Dover Castle commands the shortest sea crossing between England and the continent. Known as the ‘Key to England’, the site has been fortified for thousands of years and was continuously garrisoned from 1066 through to 1958. It was successfully held for King John against a French assault in 1216 and in 1940 the Dunkirk evacuation was planned from its underground tunnels.
Dover Castle is situated high on the white chalk cliffs overlooking the English channel. To the immediate west is the Dour valley and, due to its proximity to the continent, the mouth of that river has served as a port for thousands of years. There is some evidence of cross-Channel trade during the Bronze Age (as evidenced by the ‘Dover boat’, an ancient vessel on display in Dover museum) and during the Iron Age a vast hillfort, enclosing ten acres, was established on the site of the later castle.
Dover Roman Fort
The Romans invaded Britain in AD 43 and initially established their first port at Richborough. However, no later than the second century AD, Dover had started to be used by the British Roman Navy (Classis Britannica). Lighthouses were built upon the sites of the later fortifications at Dover Castle and Western Heights and a third structure was raised at Tour d'Odre at Boulogne. Together these provided navigational marks for vessels and would have been lit at night. Around AD 115 the Romans established a fort at Dover but, rather than use the high ground where the castle now stands, they built this on the ground to the west of the River Dour. The fort was rebuilt in AD 130 and, probably concurrently, the Romans also built a large breakwater greatly enhancing the size of the harbour. A civilian settlement grew up to the north of the fort.
Around AD 270, at a time when the south and east coasts of Britain were increasingly coming under attack from Frankish and Saxon raiders, Dover Roman Fort was rebuilt. By this time the Roman army had modified their tactics and doctrine. Rather than forts being a lightly defended base from which their troops could march out to defeat their enemies in the field, the sites became more defensively focused with thick walls and narrow gateways and designed to withstand a siege. Dover Roman Fort was rebuilt along these lines and was later placed under the authority of the Count of the Saxon Shore (comes litoris Saxonici per Britanniam) which was a military command tasked with coastal defence. The Notitia Dignitatum, a written record of Roman military dispositions dated to around AD 395, listed nine forts as part of this command including Dover. The fort probably remained in use until the end of Roman Britain in the early fifth century AD.
The Roman Lighthouse (Pharos) built at Dover was one of three which guided vessels across the English Channel.
In the centuries that followed the Roman withdrawal, Kent emerged into a powerful Kingdom. Dover remained in use as a port during this period and in the seventh century a church was founded at the site. In either the late tenth or early eleventh century the church of St Mary in Castro was established adjacent to the old Roman lighthouse. The Dover town walls, the form of earth and timber ramparts, may have been built around this time.
The Normans invaded England on 28 September 1066 landing at Pevensey, some 50 miles west of Dover. After defeating the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, the Normans sought to secure their control of the south-east coast to maintain unrestricted access to the continent. Pevensey and Hastings castles had already been raised but the Normans advanced further east and on the 21 October 1066 they occupied Dover. They remained in the town for eight days whilst they constructed Dover Castle within the earthworks of the hillfort. This new structure, which was probably an earth and timber ringwork-and-bailey fortification, enclosed the area around St Mary's church. The size and extent of this early castle is unknown.
Dover Castle was completely rebuilt by Henry II between 1180 and 1189. The upgrade was prompted by the increased use of the port due to its relative proximity to Canterbury which had become a major pilgrimage destination since the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170. Henry himself had hosted Louis VII of France at Dover in 1179 and had probably been embarrassed by the old timber castle and its limited facilities. The centrepiece of the new fortification was the four-storey Great Keep which incorporated a large hall, high-status accommodation and a substantial fore-building. This was set within an Inner Bailey enclosed by a stone curtain wall complete with rectangular towers.
The substantial curtains, with its square towers, and the Great Keep were built by Henry II.
The vast European Plantagenet empire, built by Henry II and sustained by Richard I, imploded during the reign of King John. By 1205, virtually all continental possessions were lost fuelling discontent amongst the Anglo-Norman barons. This placed Dover Castle at the frontier between English and French controlled territory prompting substantial upgrades to the castle.
