Dover Castle and the Great Siege of 1216

Dover Castle and the Great Siege of 1216

By John Goodall

Chateau Gaillard XIX: Actes du Colloque International de Graz, 1998 (2000)

Introduction:┬áCommanding the shortest sea crossing between England and the Continent, Dover Castle was a vital strategic and communication lynch-pin in the empire of the Angevin kings of England. They developed Dover’s fortifications on a spectacular scale from 1180 onwards and in 1216 this great castle successfully resisted a major siege directed personally by Prince Louis of France during his near-successful invasion of England. An unusually detailed account of this siege survives in the contemporary Histoire des Ducs de Normandie et des Rois d’Angleterre. This account is not only remarkable for its vivid description of the siege, but also for the light it throws on the architecture of the castle itself in 1216. It demonstrates that Dover’s outer defences, built by Richard I and John, were far more sophisticated than was hitherto believed and incorporated what was possibly the first twin drum-towered gatehouse in England.

As it stands today Dover is a development of a castle begun in 1180 by Henry II. He effectively demolished an existing castle on the site and began a vastly ambitious new set of fortifications within the U-shaped perimeter of what is probably the ditch of an Iron Age hill fort above the cliffs of Dover. At the centre of this hill fort site he completed a square keep surrounded by an inner bailey and, around the perimeter, began work on a great encircling wall in stone. This outer wall was almost certainly a replacement of an existing line of defence which, contrary to what some scholars have argued, extended right down to the cliffs at the southern end of the castle enclosure.

Henry II died before the completion of this great castle but the work was continued by his sons Richard I and King John, both of whom are recorded to have spent considerable sums of money here. Unfortunately the precise nature of their work is largely undocumented. What it is clear however from the evidence of the extant buildings from the events of the siege itself and from the records of repairs effected afterwards, is that between them they continued the replacement of the outer defence to the castle in stone. This work included the construction of a great gatehouse at the northern tip of the castle enclosure, and the extension of the stone defences in an anti-clockwise direction around the entire northern end of the castle at least as far as Peverill’s gate. Judging by the sums of money known to have been spent on Dover by these two kings it seems likely that John undertook the lion’s share of this work, including the gatehouses. As is discussed below, the architecture of the defences further substantiates this attribution.

Henry II’s castle at Dover has been much discussed by scholars: its architecture is of seminal importance in the development of fortification in the late twelfth-century. So too is the thirteenth-century work of Henry III, who substantially remodelled parts of the castle after the siege and erected the two principal gatehouses which still serve it today. But the construction undertaken by John and Richard, between the reigns of these two King Henrys, remains virtually unknown and has usually been relegated to the status of a footnote in the castle’s history. The principal reason for this is that very little of it survives: the siege and the later medieval and modern rebuilding campaigns – most notably during the reign of Henry III, the Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars – have carried away all but the smallest fragments of it.

But these lost northern defences, constructed by two kings renowned for their castle building, are of exceptional importance and interest. To reconstruct them, however, from the fragmentary physical evidence alone presents serious difficulties. These may be overcome in part by inferring information from the documented events of the great siege in 1216.

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