Home Towns & Villages Time-Line Articles Kent Past Times Contact

Kent Past


The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

Dover Castle

Dover Castle, one of the mightiest fortresses in western Europe, guards the English end of the shortest sea crossing to the Continent. Its location, overlooking the Straits of Dover, has given it immense strategic importance and a prominent part in national history. Its shape was largely determined by a pre-existing Iron Age hillfort, while within its walls stand a Roman lighthouse and an Anglo-Saxon church, the latter probably once forming part of an Anglo-Saxon burgh or fortified town.

There has been a castle there since November 1066. That month, Duke William of Normandy's forces, fresh from victory at the Battle of Hastings, constructed the first earthwork castle before continuing their march on London. The castle was to retain a garrison until October 1958 - an 892-year span equalled only by the Tower of London and Windsor Castle.

Under Henry II the castle was rebuilt, incorporating concentric defences and regularly spaced wall towers, a combination then without parallel in western Europe. In 1216, it successfully withstood a prolonged siege. By the 1250s, its medieval defences had assumed the extent and shape which they retain to this day and the castle, on its cliff-top site, formed a highly visible symbol of English royal power.

After declining in importance from the sixteenth century, the castle was modernised and its defences extended in the 1750s, as they were again during the Napoleonic Wars. Further alterations and additional gun batteries were added in the 1870s, enabling the castle to retain the role of First-Class Fortress, almost until the end of the nineteenth century.

During both world wars the castle was rearmed, but perhaps its finest hour came in May 1940. In that month Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay, in naval headquarters deep in the cliff, organised and directed the successful evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. These same tunnels became, in the 1960s, a Regional Seat of Government in the event of nuclear war; only in 1984 were they finally abandoned.

At the highest point in the castle stand two buildings which predate the castle, the remains of a Roman lighthouse and a Saxon church dedicated to
St Mary in Castro. The surrounding bank dates from the thirteenth century but underlies one dated by archaeologists to the mid-eleventh century, suggesting that this area could be the site of the first small castle built by William the Conqueror.

In the second half of the first century AD the Romans began to develop Dover as a port. To guide ships across the Channel they constructed three lighthouses. One, the Tour d'Odre, stood at Boulogne; the other two were at Dover, on high ground on either side of the small harbour. The foundations of the western lighthouse can be seen at Drop Redoubt on Western Heights on the far side of the town, while the eastern one still stands within the later castle, where it forms one of the most remarkable surviving structures of Roman Britain.

The Roman pharos or lighthouse was originally an octagonal tower with eight stepped stages, of which only four survive. It rose to a height of some 24m (80ft). Within its rectangular interior were a series of timber floors; at the top there was probably a platform for some form of brazier. After its abandonment by the Romans, the tower became ruinous. Later its exterior was refaced, and between 1415 and 1437, the top was rebuilt as a bell-tower for the neighbouring church by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.
Adjacent to the lighthouse stands the church of St Mary in Castro. Despite heavy restoration in the nineteenth century, it remains the finest late Saxon building in Kent, dating from around 1000AD.

The extraordinary sequence of defences on this cliff top - the Iron Age hillfort, medievel royal castle, artillery fortress and Second World War headquarters - owe their existence to the need to protect and dominate the nearest landing place in England to mainland Europe. The valley of the River Dour is the only break in some 21km (13 miles) of high chalk cliffs. From the earliest times the river mouth provided shelter and a landing place, from which ultimately grew the present Dover Harbour.

In November 1066, following his landing at Pevensey just along the coast from Dover, Duke William of Normandy and his victorious army advanced on Dover. The inhabitants speedily surrendered and William spent eight days fortifying the site before marching on Canterbury. These early Norman defences have never been identified, but archaeological excavations suggest that they were probably centred on the Roman lighthouse and the Saxon church, and that they took the form of a bank topped by a timber palisade (or wall) surrounded by a ditch. Within a year, they were to prove their worth when the garrison beat off an attack led by Count Eustace of Boulogne who had landed to aid the Kentish rebels.

