Interpretation of the great tower of Dover Castle

An Angevin innovation, or a medieval white elephant?

Dover Castle, seen from the north-east: a view that emphasizes the visual effect of the superposition of the large tower on the front-building, then the roofs of the buildings in the inner courtyard, the empty towers from the inner curtain wall of the inner courtyard, and finally the outer bailey facade, all speaking of strength, power and wealth. CREDIT: Historical Archives of England

The massive Dover Castle, rising in steps above the harbor to the top 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 strange characteristics. Chris Catling reports on the efforts of English Heritage and Historic England, as well as medieval castles and historians, to explain this extraordinary monument.

As stated in California 376, everything changed for Henry II on December 29, 1170 when Thomas Becket, his former friend and chancellor, and then Archbishop of Canterbury, was assassinated in his own cathedral. Pilgrims flocked to Becket Sanctuary not only from “all the counties of Engelond,” according to Chaucer, but also from the Netherlands and the Baltic, Iceland and Sweden, and various parts of what is today. hui France.

As Canterbury joined the international list of established pilgrimage destinations – along with Jerusalem, Rome, Compostela and St Davids – the shrine also received Holy Roman monarchs and emperors, bishops and archbishops, counts, dukes , barons and ambassadors. Dover, until then a small port with an unimportant castle, has now established itself as a reception point for foreign dignitaries at the symbolic entry point to Henry’s English kingdom. Henry II invested heavily in the transformation of the castle, undertaking a reconstruction so complete that he removed all visible traces of the first pre-Norman fortifications (dating from the 1050s) and of the Iron Age hill that previously had crowned the heights above the harbor.

The northern approach was designed to impress visitors with the might and strength of the mass. The effect was accentuated by the absence 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 courtyard. CREDIT: Paul Pattison

The choice of Dover as a place of reception was not obvious, despite its location commanding the shortest sea crossing between England and the continent. The main ports across the Strait of Pas de Calais – Wissant and Boulogne – were located in the territory of potential enemies: the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne. Landing in ports controlled by rival suitors on the lands ruled by Henry II, which included large parts of France, would have been dangerous. In his chapter of the newly published volume, The great tower of Dover Castle, Nicholas Vincent calculates that Southampton and Portsmouth were the preferred points of arrival and departure on the English side for the 36 cross-Channel voyages that Henry II is recorded as having made 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 enriching themselves from 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 after endless days spent on horseback, whose favorite outfit was the hunter’s cap, boots and light clothing, and who was rarely without a sword, lance or bow in his hand, According to contemporary chroniclers, Kent was sorely lacking a royal forest.

Terry Ball’s cross-sectional image reconstructs the large south-eastern tower, showing that access was limited to a narrow staircase on the southern front, then to a right turn to face a chapel decorated with arches and capitals resembling those of the reconstructed Canterbury Cathedral; here there was an opportunity for those visiting Dover on a pilgrimage to pray before climbing the heavily defended steps and landings of the castle’s eastern flank to the ornate entrance to the “king’s hall”. CREDIT: Historical Archives of England

A REGAL RESIDENCE

Due to this lack of royal interest, there was no suitable house there for the lodging of a king and his retinue, and this has manifested itself on more than one occasion. The first was when Count Philippe of Flanders arrived in Dover on April 20, 1177 and traveled to Canterbury to visit the sanctuary of Becket. Henry went to meet his dubious rival and ally; they spent a night in Canterbury, and when Henry accompanied Philippe back to Dover, he spent the night of April 22/23, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, at the castle above the port. But the next day he celebrated Easter with his earls and barons at ‘a certain vill called Wi [Wye]’, which columnist Roger de Howden then describes to his readers, assuming they do not know the name of this rural mansion. Wye may well have been the only suitable location in Kent to hold the King’s Easter Court, and this highlighted the lack of a venue of sufficient capacity and dignity for one of the major feasts. country court.

This fact was further highlighted when King Louis VII of France decided to visit the sanctuary at Becket in 1179 after his only son and heir, Philippe, 12, fell seriously ill. The news that the King of France was on his way took Henri by surprise. He drove through the night to greet Louis and his huge entourage, which included many French barons and counts, when they landed on Dover beach on August 22. After hosting the French group in Dover for the night in various lodgings, Henry accompanied Louis to Canterbury and they spent the next night together in a vigil at Becket’s grave. They spent an additional night as guests of the Canterbury monks, before returning to Dover for Louis’ last night on English soil. He and his many supporters sailed for Wissant on August 26.

An aerial view showing the great tower and its “belt”: the inner curtain, with its 14 towers and the many service buildings, halls and rooms built against its interior. It has been suggested that the wall follows the alignment of an Iron Age fort. CREDIT: Historical Archives of England

So happened what has been described as the first state visit in English history, and Henry might well have concluded that he needed to invest in suitable accommodation, if visits of this nature were to become a regular event. He was to make Dover a place where he could offer proper royal hospitality and maximize opportunities for diplomacy. Pipe rolls recording Henry II’s household expenses showed that Henry began investing large sums in Dover Castle within a month of Louis’s visit. Nicholas Vincent cautions against treating the chessboard registers as an accurate and complete account of royal spending over the course of a year, as large lump sums have been remitted to the monarch and we have no record of the way they were used. Even so, it is clear that the £ 6,000 spent by Henry from this time onwards ranked Dover Castle as the most expensive secular building project of his reign.

The money was spent on the construction of a large tower of massive proportions, surrounded by an interior curtain wall with 14 towers and two entrance gates – described in the accounts as the “belt around the tower” – and the many service buildings, halls and chambers built against the inner side of the wall. The tower and the curtain wall were built with the same materials. White limestone imported from Caen in Normandy was used for corner chains, cords, and door and window frames. It was also used on the great tower to create horizontal bands of white ashlar masonry alternating with Kent gray ragstone rubble masonry. This was mined from outcrops along the shore between Dover and Folkstone, and mixed with flint nodules from local beaches. The core of the wall was ragstone and flint rubble, all bound with slow-hardening, non-hydraulic lime mortar brought by boat from Gravesend and mixed in place with green sand. The white stripe, which has survived best on the north side of the tower, but which once wrapped around three of the sides, was probably intended to make the tower shine in the sun, making it more visible from afar and thus impress visitors when they were seated. ‘is approached from Dover by sea.

A reconstruction drawing of the south flank of the great tower in the 12th century, showing the white Caen stone band contrasting with the gray Kentish ragstone. Overlooking the entrance steps at the second floor level is a wide door which may have led to a balcony from which guests could be greeted. CREDIT: Historical Archives of England

The carefully planned use of the natural contours of the hill to create a stepped appearance also contributes to the dignity and aesthetic appeal of the castle, with the tall tower rising to the top of the hill, rising above the east facing forebuilding and curtain wall. This layered effect was then reinforced by the construction of the exterior curtain wall (the exact date of which has not yet been established) on a lower terrace. Although the scale of subsequent earthworks erased earlier structures, including earlier castles, it was presumably assumed that these terraces were influenced by the ramparts of an Iron Age fort, which may well have encircled the hill before the current castle was built. In any case, it remains an impressive prospect, although the full visual impact was blunted by the reduction in the height of wall towers and battlements in the 18th century.


This is an excerpt from an article in California 377. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The past, which details all of the magazine’s content. At The Past you can read each article in its entirety as well as the content of our other magazines, Current world archeology, Neck brace, and Military history questions.


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About Douglas Mackenzie

Douglas Mackenzie

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