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
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
There are no concentric castles of this era in Scotland or
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
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
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
described by a monk in the thirteenth century, but as a show palace, a
place to impress
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
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
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
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
and 1214, King John spent over £1,000 on improving the
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
characteristically rectangular examples of Henry II. At the end
John's reign an invasion force of the Dauphin Louis laid siege
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
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
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
was added on the north-east side of the outer ward in place of the blocked north gate.
This included a covered passageway leading
across the ditch. The outer west curtain was further extended
the wall around the lighthouse and St Mary in Castro was replaced by a
horseshoe shaped earthwork and wall. A new set of buildings
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
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
actually so little understood. What was actually strengthened
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
Paul Martin Remfry