We know virtually nothing about Dover Castle between 1067 and the 1160s. Henry II became king in 1154 and was to prove himself one of the greatest of medieval castle builders. Royal accounts show Henry building or altering no less than 90 fortifications in England alone, with by far and away the largest expenditure at Dover. In the 1160s and 1170s, small sums of money were spent updating the existing defences. However, between 1179 and 1188 expenditure rose to nearly £6000, creating much of the medieval castle which survives today. This work was largely carried out under the supervision of Maurice the Tngeniator', one of the most accomplished medieval military engineers in Europe. Maurice was responsible for the keep and the walls and towers of the inner bailey. He also began part of the outer bailey wall, and thus should be credited with being the designer of the first castle in Western Europe to boast concentric defences.

On Henry II's death in 1189 Dover Castle must have resembled a vast building site. Nevertheless, it was not until the loss of Normandy in 1204 that King John devoted substantial funds to completing the castle. Work was concentrated on the outer defences where the new building can be identified by the use of D-shaped wall towers. The defences were extended round from the north-east side down to Peverell's Tower. A now-vanished length of wall linked Peverel's Tower to the inner bailey near Palace Gateway, while the main outer gateway was built at the northern tip of the castle. By 1215, the fortifications were sufficiently advanced to make the castle defendable.

In the civil war between King John and his barons, Dover was to achieve legendary fame. In support of the rebels, a French army under Prince Louis landed at Thanet in May 1216. In response, John barely had sufficient time to provision Dover Castle and install 140 knights under Hubert de Burgh, Justiciar of England, before retreating to Winchester. By the autumn of 1216, only Windsor and Dover Castles in southern England remained in the king's hands.

At Dover, Prince Louis himself directed the siege, establishing his headquarters at Dover Priory in the town and his main camp just to the north of the castle on the higher ground. From here, great stone-throwing engines bombarded the outer walls while miners slowly tunnelled under the northern barbican. Nothing daunted, the garrison launched frequent sorties to attack their assailants, but the undermining of the barbican brought them to a halt and forced withdrawal behind the north gate.

Again, the French miners set to work, and this time brought down the eastern of the two gate towers. It seems that the garrison was well aware of the tunnelling, for the small tunnels which still exist within the castle are probably countermines, dug in the hope of intercepting the enemy miners. When the tower collapsed and the French poured into the castle, Hubert de Burgh and his knights were ready for them. In what was clearly bitter hand-to-hand fighting just within the ruined north gateway, the garrison fought back, ultimately forcing the French to retreat through the breach.
This was to prove the climax of the siege. For Louis, faced with an implacable and determined garrison, the siege was increasingly unsatisfactory. A truce was called early in the autumn, but in October King John died at Newark Castle and his son, Henry III, was proclaimed king. At Dover, the local truce held into the spring of 1217, although in May, Louis returned to resume siege operations, aware that the castle had to be captured to secure his supply lines. Three days later, however, French forces were defeated at the Battle of Lincoln, effectively signalling the end of the war. Dover Castle, after a year of sieges and truces, remained undefeated, although badly damaged.

The siege of 1216-17 had exposed the vulnerability of the castle's northern defences. With Henry Ill's backing and initially under the personal supervision of Hubert de Burgh, enormous efforts were made to overcome these weaknesses. The northern gateway, so nearly the castle's downfall, was blocked solid. In the moat beyond, engineers constructed St John's Tower which in turn overlooked a new spur or outwork to the north, designed to allow the garrison a better command of the high ground. The north gateway was replaced by the formidably powerful Constable's Gateway on the western side of the castle. Difficult anyway for an attacker to approach because of the sloping ground, the clustering of no less than six towers here made it one of the most powerful gateways in England. A secondary entrance, Fitzwilliam's Gateway, was built on the eastern side of the castle.

Apart from work on the three gateways, the outer curtain wall was completed from Peverel's Tower to the cliff edge, and a massive earth bank constructed around the church and pharos. Initially this bank was topped by a timber palisade although replaced by a stone wall in the 1250s. Footings of the wall can still be seen. On the completion of these works Dover had reached the peak of its medieval power; its formidable series of concentric defences allied to its strategic location led the contemporary chronicler Matthew Paris to title it the 'key of England'.

