Interpreting Dover Castle’s great tower

7 mins read

Angevin innovation, or a medieval white elephant?

Dover Castle, as seen from the north-east: a view that emphasises the visual effect of the layering from great tower to forebuilding, then the roofs of the inner bailey buildings, the blank towers of the inner bailey curtain wall, and finally the outer bailey, all speaking of strength, might, and wealth. CREDIT: Historic England Archive

Dover’s massive castle, rising in tiers above the harbour to the crest of the hill above the town, looks like the very model of a medieval fortification – but, as a new book reveals, it has some very odd features indeed. Chris Catling reports on the efforts of English Heritage and Historic England, as well as castle specialists and medieval historians, to explain this extraordinary monument.

As reported in CA 376, everything changed for Henry II on 29 December 1170 when Thomas Becket, his former friend and Chancellor, and by then Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his own cathedral. Pilgrims flocked to Becket’s shrine not just from ‘every shires ende of Engelond’, according to Chaucer, but also from the Low Counties and the Baltic, from Iceland and Sweden, and from the different parts of what is now France.

As Canterbury joined the international roster of established pilgrimage destinations – along with Jerusalem, Rome, Compostela, and St Davids – the shrine also received monarchs and Holy Roman Emperors, bishops and archbishops, counts, dukes, barons, and ambassadors. Dover, until then a minor port with a castle of no great significance, now grew to prominence as a reception point for foreign dignitaries at the symbolic entrance point to Henry’s English kingdom. Henry II invested heavily in the transformation of the castle, undertaking a rebuilding so complete that it has removed all visible traces of the earlier pre-Norman fortifications (dating from the 1050s) and the Iron Age hillfort that had previously crowned the high ground above the harbour.

The approach from the north was designed to impress visitors with the power and strength of the massing. The effect was emphasised by the lack of windows or loopholes in the towers, and by placing two towers close together to flank the passage through the King’s Gate into the inner bailey. CREDIT: Paul Pattison

The choice of Dover as a place of reception was not an obvious one, despite its location commanding the shortest sea-crossing between England and the Continent. The principal ports on the opposite side of the Strait of Dover – Wissant and Boulogne – were located in the territory of potential enemies: the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne. Landing at ports controlled by rival claimants to the lands ruled by Henry II, which included large parts of France, would have been hazardous. In his chapter in the newly published volume, The Great Tower of Dover Castle, Nicholas Vincent calculates that Southampton and Portsmouth were the favoured points of arrival and departure on the English side for the 36 cross-Channel voyages that Henry II is recorded as having taken during his lifetime (six before and 30 after his coronation). On the French side, Barfleur and Cherbourg were safe choices for a king of England who was also Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine. John Gillingham argues that not only was Dover relatively unimportant as a port, and certainly not in the same league as Southampton – the second most heavily taxed port in England after London, with merchants growing rich through their dominance of the cross-Channel wine trade – but Kent as a whole was not a county much visited by English monarchs. For Henry II in particular, whose legs were bowed from endless days spent on horseback, whose favoured dress was the cap, boots, and light apparel of the huntsman, and who was rarely without a sword, spear, or bow in his hand, according to contemporary chroniclers, Kent was greatly deficient in royal forest.

Terry Ball’s cutaway image reconstructs the great tower from the south-east, showing that access was restricted to a narrow flight of steps on the southern front, then a right turn to face a chapel decorated with arches and capitals resembling those at the rebuilt Canterbury cathedral; here there was an opportunity for those visiting Dover on pilgrimage to pray before climbing the heavily defended steps and landings up the eastern flank of the castle to the ornate entrance of the ‘king’s hall’. CREDIT: Historic England Archive


As a result of this lack of royal interest, there was no house there suitable for the accommodation of a king and his retinue, and this became apparent on more than one occasion. The first was when Count Philip of Flanders turned up at Dover on 20 April 1177 and proceeded to Canterbury to visit Becket’s shrine. Henry went to meet his sometime rival and doubtful ally; they spent a night in Canterbury, and when Henry accompanied Philip back to Dover he spent the night of 22/23 April, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, at the castle above the port. But the next day, he celebrated Easter together with his earls and barons at ‘a certain vill called Wi [Wye]’, which the chronicler Roger of Howden goes on to describe to his readers, assuming they will not be familiar with the name of this rural manor. Wye might well have been the only place suitable in Kent for holding the king’s Easter Court, and it highlighted the lack of a place of sufficient capacity and dignity for one of the nation’s great court feasts.

