Stunning, strategic, and rich in over 2000 years of history, the fortification overlooking the Straits of Dover, the shortest crossing between England and the continent of Europe, is a mixture of design elements from the Iron Age all the way to World War II. Visitors to the site can view prehistoric earthworks, a Roman lighthouse, a Saxon church, a rectangular Norman keep, medieval concentric defences, Henry VIII’s Moat Bulwark, and secret tunnels constructed during World War II. Dover Castle has weathered many storms, serving as Guardian of England from its perch above the White Cliffs.
The Dover Castle we recognize today began its development during the reign of King Henry II. It was designed by the king’s architect, Maurice. The rectangular keep is known as the Great Tower since it is the largest in Britain. At the time it was built, it was the largest in Europe. It contained four great rooms, 20 ft. x 50 ft. each, and 12 smaller rooms approximately 10 ft x 15 ft. which were built into the unusually thick walls.
In order to enter the four-storey keep, one passes through a large building with an impressive
staircase and two chapels – the Norman upper chapel, and the Gothic style lower chapel. This building, which wraps around the south-eastern corner of the keep, forms a partial inner defence around which are two concentric walls. Most of the other buildings which were part of the inner bailey are no longer intact, having been replaced by later construction, but the ruins of some can still be seen.
Embedded in the inner wall were ten rectangular towers, as well as gatehouses to the north (King’s Gate) and south (Palace Gate), each with two large towers. The entrances to Dover Castle were further defended by barbicans. Henry II also began the construction of the outer curtain wall. In this concentric design, Henry and Maurice anticipated other concentric castles in Britain by about 100 years.
The outer curtain wall was completed by King John in the early 13th century. A total of twenty individual towers of various shapes (round, square, and D-shaped) allowed defence of the long outer wall. Later, the King’s Gate, which had been largely destroyed during King John’s conflict with the barons, was replaced by Norfolk Towers. A new gate was constructed to contain quarters for the constable of Dover Castle. The Constable’s Gate was composed of several round towers of different sizes, two of which join over the entranceway to provide access for defenders.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Dover Castle is the network of tunnels which were dug into the White Cliffs during the Napoleonic War and expanded during World War II. The tunnels played a critical role in British history as the centre of operations during the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk in May 1940. There was even a hospital inside the tunnels to meet the medical needs of the soldiers, many of whom had been wounded as they were forced off the Continent by German troops.
Dover Castle is owned by English Heritage and is open to the public on most days. Guided tours of the tunnels are available but the number of visitors is limited, so be sure to arrive early. For more information, please visit the Dover Castle page from English Heritage.