Dover Castle

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Dover Castle


Keep and entrance of Dover Castle, 2007.jpg
Entrance to Dover Castle
Type: Norman castle
Grid reference: TR326418
Location: 51°7’47"N, 1°19’17"E
Town: Dover
Built 12th century
Key events: First Barons' War
Second World War
Condition: Intact
Owned by: English Heritage

Dover Castle is a mediæval castle in Dover on the coast of Kent. The castle was founded in the 12th century and has been described as the "Key to England" due to its defensive significance throughout history.[1][2] It is the largest castle in England.[3] The site though is of older occupation, having been fortified by the Romans and perhaps before them, guarding this gap in the wall of cliffs in which sits the port of Dover.


The Roman lighthouse at Dover Castle

The site may have been fortified with earthworks in the Iron Age or earlier, before the Romans invaded in AD43. This is suggested on the basis of the unusual pattern of the earthworks which does not seem to be a perfect fit for the mediæval castle, excavations have provided evidence of Iron Age occupation within the locality of the castle, but it is not certain whether this is associated with the hillfort.[4] There have also been excavations on the mound which the church and Roman Pharos are situated on and has been discovered to be a Bronze Age mound.

The site also contained one of Dover's two 80-foot Roman lighthouses, one of which still survives, whilst the remains of the other are located on the opposing Western Heights, across the town of Dover. On the site is a classic montrol (campsite) where the Normans landed after their victorious conquest.

Saxon and early Norman

The view down to the Church and harbour beyond

The Cinque Ports are said to have been founded in 1050, with Dover as a chief member and it was a fortified place, a burgh, in Anglo-Saxon times.

After his victory at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, William the Bastard and his forces marched to Westminster Abbey for his coronation, but also turned his attention to Kent. In the words of William of Poitiers:

Then he marched to Dover, which had been reported impregnable and held by a large force. The English, stricken with fear at his approach had confidence neither in their ramparts nor in the numbers of their troops ... While the inhabitants were preparing to surrender unconditionally, [the Normans], greedy for money, set the castle on fire and the great part of it was soon enveloped in flames...[William then paid for the repair and] having taken possession of the castle, the Duke spent eight days adding new fortifications to it'. The Castle was first built, entirely out of clay. It collapsed to the ground and the clay was then used as the flooring for many of the ground-floor rooms.

This may have been repairs and improvements to an existing Saxon fort or burgh, centred on the Saxon church of St Mary de Castro, although archaeological evidence suggests that it was actually a new motte and bailey design castle built from scratch nearby.

Henry II to early modern times

Section of the western curtain wall leading to Peverell's Gateway

During the reign of Henry II the castle began to take recognisable shape. The inner and outer baileys and the great keep belong to this time. Maurice the Engineer was responsible for building the keep,[5] one of the last rectangular keeps ever built.

In 1216, a group of rebel barons invited Louis VIII of France to come and take the English crown. He had some success breaching the walls but was unable ultimately to take the castle.

The vulnerable north gate that had been breached in the siege was converted into an underground forward-defence complex (including St John's Tower), and new gates built into the outer curtain wall on the western (Fitzwilliam's Gate) and eastern (Constable's Gate) sides. During the siege, the English defenders tunnelled outwards and attacked the French, thus creating the only counter tunnel in the world. This can still be seen in the mediæval works.

By the Tudor age, the defences themselves had been superseded by gunpowder. They were improved by Henry VIII, who made a personal visit, and added to it with the Moat Bulwark.

During the Civil War Dover Castle was held for the king but then taken by a Parliamentarian trick without a shot being fired (hence it avoided being ravaged and survives far better than most castles) in 1642.

Napoleonic Wars

Dover Castle

Massive rebuilding took place at the end of the 18th century during the Napoleonic Wars. William Twiss, the Commanding Engineer of the Southern District, as part of his brief to improve the town's defences, completed the remodelling of the outer defences of Dover Castle adding the huge Horseshoe, Hudson's, East Arrow and East Demi-Bastions to provide extra gun positions on the eastern side, and constructing the Constable's Bastion for additional protection on the west. Twiss further strengthened the Spur at the northern end of the castle, adding a redan, or raised gun platform. By taking the roof off the keep and replacing it with massive brick vaults he was able to mount heavy artillery on the top. Twiss also constructed Canon's Gateway to link the defences of the castle with those of the town.

