Dover Castle has the appearance of a glittering crown atop the famous White Cliffs, high above the narrowest portion of the English Channel. It is one of the most important defensive sites on the British coastline, and a spectacular example of Norman castle architecture. Just twenty-one miles across the channel lies the territory of the French. By the time Henry II began construction on the castle in the 1160s, enmity between the English and these on-again off-again foes was just beginning to bubble.
The people of the earliest discernible settlement at Dover built a hill fort on this lofty site during the Iron Age. Demarcating what would become the boundaries of the medieval castle from very early in its history, these ramparts and palisades have not survived the centuries, since the construction was of timber, which is usual in this period.
The earliest surviving structure within the castle is one of two lighthouses built by the Romans of the first century AD as part of their development of the port. The lighthouse was of a stepped design that can still be detected in the irregular narrowing toward its (now) abruptly truncated top. The structure was adapted for use as a bell-tower in the fifteenth century.
The Anglo-Saxons saw a another advantage to the site. The church now known as Saint Mary-in-Castro was built at about the turn of the first millennium AD. It likely served the population of a small fortified town or burgh within the early palisades.
In 1066, the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson (Harold II) was defeated by William, Duke of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings. William detoured his march through Canterbury and on to London, going to Dover to direct the construction of the first earthwork castle on the site. Not long after, the men who had been left to defend the site were able to beat off an attack by supporters of the Kent rebels.
Early defenses were simple affairs. Ringworks were created by constructing a ditch to mark out the perimeter of the site, and the earth was then used to fill in a bank on the inside. Timber stockades topping the ringwork were often put in place to strengthen the defenses. After the coming of the Normans, the pace of construction of these earthwork castles increased sharply, often with the addition of another type of defense, the motte, which is a mound created from the soil excavated during ditch construction. A motte often had escarpment work done along its sides to increase the daunting aspect of the castle as seen by an attacker from below. A motte or a ringwork castle might have an enclosure around its outside, the bailey. Constructed in the same way as the inner defenses, the bailey provided protection for domestic buildings. Motte and bailey was the style of William’s early earthworks castle at Dover.
Little is known about the castle’s life for the century following the Norman Invasion. Henry II, anointed king in 1154, made small modifications and fortifications to Dover’s defenses until the late 1170s, when Henry spent enormous sums to begin the construction of a stone castle. The king had undergone a harrowing debacle with Thomas à Becket, in which the very power of the monarchy and the state were called into question. After the Archbishop’s subsequent demise in 1170, Henry allowed himself to be humiliated in penance before his subjects. The castle he built at Dover between 1180 and his death must have left no doubt in the minds of his subjects of the majesty and power of the crown. The keep at Dover was one of the most impressive of the period, its style typical of twelfth century defensive architecture.
The walls of the keep, which were twenty-one feet at their thickest, surrounded three floors. The basement, or ground floor was used for storage. The first and second floors held both the public spaces and the few private spaces reserved for the king’s use. The second floor, into which entry can be gained via a grand staircase from the forebuilding, is where important visitors entered the Great Hall to await reception by the king. The adjacent Great Chamber is where court was held. Bedchambers, arranged around these large central rooms, were for the king’s use, but visitors were welcome to sleep and eat in the Great Hall. Latrines, or garderobes, were built into the thick walls to service the main rooms of the keep. The second-floor chapel, nestled in the forebuilding, was later dedicated to the martyred and revered Thomas à Becket. Finally, a well could be accessed only from the second floor. It was constructed in case the castle came under siege and the ground floor was captured, as happened not much later at the castle at Rochester. The first floor functioned in much the same way as the second, but it is less ornate and was used for entertaining less important visitors.
The walls of the inner bailey, known as the Keep Yard, along with its fourteen square towers, and two massive gates with outer defensive works or barbicans, were also part of Henry II’s massive stone fortifications, yet the castle was under construction at the time of his death. His successor, Richard Lionheart, was famously busy with the Third Crusade and is likely to have had little time and less inclination to attend to Dover Castle. It wasn’t until the next king, John, scandalously lost Normandy that the royal attention turned to finishing the massive stone fortress. Fortification of the outer defenses was a large part of John’s contribution to his father’s renovation. Shortly after the castle was made defensible, Louis, the dauphin of France, landed in England to support the northern barons who were so instrumental in the creation of the document that would later be known as the Magna Carta. John had barely been able to garrison and provision the castle when Louis laid siege. The castle was tunneled, damaged, and badly undermined, and the sieges lasted into May of 1217, but the castle was not taken by the time the war ended.
The final major fortifications to the castle in the medieval period were a result of lessons learned from the siege. John’s son, Henry III, with the help of Hubert de Burgh, built a system of underground communication tunnels under the vulnerable northern defenses. He replaced the gates with stronger, more defensible structures, and he finished the outer curtain wall defenses. By 1250 the great castle had reached the peak of its medieval form and had become a testament to royal power. Dover Castle was immediately dubbed the “Key of England.”
For further information on this fantastic site, visit English Heritage’s web site, especially any of the my English Heritage sources (below).
English Heritage. Dover Castle. London: English Heritage, rev. 2006.
English Heritage, “Introductions to Heritage Assets:Earthwork Castles” https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/iha-earthwork-castles/earthworkcastles.pdf
English Heritage, “The History of Dover Castle” https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/dover-castle/history/