The fortress is set in a strategically important position overlooking the shortest route to the Continent and dominating the Roman port of Dubris below.  Dover castle was built within an Iron Age hillfort, becoming one of the largest and most elaborate fortresses in Europe.  Although medieval castles generally show a great deal of variety in form, the defences at Dover are said to demonstrate an unusually high degree of technical innovation and engineering skill.  Henry II's great keep was both the last and the technically most ambitious of its kind in England, while the defences of the outer bailey, planned and begun before Henry's death in 1189, are claimed to be an early concentric design.  Although the keep is surrounded by the inner ward, the inner ward is not surrounded by the outer as this encloses the hill rather than the inner ward.  Even after the addition of the church defences under Henry III the outer defences were still not really concentric.  The only true (ie one ward fully inside another) concentric castles surviving in Britain are Alnwick, Devizes, Farnham, Kenilworth and the Tower of London in England.  In Wales there are Aberystwyth, Beaumaris, Caerphilly, Harlech and Rhuddlan castles which can be claimed as concentric, although Aberystwyth did not start as one and the outer ward at Rhuddlan, although encircling the inner ward, does not from a true concentric structure like Beaumaris does.  There are no concentric castles of this era in Scotland or Ireland.

The fortifications of Dover began as a hillfort some 2,800 years ago.  This was roughly triangular in shape, measuring roughly a 1,000' north to south and 600' east to west with the cliff at its southern extremity overlooking the Channel.  This sheer drop means that this front was never fortified - or at least if it was, these have been washed away.  The main hillfort defences probably comprised a single bank and ditch, with an entrance on the north-east side.  Evidence of Iron Age occupation has been found by excavation near St Mary's church.

Soon after the Roman conquest a pair of lighthouses were constructed on the headlands either side of the Roman port of Dubris.  One of these survives within the castle as a stepped polygonal tower of which some 60' of its original 80' height
survive.  The top section was rebuilt by Duke Humphrey of Gloucester between 1415 and 1437, when it was already in use as a bell tower for the adjacent Saxon church.  By 1051 there was a castle at Dover which was held for Edward the Confessor by Normans and Bolognese.  Interestingly it was called Dovercliffe (Doruverniae clivo).  Such a fortress could hardly be elsewhere than the present Dover castle.  According to a later source in 1064 Earl Harold promised to procure 'Dover castle and the well of water there' for Duke William.  A bank and ditch cutting through the Saxon cemetery has been excavated which may date from this phase.  In 1067 Dover was attacked by the men of Kent in league with Count Eustace of Boulogne, but the assault was quickly repulsed by the garrison.  Quite obviously Dover castle was already a fortress to be reckoned with.  In 1091 Dover was the invasion port of William Rufus as he prepared to attack his brother in Normandy.  Dover was also the scene of the treaty of the same name when Henry I allied Count Robert of Flanders to his cause.  In 1138 Dover castle under Walcheline Maminot of Whittington rebelled against King Stephen, but the rebellion proved abortive and the castle soon surrendered.  The importance of the castle was again noted when it appeared on 6 November 1153 in the agreement between King Stephen and Duke Henry of Normandy (d.1189).  In this document the castle, town and honour of Dover were confirmed to King Stephen's son, Count William of Boulogne (d.1159).  This document finally ended the Anarchy of the civil war in England.  

Pipe Rolls show that by the time of Henry II's death in July 1189, he had spent some £7,000 on the castle.  To put this in perspective a century later Edward I (1272-1307) spent about this much simply renovating and expanding Harlech castle.  As a more contemporary comparison King Richard I (1189-99) spent some £12,000 in just two years, 1196-98, in building Chateau Gaillard.  The extra costs borne by Richard were probably due to the speed in which he had the castle built.  Back at Dover, it has been argued that the castle was not built as the key to England, as it was described by a monk in the thirteenth century, but as a show palace, a place to impress foreign visitors coming to England to visit the tomb of St Thomas Becket (d.1170) at Canterbury.  The keep - if it is the large rectangular tower mentioned - was started in 1181 according to a late thirteenth century Canterbury chronicle and finished in 1188.  It represents the most elaborate example in England.

King Henry's work, before his death in 1189, would seem to have included the tower keep and both the inner curtain and a portion of the eastern outer curtain.  These contained rectangular mural flanking towers which allowed the outer face of the walls to be defended by crossbow fire as well as allowing for sections of the curtain to be isolated if captured.  The Henrician inner curtain had 14 towers with entrances to the north and south protected by barbicans.  Excavations in the area of the south barbican in 1963 revealed the foundations of a substantial gatehouse, but which was demolished and superseded by the inner bailey with its towers and barbicans.  The age of these structures, other than pre 1180 was not established.