First Barons' War
The setbacks on the continent and the personal style of King John, who was cruel even by the standards of the age, put him in direct conflict with his magnates. Magna Carta was an attempt to broker peace but, when it was revoked by the King, the country slipped into the First Barons' War. After some initial military successes by John, the Barons invited Prince Louis of France to invade and take the Crown. He landed in North Kent in May 1216 and immediately moved to secure control of Dover Castle. However, the fortification was held by Hubert de Burgh (later Earl of Kent) who was a loyal servant of King John and an experienced soldier. More importantly he was an expert in siege warfare having previously distinguished himself at the siege of Chinon in 1204 where he had led a spirited but ultimately futile defence of the fortress. Dover Castle was besieged in July 1216 and the attackers focused their efforts on capturing the North Gate. A temporary timber barbican was erected outside this gate but was quickly overrun. The attackers then commenced undermining the structure causing the collapse of the eastern tower. However, the castle's garrison sallied out and quickly plugged the gap with a temporary timber palisade. The castle continued to defy the French until Prince Louis lifted the siege on 14 October 1216.
Hubert de Burgh
For his valiant defence of Dover Castle, which arguably saved the Angevin dynasty, Hubert was appointed its constable (he was also constable of the Tower of London and Windsor Castle). At Dover, he commenced a massive programme of upgrades. He strengthened the outer curtain wall, enhanced the defensive ditches and constructed Constable's Gate. He also built elaborate defences at the site of the North Gate, the focus of the attacks during 1216 siege, including building St John's Tower, Norfolk Towers and a tunnel system to connect the various works.
The first tunnels at Dover Castle were built by Hubert de Burgh to connect the northern defences that had been raised after the 1216 siege.
Second Barons' War
In 1232 Hubert de Burgh was stripped of his titles and Dover Castle returned into direct Crown control. However, in July 1263 it was seized by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester at the start of his rebellion against Henry III. Montfort initially had success with his defeat and capture of the King at the Battle of Lewes (1264). In the months that followed, the captured Prince Edward (later Edward I) was briefly held as a prisoner at Dover Castle. Montfort was defeated at the Battle of Evesham (1265) and, although Dover Castle was prepared for siege, it ultimately capitulated to Royal forces.
Later Medieval Period
Dover Castle remained an important fortress throughout the rest of the medieval period and was continuously garrisoned. During the latter half of the fifteenth century, Edward IV commissioned upgrades to the residential elements including installing windows and chimneys into the Great Keep. The updated facilities were sufficiently grand for Emperor Charles V to be accommodated at the castle in 1520. Henry VIII also stayed at the castle on several occasions.
In 1534 Henry VIII declared himself supreme head of the church of England prompting condemnation from both France and Spain. When those two warring nations agreed peace, it gave one or both the capacity to mount an invasion of England. A Device (Act) was issued commencing a fort building programme to provide artillery defences at vulnerable points along the coast. At Dover, Archcliffe Fort was constructed along with a temporary gun battery known as Moat's Bulwark. No upgrades were made to the old medieval castle but a small battery was constructed on the cliff edge overlooking Moat's Bulwark.
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Dover Castle had a small Royalist garrison of just 20 men. However, the mercantile community that formed the bulk of Dover's populace, actively supported the Parliamentary cause. On 21 August 1642 a number of civilians from the town scaled the cliffs, surprised the garrison and captured the castle for Parliament. Dover played no further part in the Civil War.
The eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw regular conflicts between Britain and France culminating in the Napoleonic Wars. Between 1745 and 1766 the medieval castle was substantially modified. Artillery was installed covering the north and east sides of the site and the medieval curtain walls were lowered and reinforced with earth banks to enable them to withstand bombardment. The buildings of the Inner Bailey, including the Great Keep, were modified to serve as barracks. Four gun battery and Bell battery were also built at this time. Further upgrades were made between 1793 and 1809. These included casemated batteries, more barracks and administrative buildings. The network of underground tunnels was also started at this time which enabled further gun positions to be installed on the cliff-face. Concurrently, a new fortification was built on Western Heights and upgrades were made to Archcliffe Fort.
In the 1780s work started on a new and larger fortification on the Western Heights.
The accession of Napoleon III in 1852 resulted in fears about French re-armament and a resumption of the Napoleonic Wars. At Dover, work resumed on the fortifications at Western Heights and a new facility, Fort Burgoyne, was built to protect the landward approaches to the port. Dover Castle itself was equipped with new seaward facing artillery whilst the accommodation facilities were upgraded to house an enlarged garrison.