With Dover becoming a garrison town, there was a need for barracks and storerooms for the additional troops and their equipment. The solution adopted by Twiss and the Royal Engineers was to create a complex of barracks tunnels about 15 metres below the cliff top and the first troops were accommodated in 1803. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the tunnels housed more than 2,000 men and to date are the only underground barracks ever built in the United Kingdom.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the tunnels were partly converted and used by the Coast Blockade Service to combat smuggling. This was a short-term endeavour though, and in 1827 the headquarters were moved closer to shore. The tunnels then remained abandoned for more than a century.

The secret wartime tunnels

The Second World War Coastal Artillery Operations Room in the Secret Wartime Tunnels

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 saw the tunnels converted first into an air-raid shelter and then later into a military command centre and underground hospital. In May 1940, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey directed the evacuation of French and British soldiers from Dunkirk, code-named Operation Dynamo, from his headquarters in the cliff tunnels.

A military telephone exchange was installed in 1941 and served the underground headquarters. The switchboards were constantly in use and had to have a new tunnel created alongside it to house the batteries and chargers necessary to keep them functioning. The navy used the exchange to enable direct communication with vessels, as well as using it to direct air-sea rescue craft to pick up pilots shot down in the Straits of Dover.

The Annexe level of the tunnel, excavated in 1941 was used as a dressing station; it contained two operating theatres and had basic accommodation for patients.

Later the tunnels were to be used as a shelter for the Regional Seats of Government in the event of a nuclear attack. This plan was abandoned for various reasons, including the realisation that the chalk of the cliffs would not provide significant protection from radiation, and because of the inconvenient form of the tunnels and their generally poor condition.

Tunnel levels are denoted as A - Annexe, B - Bastion, C - Casemate, D - DUMPY and E - Esplanade. Annexe and Casemate levels are open to the public, Bastion is 'lost' but investigations continue to gain access, DUMPY (converted from Second World War use to serve as a Regional Seat of Government in event of an atomic war) is closed, as is Esplanade (last used as an air raid shelter in the Second World War).[6]

The Annexe level was excavated in 1941 to serve as a medical dressing station for wounded soldiers. Soldiers would be sent for emergency treatment in the tunnels and then transferred to inland hospitals. Within the Annexe level were dormitories, kitchens and mess rooms.

A statue of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was erected in November 2000 outside the tunnels in honour of his work on the Dunkirk evacuation and protecting Dover during the Second World War.[7]

If they were being attacked they would have to move quickly as the enemies were just nine minutes away from Dover by plane. There are over three miles of these Tunnels going deep down into the chalky cliffs, some still undiscovered. There are tunnels that are far too dangerous to walk down. Full information about these tunnels is not due to be released until 2020-2025.

The castle today

Dover Castle is a Scheduled Monument,[8] and recognised as an internationally important structure. The castle, secret tunnels, and surrounding land are now owned by English Heritage and the site is a major tourist attraction. The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports is officially head of the castle, in his conjoint position of Constable of Dover Castle, and the Deputy Constable has his residence in Constable's Gate.

The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment Museum is located in the castle.

Between 2007 and 2009, English Heritage spent £2.45 million on recreating the castle's interior.[9] According to figures released by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, nearly 350,000 people visited Dover Castle in 2010.[10]

St Mary in Castro

St Mary in Castro

St Mary in Castro, or St Mary de Castro, is a church in the grounds of Dover Castle. It is an Anglo-Saxon structure, and in origin one of the earliest in Britain, built next to a Roman lighthouse which became the church bell-tower. The church was heavily restored in the Victorian period. St Mary serves the local population and the army, and is the church of the Dover Garrison.

Saxon period

There are records of a church being built 'within the castle' (Latin 'in castra') by Eadbald of Kent in the 630s. However, it is unclear whether this means within the Saxon burgh (usually dated to later than 630) on the Eastern Heights, or within the ruins of old Roman fortifications in the valley. The large, late-Saxon cemetery around the present church does suggest the existence of a c.600 church,[11] but not definitively.

Tiles from the octagonal Roman lighthouse reused in the church

Whether or not it had a predecessor, the present Saxon church was built on the Eastern Heights around 1000. It is immediately adjacent to the surviving eastern lighthouse, which was used as a source of spolia: Roman tiles can be still be seen in the church fabric, particularly in the window arches (usually of stone), and flint and tile from the pharos is used throughout the church's walls.[11] The plinth that projects out from beneath the church and on which it stands, however, is of new stone. The church is cruciform with a central tower the same width as the nave but broader than the chancel and transepts.[11] The nave has no aisles. The door arch is the earliest to survive in any standing church in Britain.