Richard I (d.1199) seemed little interested in Dover, but between 1205 and 1214, King John spent over £1,000 on improving the domestic buildings within the inner bailey, constructing a defensive wall around the church and adding to the outer curtain on the northern side of the castle.  Here the mural towers are D shaped rather than the characteristically rectangular examples of Henry II.  At the end of John's reign an invasion force of the Dauphin Louis laid siege to Dover, then held for the king by Hubert Burgh, who was later to build the Trilateral castles and had earlier held Chinon castle to the last in 1205.  Dover castle north gate was
mined, causing its east tower to collapse.  However the defenders successfully held the rubble and the castle held out.  The north gate was a typical twin towered gatehouse, as to was its later replacement, the Fitzwilliam gate.  Obviously this was a pre 1216 twin towered gatehouse.

Between 1217 and 1256, King Henry III spent some £7,500 on improving Dover castle's defences.  This included an outwork north of the damaged gateway, which itself was turned into a solid mass of masonry.  St John's Tower was built in front of this in the ditch and the 3 were linked together by an underground passageway of uncertain, but early date.  Possibly this utilised the original French mine.  The Fitzwilliam gate was added on the north-east side of the outer ward i
n place of the blocked north gate.  This included a covered passageway leading across the ditch.  The outer west curtain was further extended and the wall around the lighthouse and St Mary in Castro was replaced by a horseshoe shaped earthwork and wall.  A new set of buildings for the king and his entourage were constructed along the east wall of the inner bailey, including Arthur's Hall, which was finished in 1240.  This included various associated chambers, a kitchen and a chapel.  However one Romanesque arch in the basement of the hall may suggest that the castle was not totally built by Henry II and that some of the pre-1180 castle survives in the basements of the fortress.  Although the castle was converted for artillery by lowering the towers, the castle has remained pretty much as it was by 1256.

Part of this renovation up to 1225 was by Earl Hubert Burgh of Kent, the lord of the Trilateral.  He spent over £2,000 on the castle and built and was probably responsible for much of the siege repairs as well as adding the impressive Constable Gate (below), whose front probably was similar to the destroyed one he built at Grosmont castle.

Despite its great size Dover did not do well as the key to England.  It was surrendered to the barons rebelling against Henry III in 1263 and repulsed the king's demand for entry that December.  However in 1265, 14 noble prisoners in the castle escaped their shackles and managed with the connivance of two of their guards to seize control of a tower which they fortified and proceeded to hold against all comers.  On hearing the news the Lord Edward:

without any delay or sleep, sped from London to Dover, accompanied by a large force.  He began to boldly attack the said castle in a frontal assault; those within the tower's protection fiercely harassed those inside the castle from the rear, shooting them from a distance with crossbow bolts, of which there were large numbers in the tower.  At last the besieged, ceaselessly assailed in every way and on both sides by those outside and inside, could no longer withstand the attacks pressed against them, and, inasmuch as it might preserve their lives and arms, they were forced to yield the castle, filled with a great store of provisions, to the king's renowned first-born son.

So fell 'the key to all England'.  The story as it stands, told by the contemporary chronicler Wykes, does not quite make sense.  Which tower in Dover could have been held by just 14 knights and presumably their two turncoat guards?  And where was this one tower that forced the garrison to surrender to an attack on two fronts, those in the tower within and Edward without?  The surrender obviously happened just before 26 October 1265, for on that day Edward asked the chancellor to issue writs for the restoration of the lands and goods of all those who had surrendered the castle.  This suggests that this was the terms of the surrender.  Interesting the only such letters enrolled seems to be that to one John de la Haye, so perhaps Edward did not restore the others' lands as they had taken part in a dishonourable surrender.  Nine years later Edward returned to England as king, landing at Dover on 2 August 1274, before moving on to dine with Earl Gilbert Clare at Tonbridge castle.

It is profound to think, that a castle so well known as Dover is actually so little understood.  What was actually strengthened by Earl Harold Godwinson and subsequently surrendered to Duke William of Normandy immediately after the battle of Hastings?  What was the early castle like that was defended by Walcheline Maminot of Whittington castle against Queen Matilda in 1138?  Are the masonry remains found under the current inner ward traces of this?   Obviously the castle still maintains many mysteries.

Why not join me at Dover and other British castles this October?  Please see the information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry