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Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Dover Castle

Dover Castle = Photo by Smudge 9000 / Flickr

By James Turner

Resolute and vigilant, Dover Castle yet stands guard above its ancient charge, the port of Dover.  Of all the facets and functions that the castle performed in medieval society, Dover personifies its most commonly remembered and perhaps fundamental aspect, as a stronghold and place of security.  Dover, its white cliffs gleaming in the sun and capped with rolling emerald green hills is an iconic image enshrined within the shared British consciousness.  There is an old joke poking fun at the sometimes skewed self-importance of British culture featuring the newspaper headline Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off’.  Within the popular imagination, Dover, the physically closet harbour to the mainland, is the place where Europe ends and Britain with all its accompanying connotations and bus full of baggage begins.  This is far from a new phenomena, indeed dictated by the whimsical realties of geography, it stretches back into the distant past, its precise meaning and significance has been interpreted and reinterpreted down the ages. Dover then taking up a hefty chunk of psychological real-estate, born from a very real strategic significance, is the gateway to England.  For the Middle Ages and beyond, Dover Castle, born in the wake of a continental conquest and a cultural reorientation of England, controlled that gateway.

The current Castle, thanks to its enduring strategic relevance and the tactical utility of its location, has long been a beneficiary of habitation and fortification.  Archaeological surveys and excavations have discovered evidence of Bronze and Iron Age settlements within the immediate area.  Further, it is likely that the great earth mound and accompanying trough upon which the Castle stands are the artificially crafted bones of a great early Iron Age hillfort.  Eventually when the Romans came to Britain and began to roll out an interlocking network of towns and roads across the country, amongst the first projects undertaken in the Emperor Claudius’ conquest was the construction of a pair of lighthouses above the harbour. This established the harbour’s importance as a trading post and place of transit for the fledgling Roman province; a powerful piece of symbolism guiding the way to the new Roman future; the lighthouses also came in handy for preventing incoming ships from hitting rocks and sinking. The largely intact ruins of the surving lighthouse endure even today, standing at the foot of the Castle and are well worth a look. Built uncomfortably close to the lighthouse is the Saxon church of St Mary de Castro which was lavishly restored in the late 19th century and can be counted amongst the largest and best preserved Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical structures extant today. The Saxons who in their turn came to dominate England also built extensive fortifications in Dover which likely centred on the church.

The first incarnation of Dover Castle proper was born in 1066 during the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. William of Normandy invaded England with a motley coalition of loyal retainers, hungry neighbours and desperados in order to press his claim to the throne and make everyone filthy rich.  Having defeated his principal rival, Harold Godwinson, at the Battle of Hastings, the experienced and battle hardened William moved cautiously to secure his lines of supply and communication. He attacked several points of potential Anglo-Saxon resistance, including Dover where having plundered the town and levelled what fortifications he found, his deeply imbedded central European warrior aristocratic instincts kicked in, compelling him to raise a castle upon the site.  Dover was but one amongst a hundred hastily constructed during the Normans’ first ragged surge over the British Isles, an ongoing and disjointed process involving as much negotiation, bullying and theft as it did open warfare, as the newly crowned King William attempted to exert his will upon both the Saxon majority and the predatory independence of his allies. It was, however, one of the few to last. The Norman Conquest dragged England and with it other sections of the British Isles to a new political and cultural orientation away from the Scandinavian world and down towards central and western Europe. Its new Kings and noblemen now also held land and titles upon the Continent to which they made frequent sojourns and the dynastic wars and rebellions of the new Anglo-Norman aristocracy were fought simultaneously on both sides of the Channel. Britain was now plugged into the vast political network of the still coalescing Europe in a way that it had never been before.  In an age of great cross-channel magnates and ever widening communication with Europe, the importance of Dover harbour and the Castle that controlled it was on the rise.

17th century drawing by Wenceslas Hollar of Dover Castle
17th century drawing by Wenceslas Hollar of Dover Castle

Important since its inception, it was only during the reign of William’s great grandson, Henry II, that Dover Castle came into glory. A living dynamo of a man, powered by seemingly inexhaustible supplies of drive and ambition, Henry II was as meticulous as he was energetic throwing himself into the restoration of royal authority and power.  A great lawmaker, Henry’s refinement of the comparatively crude chimerical system of governance his ancestors had imposed over the complex Anglo-Saxon legal and tax system and the introduction of elements of this system into his continental territories made him stunningly, Scourge McDuck style, affluent.  Henry was a one man medieval superpower.  Through his mother, he inherited England and Normandy, through this father the County of Anjou and through his wife, Eleanor, he held the prosperous and cultured Duchy of Aquitaine and  further parlayed this powerbase into control of Brittany and the over lordship of Wales, Scotland and Ireland.  Seeking to safeguard one of the most crucial links in this disparate chain of loosely bound territories and as a means to articulate his worldly power and prestige, both to his subjects and visiting guests, Henry turned his gaze upon Dover Castle. Construction of the Castle’s new massive Central Keep began sometime in the early 1180s. Towering above the harbour, the Keep incorporated the latest innovations in military science and architecture, its clipped stark walls of a contemporaneously remarkable thickness.

