Dover Castle, Kent: England’s strongest castle

Jack Watkins talks about the history and influence of the Great Tower at Dover Castle, an imposing creation by Henry II that still stands nearly 900 years later.

Dover, located right on the southeast coast of England, has long been considered one of the most strategically important places in the country, since a hill fort was built here in the Iron Age; behind and to its sides are eight miles of high chalk rock rising almost vertically from the sea, interrupted only by the mouth of the Grim River as it flows into the sea. The Romans used the site to build a tall lighthouse, which was later added to the Saxon church. After the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror fortified the castle’s defenses here, possibly by throwing up earthen ramparts around the Saxon church and the Roman lighthouse.

In the 16th century, the faros became a bell tower. Under Henry II, Dover became the first castle in Europe to be protected by concentric rings of high walls studded with towers: a principle of military architecture that was to be maintained until artillery forced the adoption of new defensive methods in the 18th century. Dover Castle, which was actively used for military purposes until the Second World War, remains one of the first attractions to welcome foreign visitors arriving by sea.

Dover Castle has been a landmark in Kent for almost a millennium.

How to visit Dover Castle

Dover Castle is in the heart of Dover itself, close to the city center and the ferry port, making it easily accessible by road and rail. There is free parking for those who do not come on foot.

English Heritage members can get in for free, but otherwise tickets are expensive – £24 for an adult – but as with Stonehenge, there’s nothing to be sorry about: the castle is English Heritage’s main source of income, helping to subsidize countless other sites around the world. country. . In addition to the castle itself, the 80-acre site features wartime tunnels, an underground hospital, a Roman lighthouse, and more. You can find out more at

The imposing gate to Dover Castle.

most powerful castle in england

Was the Norman conquest of England, as the well-known authorities V.K. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman in 1066 and all that, “a good thing” has been widely discussed by scholars. What is certain is that the Normans introduced the castle, a type of monument that in the pure medieval sense as a fortified noble residence was unknown to the Saxon kingdom.

For 100 years after the conquest, in the words of R. Allen Brown, the great historian of the Norman period, castles “stood thickly in every county.” In an effort to build motte-and-bailey castles as quickly as possible, the towers were made of earth and wood, but in the 12th century the use of stone became more common, which meant stronger, thicker walls. fortified walls of a rectangular shape.

It may seem that these clumsy structures represented technological progress. However, in France in 1000 AD, master castle builder Fulk Nerra, Count of Anjou, was already building massive stone fortresses such as Lange on the Loire, the ruins of which still survive today. How appropriate, therefore, that the construction of the most powerful tower in England, the Great Tower of Dover Castle, was not led by a Norman, but by one of the Angevin descendants of Fulk, Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet family, who ascended the English throne in 1154. .

Henry II (1133–1189), first Plantagenet king of England, reigned from 1154 until his death. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Normans built a castle at Dover shortly after William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings, erecting it over a pre-existing Iron Age earthwork on the rocks above the harbour. Little is known of this structure or subsequent additions until Henry II’s costly renovation between 1179 and 1189.

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Henry’s Great Tower, 83 feet high, with corner towers rising 12 feet higher, and with walls up to 21 feet thick, was a formidable citadel. Royal engineer Maurice also built an elaborate system of external structures, including a curtain wall of the courtyard with 14 square towers and two gatehouses. Concentric lines of defense were among the first in Europe; No wonder the chronicler of the 13th century Matthew Paris called the castle “Clavis Angliae” – the key to England.

However, Dover Castle also expressed power and prestige beyond the purely militaristic. By the 1180s, the cult of Saint Thomas Becket had established itself, drawing pilgrims from far and wide to venerate his shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. In the late 1170s, notable visitors included Count Philip of Flanders and Louis VII of France.

Henry, seeing an opportunity to create an impressive royal showcase through which to welcome the continental retinue, invested heavily in the castle’s office space as well as its defensive capabilities. The floors were connected by spiral staircases at the northeast and southwest corners, and the plumbing system was based on an extensive network of lead pipes distributing water obtained from gutters and a 289-foot-deep well.

Aerial view of Dover Castle.

The tower was visually striking from afar: the white Kanese stone used in wide horizontal stripes contrasted with the gray Kentish ragstone, which was also used as a building material. Inside were two chapels, one of which was dedicated to St. Thomas, with decorative stonework on the arches and capitals, as in a cathedral.

Elsewhere decoration was relatively restrained and mostly limited to the halls on the second floor. The tower’s chimneys were a 15th century insert. In 2009 English Heritage refurbished the King’s Hall, the King’s Apartments and other rooms to convey a sense of what they might have looked like in Henry’s time. As historian Kevin Booth says, “With the exception of the late 18th-century brick vaults over the upper halls, the tower remains as conceived and built in the 12th century.”

It was the last of Dover Castle’s mighty rectangular keeps and proved to be one of the most enduring, still looking down from the crest of the hill towards the city, offering an intriguing backdrop for walking along the famous white cliffs.

For the opening hours of Dover Castle, Kent, please visit

The best medieval castles in Britain

They still evoke emotion in the 21st century, but imagine the impact the rectangular castles of the Anglo-Norman period had in their heyday. The first of these built in this country was the White Tower of William the Conqueror in London, originally 90 feet high to the battlements. Supremely protected, it also brought together under one roof the scattered structures of a traditional Continental palace, such as the hall, chapel, and service quarters.

The visceral influence of the White Tower, which was limewashed by Henry III and hence became “white”, is somewhat lessened by its inclusion in what was then known as the Castle of London, and which we now also know as the Tower of London. both through the later addition of domes to the corner towers and the insertion of large windows.

White Tower, Tower of London. 1 credit

The near-modern Colchester Castle in Essex was even larger than the White Tower, but lost its top floor in a failed demolition attempt during the English Civil War.

Colchester Castle. 1 credit

Rochester Castle in Kent, built during the reign of William II (1087-1100), remains the most visually intimidating stone fortress still standing.

Rochester Castle, Kent. 1 credit

These huge structures were expensive to build compared to motte-and-bailey castles. Inevitably, the latter proved less durable, although Berkhamsted Castle in Hertfordshire is an impressive ruin.

Ruins of Berkhamsted Castle in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. 1 credit

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