Within the castle, money was also spent on modernising the facilities. Documents mention repairing the oven in 1221, the addition of a new granary and in 1234 the construction of a windmill to grind flour for the garrison. In 1240, a new hall and set of chambers for the king were completed on the south-eastern side of the inner ward. Later known as Arthur's Hall, the lower walls of this structure can still be seen today.

Dover Castle's primary role was that of a frontier fortress, its dominant position a symbol to passing shipping of English royal power. During peacetime, it probably had a garrison of around a dozen knights, with further foot soldiers, warders and porters. Initially this garrison was raised by means of castle-guard, an unpopular and unreliable feudal duty whereby the larger baronial estates were bound to supply a knight for forty days' service each year. After the 1216 siege, castle-guard was replaced by money payments, allowing the establishment of a more permanent and professional garrison.

The castle was in the charge of a constable, first appointed during the reign of King Stephen (1135-54). A century later, to avoid disputes, the role of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was combined with that of constable. This dual role made the medieval constable's job a demanding one. As well as looking after the castle and providing hospitality for important officials, ambassadors and courtiers on their way to and from the Continent, he was responsible for the defence of the coastline of south-east England, for overseeing Channel shipping and for providing ships from the Cinque Ports when demanded by the king. The constable was also President of the Court of Shepway, the administrative heart of the Cinque Ports federation. In addition, most medieval kings stayed at the castle at some time during their reign; the constable was responsible for their comfort and safety. To share the burdens of office a deputy constable was appointed, principally to look after the castle. In the early eighteenth century the constable, whose role by this time had become largely ceremonial, shifted his official residence to Warmer Castle. The deputy constable, however, still lives in Constable's Gateway.

By 1500 the castle was becoming increasingly out of date as guns grew in size and power. While its strategic location and the convenience of its buildings ensured that it remained in use, the main defences were now sited at harbour level. In 1539, King Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves stayed in the keep, while Elizabeth I lodged in the castle in 1573. In 1624, elaborate preparations were made in to receive Henrietta Maria of France on her way to marry Charles I. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Dover town sided with Parliament while the castle garrison supported the king. That August a small party of townsfolk daringly scaled the cliffs, surprised the garrison and captured the castle, which fell with hardly a shot fired.

At the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, grandiose plans to quarter a substantial garrison in the castle were eventually reduced to the installation of seventeen gunners, probably based at Moat's Bulwark, the sixteenth-century gun battery at the foot of the cliffs. The castle itself remained largely uninhabited, the keep being used to house prisoners-of-war for a number of years at the end of the seventeenth century.

This gentle decline was abruptly reversed in the 1740s. From then on, up until 1945, Dover castle was to have its defences modified and extended in every European war in which Britain was involved. The reason for this change in the castle's fortunes lay in Dover harbour below. In 1066, William the Conqueror had been able to land his foot soldiers and knights on a shingle beach at Pevensey. By the 18th Century, heavy siege weapons were key components of armies and to bring these ashore required the use of a harbour. Dover harbour, the nearest to mainland Europe, made it a prime target for any power considering invading Britain. In 1744 the threat was a Jacobite invasion from Dunkirk; in 1805 it was Napoleon's Grand Army, and in 1940 Hitler's Wehrmacht.

From the 16th Century onwards, Dover harbour had been protected by a series of artillery forts, such as Moat's Bulwark and Archcliffe Fort. These provided local protection against a direct assault by sea. By the 1740s, military planners feared that an enemy might land light forces in the area of Walmer or Hythe, who would then encircle Dover from the rear and capture the harbour by a landward attack. In such a context, Dover Castle had a vital role protecting town and harbour from a landward assault.

In 1745 new barracks were built within the inner bailey to accommodate extra troops. Further accommodation was added in the 1750’s, part of which was situated in the keep. More importantly, in 1755 the northern defences of the castle were strengthened, remodelling the outer curtain from Avranches Tower to the Norfolk Towers to carry heavy artillery, modernising the medieval spur to accommodate infantry, and building two new gun batteries - Bell Battery and Four Gun Battery. All these works were intended to protect the castle from assault from the high ground to the north-east and were the first major additions to its defences for 500 years.

