Dover Castle

The fortress is set in a strategically important position overlooking the shortest route to the Continent and dominating the Roman port of Dover below.  Dover castle was built within an Iron Age hillfort, becoming one of the most elaborate and heavily defended 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, were an early concentric design.  Later modifications have greatly changed the look of the medieval castle, with many outer towers being lowered for gun platforms and to make them more resilient to artillery.  Its importance is further enhanced by the survival of detailed documentary sources relating to its construction, as well as to the siege of 1216.

The extensive later defensive works surrounding the castle provides a rare opportunity to understand how military theory and engineering practice was forced to adapt in the face of new technology. To this end Napoleonic underground barracks can be seen as well as tunnels that were used both as the headquarters during the 1940 evacuation from Dunkirk and later as a nuclear defence command post.  In total Dover castle includes a medieval royal fortress built within the presumed defences of a univallate Iron Age hillfort, a Roman lighthouse, a Saxon settlement and church, a lost Saxon ‘castle' surrendered to William the Conqueror in 1066, a series of tunnels beneath the castle built between the 13th and 20th century and a 16th century gun battery called Moat's Bulwark.

The hillfort was roughly triangular in shape, measuring roughly a thousand feet N to S and 600 feet E to W with the cliff at its S extremity overlooking the Channel.  The defences probably comprised a single bank and ditch, with an entrance on the NE side.  Excavations adjacent to the Saxon St Mary in Castro church have produced evidence of Iron Age occupation.  In the 1st century AD a pair of lighthouses were constructed on the headlands flanking either side of the major Roman port of Dubris to help guide cross-Channel traffic.  One of the lighthouses survives within Dover castle as a stepped tower of which some 60 feet survive of its original 80 feet height.  The top section is known to have been 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.  Although the church and its cemetery were almost certainly located within a Saxon settlement, its precise status is unclear.  It may have been a burgh or fortified town, which utilised the defences of the earlier hillfort.  Following the battle of Hastings in 1066 William the Conqueror spent eight days adding to the defences.  Excavation has produced evidence of a bank and ditch cutting through the Saxon cemetery which probably dates 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. 

Pipe Rolls show that by the time of 
Henry II's death in July 1189, he had spent £6,000 on the castle.  Intriguing new research has shown, not that the castle was built as the key to England, as it was described in the 13th C, but as a show palace, to impress foreign visitors coming to England to visit the tomb of St Thomas Becket (d.1170) at Canturbury.  The keep (above) was built between 1181 and 1188 and represents the most elaborate example in England.  Other large rectangular keeps exist at Rochester, Kenilworth, the Tower of London, Norham, Heddingham, Middleham, Newcastle, Applebury, Bamburgh, Guildford, Carlisle, Porchester, Pevensey, Colchester, Richmond and Brough.

Henry's work would seem to have included both the inner curtain and a portion of the E outer curtain.  These contained rectangular mural flanking towers which allowed the outer face of the walls to be defended by crossbow cross-fire as well as allowing for sections of the curtain to be isolated if captured.  Excavation has found two square towers to the SE which suggests that a masonry castle stood under the site of the current inner ward.  What form this earlier masonry castle took is uncertain.

The Henrician inner curtain had 14 towers with entrances to the N and S protected by barbicans.  Excavations in the area of the S 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 precise extent of work carried out on the outer bailey during the reign of Henry II is not known, however the odd shape of the defences suggests that the new walls of the outer curtain almost certainly followed the line of the earlier hillfort defences.

Dover is believed to be the first castle in western Europe to have employed concentric lines of fortification.   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.  The end of King John's reign was marked by civil war and an invasion by Louis, the son of the king of France.  The rebels and French laid siege to Dover, then held for the king by Hubert Burgh.  Engineers mined underneath the castle north gate causing its E tower to collapse, but the castle was not taken.  Between 1217 and 1256, King Henry III spent some £7,500 on improving the castle's defences.  A great spur or outwork was dug to the N of the damaged gateway, which was blocked off.  Further, St John's Tower, which was built in the ditch before the N gate, was modified and the tower, castle and spur were linked together by an underground passageway of uncertain, but early date.  In place of the north gate the Fitzwilliam gateway was added on the NE side of curtain with a covered passageway leading across the ditch.  The outer W curtain was further extended and the wall around the lighthouse and St Mary in Castro was replaced by a horseshoe-shaped earthwork, apparently surmounted by a palisade as well as a presumably later masonry wall.  A new set of buildings for the king and his entourage were constructed along the E wall of the inner bailey, including Arthur's Hall (finished in 1240), with associated chambers, a kitchen and chapel. These ruinous buildings were converted into barrack blocks in the mid-18th century, but their medieval origins have always been visible in surviving architectural features.  By 1256 the medieval castle had achieved its maximum size and an appearance similar to that of today.

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.

The North Gate

Between the end of the siege in 1217 and 1225 Earl Hubert Burgh of Kent, who was also lord of White Castle and the Trilateral, spent another fortune on the castle, amounting to over £2,000.  It was in this period that the north gate, heavily damaged during the French siege (above left), was blocked up and the Fitz William (above) and Constable gates (below) were built.  All three of these works bear more than passing resemblance to the gatehouse at White Castle.

For more detailed descriptions of Dover castle see the Archaeological Journal and de re militari:

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


Copyright©2010 Paul Martin Remfry

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