Dover Castle is one of the most iconic castles in England. It also has the distinction of being among the oldest; it was originally fortified by William the Conqueror following the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Before it was turned into a fortified castle it was a general stronghold for the Saxon forces. It also served as a lighthouse for the Romans during their conquest of England.
The History of Dover Castle
It was vital that Dover be fortified because it offered the shortest distance between England and mainland Europe. In times of war it would be the first place anyone attacked, and in times of peace it would serve as a vital trading and sailing hub.
Dover Castle itself has had a long and eventful history to say the least. Dubbed the “Key to England” the fortress has been the first line of defense for England for over 900 years. The only castles that have had a life as long as this are the Tower of London and Windsor Castle.
The Birth of a Castle
As soon as William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 he ordered that the defenses at the castle be fortified with earthwork and stockade with timber. The castle was garrisoned as soon as it was ready and was garrisoned without interruption (meaning there was always some military force there) until 1958.
King Henry II remodeled the castle in the late 12th-century. He planned on making the great tower of Dover Castle a palace in which he could entertain important guests. He also planned on making the tower the last redoubt for the castle; one of the most strategically-important in the country. The tower stands 83 feet tall, 100 feet square, and the walls are 21 feet thick. It houses three floors, with the top-most floor being reserved for the king.
With such an impressive and imposing showpiece the king was able to welcome distinguished visitors – in particular noble pilgrims on a pilgrimage to the Canterbury Cathedral of Thomas Becket. Thomas Becket was an archbishop who was slaughtered before the altar at the castle by Henry’s knights on December 29th, 1170; ten years before the work on the tower began. There was a chapel dedicated to the late archbishop on the second floor, made with beautiful decorated stonework.
Construction on the tower continued into the first half of the 13th century under the watch of King John and Henry III. It was finally finished by Henry III.
A Castle Besieged
The defenses of the castle were put through their paces in 1216-1217 when the castle was besieged. It was attacked by Prince Louis of France, who supported English barons in their rebellion against King John. The defenses at the castle withstood ten months of bombardment by the French siege engines and every other attempt the French made to invade the castle.
The castle was further improved after the siege. Henry III added three new gatehouses and a fortified spur extension to the castle. The castle as we know it today was completed by the 1250s and it has remained a symbol of the power of the English royal family ever since.
The castle was once again besieged in October 1265. This time, the castle was besieged by Henry III’s own son; Prince Edward. The castle was held by the king’s sister, Eleanor de Montfort. Eleanor was the widow of the baron Simon de Montfort, who rebelled against the king and had been killed at the Battle of Evesham. Besieged from within and without by royalists, Eleanor petitioned for peace and was exiled to France.
A Castle Transformed
Dover Castle remained garrisoned even after the Middle Ages and would stay garrisoned until the late 20th century. While it became less important after the 16th century, the castle still played host to royals including Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Charles I, and their guests. It was less important from a military point of view but the fact it played host to so many important people necessitated continued protection.
The castle was reshaped in the 1740s to better defend against artillery warfare. When England was under threat of invasion by Napoleon and the French forces in the 18th century, the castle was added to even more. A series of tunnels was built into the cliffs of Dover to serve as barracks for the multitudes of soldiers needed to protect the castle.
Dover During the Wars
Technological advances from the turn of the 19th century allowed for coastal artillery to be commanded from a central Fire Command Post on the cliff edge. The position was deemed important enough by the Admiralty for them to commission a signal station on top of it in 1914. The Navy were able to use the station to command the flow of ships in and out of Dover harbor.
The tunnels built during the Napoleonic war were used again during the Second World War. From 1939 onwards they were the location of the command centre that controlled all naval operations in the English Channel. This is where Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay orchestrated the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk with Operation Dynamo.
The tunnels were expanded upon to serve as a bigger headquarters and as a hospital for the war wounded. The hospital was combined with the headquarters and the castle was an important part of defending the Straits of Dover and preparing for the invasion of mainland Europe in 1944.
The network of tunnels underwent further transformation during the Cold War. It was planned that the tunnels would serve as a secret location for one of Britain’s Regional Seats of Government so that things could resume as close to normal if England was hit by a nuclear attack.
Modern Dover Castle
The modern Dover Castle is managed by the English Heritage group. It is open to the public and offers visitors a stunning look at the history and experience of the fortress. Visitors can tour the castle and the underground tunnels.
They can enjoy all the exhibitions that put them in the shoes of the former inhabitants of the castle and learn all about the rich history for themselves.
The castle has been preserved really well and has been mostly-restored to the original state. Some of the castle has been modified to reflect how it may have looked at different points in history to offer an authentic experience.
Ancient history fans can also experience the original Roman lighthouse that laid the foundations for the castle.