That fact was further highlighted when King Louis VII of France decided to pay a visit to Becket’s shrine in 1179 after his only son and heir, the 12-year-old Philip, fell dangerously ill. The news that the French king was on his way took Henry by surprise. He rode through the night to greet Louis and his huge entourage, which included numerous French barons and counts, when they landed on Dover beach on 22 August. After accommodating the French party at Dover for the night in various billets, Henry accompanied Louis to Canterbury and they spent the next night together in a vigil at Becket’s tomb. They spent a further night as guests of the Canterbury monks, before returning to Dover for Louis’ last night on English soil. He and his numerous supporters sailed for Wissant on 26 August.

An aerial view showing the great tower and its ‘girdle’: the inner bailey curtain wall, with its 14 towers and the many service buildings, halls, and chambers built against its inside. It has been suggested that the wall follows the alignment of an Iron Age hillfort. CREDIT: Historic England Archive

Thus passed what has been described as the first state visit in English history, and Henry might well have concluded as a result that he needed to invest in suitable accommodation, if visits of this nature were to become a regular occurrence. He needed to turn Dover into a place where he could provide suitably regal hospitality and maximise the opportunities for diplomacy. The pipe rolls recording Henry II’s household expenditure showed that Henry began investing large sums in Dover Castle within a month of Louis’ visit. Nicholas Vincent cautions against treating exchequer records as an accurate and comprehensive account of royal expenditure in any one year, because large lump sums were handed to the monarch and we have no record of how they were used. Even so, it is clear that the £6,000 that Henry spent from this time onwards ranked Dover Castle as the most expensive secular building project of his reign.

The money was spent on building a great tower of massive proportions, surrounded by an inner bailey curtain wall with 14 towers and two gateways – described in the accounts as the ‘girdle around the tower’ – and the many service buildings, halls, and chambers constructed against the inner side of the wall. Tower and curtain wall were built of the same materials. White limestone imported from Caen in Normandy was used for quoins, string courses, and door and window surrounds. It was also used on the great tower to create horizontal bands of white ashlar masonry alternating with rubble masonry in grey Kentish ragstone. This was quarried from outcrops along the shoreline between Dover and Folkstone, and mixed with flint nodules sourced from local beaches. The wall core was made of ragstone rubble and flint, all bonded with slow-curing non-hydraulic lime mortar brought by boat from Gravesend and mixed on site with greensand. The white banding, which has survived best on the northern flank of the tower, but which once wrapped three of the sides, was probably intended to make the tower shine out in the sunlight, making it more visible from afar and thus impressing visitors as they approached Dover from the sea.

A reconstruction drawing of the southern flank of the great tower in the 12th century, showing the white Caen stone banding contrasting with the grey Kentish ragstone. Overlooking the entrance steps at second-floor level is evidence for a wide doorway that may have led to a balcony from which guests could be greeted. CREDIT: Historic England Archive

Also contributing to the dignity and aesthetic appeal of the castle is the carefully planned use of the natural contours of the hill to create a tiered appearance, with the great tower standing on the crown of the hill, rising high above the east-facing forebuilding and the curtain wall. This layered effect was later enhanced by the construction of the outer curtain wall (the precise date for which has yet to be established) on a lower terrace. Though the scale of the subsequent earth-moving has obliterated earlier structures, including any earlier castles, it has been plausibly conjectured that this terracing was influenced by the ramparts of an Iron Age hillfort, which may well have encircled the hill before the present castle was built. In any event, it remains an impressive prospect, even if the full visual impact was blunted by the reduction in height of the mural towers and battlements in the 18th century.  

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 377. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.