Besides its much flaunted and undoubtedly impressive military attributes, Dover Castle also maintained a sumptuous suite of royal apartments within which  Henry often entertained visiting aristocratic pilgrims and dignitaries. Work on the Castle and its swelling bulwarks continued after Henry’s death through the reign of his much celebrated but historiographically controversial son, Richard I, and into that of the much maligned but historiographically controversial, John I, under whose oversight the concentric rings of the outer and inner walls were completed.  It is hard to argue with the idea that John’s reign was not a particularly successful one, losing Normandy and the majority of the Plantagenet’s French lands to the waxing strength of the French monarchy, John also endured the First Barons’ Rebellion and was humiliatingly forced to sign the Magna Carta, restricting his hitherto, theoretically at least, unlimited royal prerogative.

The war began in earnest in 1215, when John stabilising his position somewhat declared the document void.  In response the Rebels offered their support and the English throne to Prince Louis of France. The opening stages of Louis’, Barons backed, invasion was a stunningly successful landing in Kent followed by his quick capture of London and much of southern England before turning his attention to the truculent garrison of Dover Castle. The French army partially succeeded in breaching the Castle by undermining the Northern Gate but were then repulsed in vicious hand to hand fighting and further attempts to undermine the Castle were thwarted through extensive counter tunnelling by the English.  After three months of bitter and grinding siege warfare, the Castle held strong and Louis was forced to withdraw. In 1217, facing increasing opposition which was rallying around William Marshall, the regent of  John’s  young  son and successor Henry III, Louis once again moved on Dover. The second siege proved no more successful and tied up a large number of his rapidly destabilising forces, which proved disastrous for Louis’ cause when The Marshall inflicted a humiliating defeat on his supporters at the Battle of Lincoln. The fate of Louis’ bid for the English Throne was sealed when he suffered two naval defeats off the coast of Dover, severing his supply chain.  During his own long reign, Henry III perhaps remembering the pivotal role Dover Castle played in defending his throne, further strengthened the Castle’s fortifications, erecting three gate houses and strengthening the Castle’s outworks.

The later infamous Henry VIII, who was in his youth drunk on old dreams of English military hegemony and overlordship, made a valiant effort to restart the Hundred Year War with his faltering invasions of France. In preparation for the war, which he fervently hoped for, the walls of Dover Castle now vulnerable to the ever advancing power of artillery, were further sheltered behind a new series of earthworks . These earthen defences were remodelled and improved on during the Napoleonic War in preparation for the predicted French Invasion. In addition to these trench like network of slopes and barriers, an extensive labyrinthine network of tunnels were dug underneath the Castle; storing and preserving the men and paraphernalia needed to repulse the expected invasion. It was these underground catacombs which later gave the Castle a new purpose during World War II, when they housed both a hospital and a large combined services military command centre which amongst other things organised the evacuation of Dunkirk and the ongoing defence of the Channel.

Dover Castle can easily be counted amongst the most formidable and spectacular within the British Isles. Set amongst the undulating green and muted angularity of the kaleidoscope of earthworks that that surround and support it, the Castle’s deceptively thick outer wall traces the gentle sweep of the land, its lowest slopes checked by the bowed, coiled strength of the Constable’s Gatehouse.  Within the loose oval that the Castles outer wall traces, stands the higher and older inner wall and at its heart the Keep. An exemplar of its kind and one of the last great square keep’s constructed before the proliferation of the new  rounded keeps, it was the pinnacle of it species before developing circumstances and the evolutionary changes needed to match them, rendered it outmoded; it is the Tyrannosaurus Rex of keeps .  Sturdy and unshakable, the keep’s extraordinary thickness almost renders it squat despite its formidable height.  The fluidity of the landscape upon which the Castle is entrenched clashes with the Spartan austerity and meticulous calculation of its walls, yet the disconnect only serves to accentuate their strength and render the Castle all the more formidable.

One of the principal jewels in English Heritage’s crown, Dover Castle is packed to its Norman rafters with activities and a wealth of historical information for visitors. The Castle’s Keep features a fantastically gaudy and delightfully accurate reconstruction of Henry II’s royal apartments and a wealth of information on the Castle’s history and role within society; understandably focusing upon possibly the most powerful validation of its existence, the epic siege in 1216. Sections of the war tunnels are also open to the public, featuring exhibits of their wartime history focusing on the hospital and the evacuation of Dunkirk in which the Castle played a crucial role.

No matter how you define it, Dover Castle is England’s first fortress. Throughout its long history and unlike many other castles striving to reclaim relevancy, it has cleaved strongly to its original purpose to bar entry into England and control the Straits of Dover.

Click here to visit the Dover Castle website

You can also follow them on Twitter @EHdovercastle

See also: Ten Castles the Made Medieval Britain: Pembroke Castle

See also: Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Caernarfon Castle

See also: Ten Castles that Made Medieval Britain: Stirling Castle



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