump. This new ditch, which may have been an open running sewer, might be the predecessor of the 'Black Ditch' or 'Black Dyke' which documentary sources describe as being an open sewer extant in this vicinity until the 18th century.  Despite this, the re-cut bailey ditch was progressively backfilled and virtually levelled by the 16th century.

The castle was used as a prison from the reign of Edward I (1272-1307).  However it soon proved obsolete and by 1335 was largely in ruins.  Pushed into service again for the Civil War (1642-46) the great tower was largely demolished as a result, although the lower portion still stands.  The castle walls and gates were largely demolished from 1792 and the medieval topography of the site was gradually erased by the construction of new buildings. The square keep and a small portion of the bailey wall are the only portions still standing.  Other sections of the castle have been located by excavation.

The square Norman keep is made of bands of flint and Caen stone blocks, the latter stated to be imported from Normandy.  The giant hall-keep, measuring
87 by 75 feet externally has walls up to 9 feet thick.  Originally it had four arched windows on each face, while the interior has two cross walls and the remains of spiral staircases in the east and SW walls.  Fireplaces of rubble, set in a herringbone built wall, have survived.  Herringbone masonry is often regarded as pre-Norman, though here it would seem to be used for its fire-resistant properties. 

The outer defences consisted of a rectangular curtain wall with angle turrets and a ditch, entered through two gates.  The approximate alignment of the bailey defences can be seen as a break in the slope of the ground surface behind oast houses south of Gas Lane.  An old sketch of the Worth Gate shows a large Romanesque arch, apparently of two phases and apparently without flanking, although there is the possibility of decayed semi-circular solid turret immediately to the east.  Possibly this was a reused Roman gate.

On line link to full castle details at Archaeology Data Service:


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry

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