Castle of the Week 61 – Dover Castle

Standing atop the famous White Cliffs, Dover Castle is an enormous concentric construction with probably the most massive great tower (keep) in Britain. With a long and well-documented history stretching from the Iron Age through the Second World War, it is without doubt the most researched and recorded fortification outside London and the White Tower within.

A fascinating history unfolds when examining this castle. Archaeological evidence points to some sort of settlement here since prehistoric times, or pre-history, with rudimentary rampart defences. The existing keep and inner bailey sit on top of what was probably the early fortification. In the 10th century the site was re-occupied by the Anglo-Saxons and a burh, or fortified town was established. However, it is not until the Norman Invasion that Dover really came into its own.

On 14th October 1066, Harold Hardraada was defeated by William Duke of Normandy thus ending the Saxon domination of the land. As William’s forces marched towards Dover, which was reported as an impregnable fortress at the time, the English within were stricken with fear and were ready to surrender unconditionally. William set alight the fortress regardless and a huge amount of damage was done. He later paid for repairs to the defences and set about constructing his own castle near the Saxon church of St Mary in Castro. Records show that a motte castle was erected here in only eight days. With Dover secure, he marched toward London and was later crowned William I on Christmas Day, 1066.

Much of Saxon Dover was rebuilt and the town benefited from the increased trade between France and England. Henry II, the great castle-builder and great grandson of William I, appointed master mason Mauricius Ingeniator (Maurice the Engineer) and Dover took shape during the 1180s. A huge keep was built, almost 100 ft cubed, with walls that were between 17-21 ft thick in places. Along with the inner curtain wall and parts of the outer curtain, Dover became the first concentric castle in England, some 100 years before any other, and the first this side of Western Europe.

During the reign of King John, the outer curtain wall was extended and he added several towers and a north gateway, which is now known as Norfolk Tower. As Dover was sited at the shortest crossing of the English Channel, it was regarded as the Key to England and its strategic importance cannot be underestimated.

In 1216 there was a turbulent period in the castle’s history. With the agreement to sign the Magna Carta, there followed a civil war in which the insurgent barons asked Louis, son of the French king, to take the English throne. Louis agreed and arrived at Dover shortly afterwards, laying siege to the castle almost immediately. Louis launched a violent and incessant attack on the walls and, in particular, the King’s newly built North Gateway. The barbican fell and sappers dug mines underneath the gate and part of the Eastern tower bringing part of it crashing down. The castle garrison, under the leadership of its constable, Hugh de Burgh, a staunch friend of King John, replied with such ferocity that the French moved their camp and siege engines further away from the castle. Losses for the French were heavy, but as they retreated to a safer distance, news arrived that King John had died at Newark. Louis did not know that Henry III, John’s son, had succeeded him. He assumed that the throne was his and called upon the constable to surrender, offering him honours and great riches. Hugh declined, and the siege was raised.

Henry III repaired the gatehouse and the Eastern tower, but the entrance here was blocked solid, regarded as a possible weakness in the defences.

Dover played a large role during the Napoleonic War periods (1792 – 1815). Many changes were made to the castle during this time most notably; the massive curtain walls of the castle were reduced in size to accommodate heavy gun platforms. The underground tunnels were also extended during this period, and were later used by the British war effort during World War II.

Write-up by Sulis. Photos courtesy of Bob Carney