Modernisation was continued in spectacular fashion at the end of the 18th Century, during the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, by Lieutenant Colonel William Twiss. Twiss completed the remodelling of the outer defences, adding the huge Horseshoe, Hudson's, East Arrow and East Demi-Bastions to provide extra gun positions on the eastern side, and constructing 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.

To help troop movements between castle and town defences, Twiss constructed Canon's Gateway. He filled every available space within the castle with barracks and storerooms, and, when space ran out, he constructed the remarkable underground cliff barracks. In the midst of all this work, Twiss was also overseeing construction of the vast fortifications which still dominate Western Heights on the opposite side of the town. Designed to thwart an overland attack from the west, the addition of these new defences meant that Dover now had its two most vulnerable landward approaches well defended. All these works were at their height during the crucial years 1803-1805 when a French invasion was expected daily; at this time, the town and castle were packed with troops.

The triumphal conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars saw a rapid reduction in Dover's defences; only a small garrison remained at the castle. However, by the 1850s the introduction of steam-driven warships and troop transporters, together with the invention of vastly more powerful guns, led to an extensive programme of rearmament. Within the castle, King's Gate and Palace Gate were strengthened and the inner bailey wall-walk remodelled; the keep itself was reverting to its medieval use as place of last resort. These adjustments, however, offered only superficial improvements; in truth, the new armaments had finally rendered Dover Castle obsolete as a major fortress. This was acknowledged in 1860 by the start of the construction of Fort Burgoyne on the high ground to the north-east of the castle. The new fort was intended to take over the functions of its medieval predecessor.

The castle itself continued in use as a garrison headquarters and the 1850s saw an extensive programme of barrack building, including Salvin's Officers' New Barracks which still dominate the southern part of the castle. Barracks continued to be built at intervals into the 1930s. In 1862, Sir George Gilbert Scott restored the ruinous St Mary-in-Castro for use as the garrison church. The last major rearming was undertaken in the 1870s when a series of gun batteries was built along the cliff edge to protect the harbour below. Ammunition was stored in a large underground magazine constructed to the west of Salvin's New Barracks.

The castle played a notable role in the two world wars of the twentieth century. By 1900, its primary use was as a garrison headquarters for the immediate area, but advances in technology and changing methods of warfare led its operational role to expand. In 1905, the Fire Command Post was established on the cliff edge to control all the guns around the harbour. By 1943, the castle controlled coastal artillery from the North Foreland to Hastings. In 1914, the Post War Signal Station was added above the Fire Command Post; from here, the Royal Navy directed wartime shipping movements in and out of the harbour below.

The greatest impact on the castle came with air power. In 1909, Louis Bleriot had become the first man to fly the Straits when he had landed his frail aircraft on the hillside below FitzwiHiam Gate. Before the end of the First World War, German bombers were crossing the Channel and the castle had its own anti-aircraft guns and searchlights. In 1938, with war again looming, the old Georgian barrack tunnels, then only used in part as stores, were adapted as bomb-proof accommodation to house the fortress commander, coastal and anti-aircraft gun operations, and the Royal Navy's Dover headquarters. North-east of the castle stood the towers of Britain's new radar chain.

The castle's finest hour since the Great Siege of 1216 came at the end of May 1940. On 10 May, Hitler's armies struck westwards across Europe. Within three weeks, the German Panzer divisions (tank forces) had split the British and French armies. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and a substantial number of French troops were trapped in a diminishing pocket of land centred on the port of Dunkirk. On 25 May, Boulogne fell; the following day Calais was captured. That evening, the British government ordered the evacuation of the BEF. At Dover Castle, Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay had been given less than a week to prepare. The nerve-centre for this extraordinary evacuation was Ramsay's Operations Room in Admiralty Casemate. Here he directed and inspired a small staff who had the daunting task of organising the evacuation of up to 400,000 British and French troops under constant German attack. The plan was code-named Operation Dynamo.

Behind this lay frantic round-the-clock work in the cliff tunnels. Requests for ships were interspersed with telephone calls to the Southern Railway for troop trains, calls to the Admiralty for tugs, weapons, ammunition, medical supplies, spare parts, fuel and rations and above all, trained personnel. On 23 May, Ramsay wrote to his wife 'no bed for any of us last night and probably not for many nights'. A little later, he wrote 'All my staff are completely worn out, yet I see no prospect of any let-up'.