Middle Ages

The Early English vault and the altar recess in the nave's southeast corner of the nave were probably both added to the existing church at the end of the twelfth century. As part of his building works at the castle, in 1226 Henry III of England instructed that the church be repaired and twenty-one years later ordered the making of three altars and images, for and of St Edmund, St Adrian and Edward the Confessor (St Edward), along with an image of St John the Evangelist.

A new stage was added to the four surviving Roman stages (out of a possible original eight) of the Roman lighthouse to turn it into a bell tower, along with a short passage to connect it to the church. In 1252, three bells were cast at Canterbury to be hung in the pharos. In 1342–3, three bells were sold out of St Mary in Castro to another St Mary's church, in the nearby village of Lower Hardres, for at least £4.[12] They were replaced in 1345 by two newly cast bells, weighing 4266 lb and 1078 lb, and costing £15 18s. 5¼d. Between 1426 and 1437, works on the pharos cost £176 11s. 11½d and included five new stone windows in the mediæval stage, which may have been rebuilt.

Other works on the church included repainting between 1324 and 1334 by "John of Maidstone", and over £36 spent on church and keep in 1494, although the proportion spent on the church is unknown. The latter work was by Sir Edward Poynings, who may well have been deputising for Prince Henry (later Henry VIII), who was then the Castle's Constable.[11]

Neglect and restoration

From 1555 to 1557 the church was walled up as it was felt unsafe due to lack of repairs, though nineteen years later recommendations were made to repair the chancel in stone, glaze (or reglaze) the windows and provide seats for men to hear divine service. It took another six years, but in 1582 fourteen small chairs were at last bought. Public worship then lasted to 1690, though burials of troops from the garrison in the surrounding churchyard continued for some time after that.

The remaining ruin was turned into a storehouse and cooperage in 1780, but a further collapse in 1801 led to its becoming a coal store by 1808, and thus it remained until 1860. That year began the first of two Victorian restorations. The first lasted until 1862 and was carried out by George Gilbert Scott, and the second restoration for only a year in 1888, by William Butterfield. Butterfield's restoration completed the tower and added mosaic work in the nave and a vestry, but was generally held to be less sympathetic than the first by Scott.

Royal chapel

The Royal chapel of the castle is within the keep. It was dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury (Thomas Becket).

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Dover Castle)


  1. Kerr, Nigel (1984). A Guide to Norman Sites in Britain. Granada. p. 44. ISBN 0-586-08445-2. 
  2. Broughton, Bradford B. (1988). Dictionary of Mediæval Knighthood and Chivalry. Greenwood Press. p. 102. ISBN 0-313-25347-1. 
  3. Cathcart King, David J. (1983). Catellarium Anglicanum: An Index and Bibliography of the Castles in England, Wales and the Islands. Volume I: Anglesey–Montgomery. Kraus International Publications. p. 230. 
  4. National Monuments Record: No. 468006
  5. Prestwich, Michael (1999). Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press. p. 285. ISBN 0-300-07663-0. 
  6. "Dover Castle". Retrieved 25 July 2012. 
  7. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay at
  8. National Monuments Record: No. 467778 – Dover Castle
  9. King's lavish castle is brought to life, BBC News, 31 July 2009,, retrieved 2011-03-07 
  10. Visits Made in 2010 to Visitor Attractions in Membership with ALVA, ALVA – Association of Leading Visitor Attractions,, retrieved 2012-02-29 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 "St Mary in Castro". Dover Museum. Retrieved 16 October 2007. 
  12. Dickon R. Love. "Lower Hardres, St Mary". Love's Guide to the Church Bells of Kent. Retrieved 16 October 2007. "Receyved out of the parishioners of Nether Hardres for the cities part of the iij bells to them sold out of the Church of Saynt Mary Castell iiij li" 
  • Goodall, John, "Dover Castle and the Great Siege of 1216", Chateau Gaillard v.19 (2000) (the online version lacks the diagrams of the print version)
  • Jeffrey, Kate, "Dover castle", Published by English Heritage, 1997


  • Coad, Jonathan (1995), Book of Dover Castle and the Defences of Dover, B. T. Batsford, ISBN 0-7134-7289-8