Dover was a key port during the First World War through which the British Expeditionary Force departed for the continent. It performed the same duties at the start of World War II although the rapid defeat of the Allied forces in Summer 1940 meant the port was used by warships, rather than merchantmen, throughout the war. At the castle, anti-aircraft guns were installed on the eastern curtain wall and the site served as the fire-control centre for all such batteries from North Foreland to Hastings. The underground tunnels were also utilised as a naval headquarters and it was from these that Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Army from France in 1940, was planned.
Military use of the castle ceased in 1958 when the last Regiment to garrison the site, the Queen's Own Cameron Guards, was withdrawn. However, whilst the rest of the castle was handed over to the Ministry of Works, the underground tunnels were retained to serve as a bunker for Regional Government in the event of a nuclear war. This remained on standby until the 1980s after which the site was finally decommissioned..
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Dover Castle is arguably Britain's most impressive fortification. It is dominated by the twelfth century Keep but the vast site hosts structures ranging from the Roman era through to the Cold War. It is under the care of English Heritage.
Dover Castle Layout. The castle site has undergone many modifications over the centuries slowly expanding from just occupying the summit of the former hillfort to encompassing a vast area on top of the cliff.
Dover Fortifications. The first known fortification at Dover was an Iron Age hillfort built on the chalk cliffs to the east of the River Dour. The Romans built a lighthouse within the (by then abandoned) hillfort in the first century AD and, on the other hill, they raised a second lighthouse and fort. The Saxons fortified Dover town due to the threat from sea-borne raiders. The medieval castle was built within the earthworks of the Iron Age hillfort. The nineteenth century defences added a new fortress on the Western Heights and, later, to the north at Fort Burgoyne. The Admiralty Pier was built in 1847. The eastern arm and southern breakwater were constructed between 1897 and 1909.
Dover Castle. The castle occupies the site of a former hillfort.
Roman Dover. The Romans built this lighthouse in the mid-second century AD. It was one of three, the other two being at Western Heights and Tour d'Odre at Boulogne, which enabled ships to determine their position in the channel. The lighthouse was still in use in the twelfth century and in 1580 the structure was modified to serve as a gunpowder magazine. The Romans also built a fort at Dover which formed part of the Saxon Shore, a Roman military command described in the Notitia Dignitatum. Nine forts were listed: Portchester, Pevensey, Lympne, Dover, Richborough, Reculver, Burgh Castle, Bradwell and Brancaster. A further two - Bitterne and Caister-on-Sea - are also believed to have been part of the scheme. The forts were under the command of the Count of Saxon Shore.
Colton's Gate. This octagonal tower was built in the early thirteenth century and provided access into the Middle Bailey.
Inner Ward. The Inner Ward curtain wall was built in the 1180s. It was constructed from rubble with ashlar dressings and included fourteen rectangular towers.
Great Tower. The four-storey Great Tower was built, by Henry II between 1180 and 1189. Constructed from Kentish ragstone it was laced with layers of Caen stone giving it a distinctive appearance. The elaborate building incorporated a Great Hall and high status accommodation.
Forebuilding. The Keep was protected by a substantial fore building. This wrapped around the south and east sides of the Keep and provided access directly onto the Second Floor of the Keep. Various rooms within the Keep have been furnished in a medieval style.
King's Gate and Barbican. This was one of two gates into the Inner Ward and was protected by a barbican.
Constable's Gate. This was originally the main entrance into the castle. It was built by Hubert de Burgh to strengthen the northern defences after the 1216 siege where the attackers successfully penetrated the castle's curtain wall (although they were driven back by the garrison). Norfolk Tower and St John's Tower were also added at this time and were connected to the castle by a series of tunnels.
Redan. The Redan was added in 1756 enclosing the earlier medieval defences. The tunnels were also remodelled at this time.
Officer's New Barracks. These were added as part of a series of upgrades prompted by the fears of French re-armament in the mid-nineteenth century.
Tunnel System. Underneath the southern portion of Dover Castle are a series of tunnels. The earliest date from 1797 where passages were cut through to the cliff face to provide additional artillery positions. During World War II the Napoleonic tunnels were expanded and two new schemes, the Annex Tunnel System and the Dump level, were added. The Dunkirk evacuation was planned from these tunnels. They were accessed via a spiral staircase (left).