By 26 May, Ramsay had assembled a fleet of passenger and cargo ships. To protect these, and to help in the evacuation, was a force of destroyers and smaller naval vessels. During daytime the Royal Air Force provided fighter cover. In the two days before Dunkirk was expected to fall, the Admiralty reckoned that at best 45,000 men might be saved from the port.


By the end of the first day, German shelling and bombing had made the port of Dunkirk impossible to use and the focus of the naval operation shifted to the beaches east of the town. However, here, shallow water meant that ships had to lie offshore and use their lifeboats to rescue the troops; lack of suitable inshore craft meant that loading was still painfully slow.

In London, the Admiralty had been busy collecting all available pleasure-craft. Together with a multitude of other small vessels, including sailing barges, cabin cruisers, cockle boats, drifters and tugs, these were sent to Sheerness Dockyard for fuel, rations and charts before sailing in convoy to Ramsgate to await final sailing orders.


From Ramsgate, the first convoy of 'little ships' sailed at 2200 hours on the evening of 29 May. By next day, they were streaming across the Channel in seemingly unending lines heading for the beaches of Dunkirk, most to act as tenders. The role of the 'little ships' is rightly famed. However, the discovery on the night of 27 May that troops could embark direct onto large vessels from the spindly eastern mole at the entrance of Dunkirk harbour transformed the evacuation. HMS Sabre had taken two hours to load 100 men from the beach; alongside the mole, 500 troops boarded her in 35 minutes.

From then on, large ships queued to use the mole while smaller vessels operated off the beaches. Throughout this operation, ships and men faced repeated shelling from the German army, bombing and strafing by the Luftwaffe and torpedo and machinegun attacks by German E-boats. Nevertheless, despite mounting casualties, the evacuation gathered pace. However, the loss of 31 ships, including three destroyers on 1 June, meant that for the few remaining days before Dunkirk fell, rescue ships operated only after dark.

By the time Operation Dynamo finished on 3 June 338,000 troops had been brought back -the whole of the BEF at Dunkirk and 139,000 French soldiers. Although the price had been heavy, with over 188 of the smaller craft lost as well as a number of large ships, including eight passenger vessels and six destroyers, the core of the British army had been saved. The success of the operation owed an incalculable amount to the organising genius, leadership and drive of Vice-Admiral Ramsay in his command centre beneath the castle.

Following the German occupation of France, Dover was hastily strengthened and further armed. Later that summer of 1940, as British convoys fought through the Straits of Dover and the Battle of Britain raged overhead, the castle was provisioned to withstand a six-week siege in the event of a German invasion. Mercifully, this never happened, but for the rest of the war the castle became an increasingly important command centre, the battles fought in the air and sea here earning this part of Kent the title 'Hellfire Corner'.

Outwardly, the castle changed little, but beneath Royal Engineers constructed a remarkable complex of tunnels, linked to the old Napoleonic ones. All were safe from even the heaviest air attack. The first new tunnels were excavated in 1941 to form an underground hospital. In 1942, another layer was constructed on a grid pattern below the Napoleonic ones. All were linked in 1943 to form a Combined Headquarters for all three services. Had the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy been chosen for the D-Day invasion of Europe in 1944, this would have served as a forward headquarters. It remained operational until victory in May 1945.

Dover Castle retained a garrison until 1958. In 1962 most of the castle was handed over to the Ministry of Works for preservation. However, that year the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of war and gave Dover Castle another role. For the next twenty-two years, the cliff tunnels were adapted as a self-sufficient Regional Seat of Government which would have controlled what remained of Kent, Sussex and Surrey after a nuclear attack. For the first time since their original Napoleonic use as barracks, substantial living accommodation was provided for the occupants. The tunnels remained closely guarded and on the secret list until 1984, when the Home Office closed them and removed most of the equipment.

Very few other medieval castles have had such a long and stirring history; none has undergone such a series of modernisations and adaptations to fit it for new forms of warfare. Dover Castle is interwoven into England's history, well meriting its medieval tide of the 'key of England'.




Leave your email address to receive Kent Past Times free every month