Make no mistake, Dover Castle is old, it’s large, and its history is significant.
To provide you with a little background, the castle’s location has lent itself to fortification since possibly as far back as the Iron Age. Certainly before the Romans graced Britain’s shores. Unusual earthworks patterns suggest the existence of some sort of structure that would pre-date medieval castle designs. The site also held one of Dover’s eighty foot Roman lighthouses. And to cap off its pre-castle provenance, the area also shows evidence of a Norman campsite, created most probably during and after their conquest.
Regardless of what had been there before, however, there was certainly a fort in place by the time William the Conqueror made his mark. He was aware of Dover’s Cinque Port status. And though the fort was believed to be impregnable and defended by a large force, William set his sights on it very early in his campaign.
He won via a baptism of fire, and the structure was soon enveloped in flames. However, perhaps due to its strategic importance, he then rebuilt it. A new motte and bailey castle ruled the roost within a short time and, such was its importance, William appointed eight knights to guard it. It’s at this point that the ‘modern’ history of this key defence structure began.
Henry II, King John, and the First Barons’ War
Dover Castle started to ‘take shape’ just before Richard the Lionheart took the throne and the dastardly King John took centre stage. Both inner and outer baileys were built, along with the great keep – which was one of the last rectangular keeps to be built. Maurice, the Engineer, was clearly a diehard angular fan.
By 1216, with a seriously disgruntled set of barons roaming the land, Louis VIII of France decided to join the affray. Royalists loyal to King John were under siege at the Castle. Unfortunately for the rebelling barons, the structure held strong. However, its North Gate did get breached, and once the fracas was over it became incorporated into an underground forward-defence complex. And this unusual slant on things has made Dover Castle a unique beast, for it is the only castle in the world to have a counter tunnel. During the siege in 1216, the tunnel was started by English defenders, who dug out to attack the French. And these medieval works can still be seen today.
Being at the front of progressive development, by the end of the thirteenth century the castle had moved into renewables and boasted a windmill on Tower 22.
The Gunpowder Paradigm
However, by the time the Tudors were in power, armament technology had moved on quite considerably. Henry VIII updated the defences by adding the Moat’s Bulwark. Attack via the harbour had become an increasing threat, and these additional fortifications were intended to provide protection against artillery attack. Incidentally, the Moat’s Bulwark we see today is significantly altered. The original, being of timber construction, was always going to need enhancements and these were indeed added in the seventeen hundreds in the form of reinforced engineering between Archcliffe Fort and the bulwark.
But Dover’s importance isn’t just about defence and discontent. The great French and English astronomical minds of the late eighteenth century combined to carry out cross-channel sightings between the Greenwich and Paris observatories. This work, known as ‘The Anglo-French Survey’, took place 1784 to 1790 and used trigonometric calculations to link the two observatories; work that is still of significance today.
Sadly, though, such academic emphasis was not set to last. The very latter part of the eighteenth century saw further re-fortifying in order to improve Dover’s defences. This included a complete remodelling of the outer fortifications to provide for significantly more gun positions. Various additional bastions were added, plus a raised gun platform. But to top even that, the roof was removed from the keep and replaced with huge brick vaults on which heavy artillery could be mounted. The big guns had come to town…
Dover now held a garrison. Barracks were required, as well as storerooms and other military paraphernalia. A network of cliff tunnels was devised, and by 1803 the first troops were living there. By the height of the Napoleonic wars, over two thousand men were stationed at Dover. And to this day, Dover is the only castle to have had underground barracks in the country.
From Tunnel Vision to Comms Centre
As an extraordinary piece of lateral thinking as they were, the tunnels fell into disuse after the Napoleonic Wars and were abandoned for over a century. It was only the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 that instigated their resurrection first as an air-raid shelter, and then later as a military command centre and underground hospital. The Dunkirk evacuation was directed by Admiral Ramsey from Dover’s cliff tunnels. And a statue of the admiral was erected in 2000 in honour of his role in saving so many lives.
Dover Castle today
With a history as long, varied, and historically significant as it is, it’s no surprise that the castle has earned the status of being a Scheduled Monument, which means it’s a historic building of national importance. These days, it’s owned by English Heritage and earns its keep as a tourist attraction. Millions of pounds have been invested in recreating the interior and it enjoys entertaining and educating hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.