Dover Castle - History and Facts | History Hit

Dover Castle

Dover, England, United Kingdom

The medieval Dover Castle is one of Britain’s most significant fortresses and has a fascinating and diverse history.

Lily Johnson

15 Apr 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Dover Castle

Dover Castle has been a vitally important fortress throughout British history, and has for many years been nicknamed the ‘Key to England’. Its location is a central aspect of this legacy – perched high on the England’s coastal white cliffs overlooking the shortest crossing between the island and mainland Europe, the castle is often considered the first line of defence from invasion.

Dover Castle history

Before the castle was erected, Dover’s cliffs were a popular site for building strongholds over the centuries, with evidence dating back to the Iron Age. An ancient Roman Lighthouse and an Anglo Saxon fort are also still visible within the castle’s walls.

The first incarnation of Dover Castle itself was built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror who, fresh from his victory at the 1066 Battle of Hastings, likely built a motte and bailey castle at the site. Over the centuries, Dover Castle would be improved, expanded and renovated, and remain continually garrisoned until as late as 1958!

It was King Henry II however who gave Dover Castle its recognisable form as the stone fortress it is today. This took place in the 12th century, with further adaptations being made over time to cope with the castle’s ever-changing threats. In the 13th century it was besieged many times during the Barons’ War against King John, including one such in 1265 in which Eleanor de Montfort was present, and negotiated peace with her nephew, Lord Edward (Henry III’s son).

In the early-modern period Dover Castle was also an important residence for the receipt of foreign guests, including Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1522, Anne of Cleves upon her marriage to Henry VIII in 1539, and Henrietta Maria in 1625 on route to marry Charles I.

The Anglo-Spanish War of 1585 to 1604 led Queen Elizabeth I to ready the castle for attack. And during the Nine Years’ War of 1688-1697 and the War of Spanish Succession of 1701-1714, the castle was converted into a prison to hold Spanish captives.

One of the most interesting parts of Dover Castle is also its labyrinth of underground passages. Designed by William Twiss and constructed within the cliffs themselves in the 18th century, these underground tunnels and barracks were intended to defend Britain from a perceived threat of invasion during the Napoleonic Wars.

Despite never being needed for this purpose, the tunnels have proved eminently useful in other endeavours, including as secret wartime tunnels during World War Two after being adapted to become bomb-proof. Dover Castle’s tunnels continued to play a military role and, in what is known as their finest hour, they formed a base during the Dunkirk evacuations in 1940.

During the Cold War, the castle was chosen as a back-up seat of government, one of 12 sites across Britain selected in the 1960s to host ministers should nuclear war break out. The castle’s underground tunnels were repurposed into secure sleeping, dining and working quarters. And the entire site was made air-tight, capable of filtering the oxygen supply in case of nuclear fallout.

The castle’s bunker was closed in the 1980s.

Dover Castle today

Today, Dover Castle is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public, providing a fascinating insight into the fortress’ history. Visitors can explore the medieval castle and its underground tunnels, viewing numerous exhibitions which immerse them in the lives of Dover Castle’s former inhabitants and tell its fascinating story.

Much of this extremely well-preserved castle has been restored to its original state or shows what it would have been like at different points in history, offering a truly authentic experience. Fans of ancient history can also view the well-preserved Roman Lighthouse nearby, and guided tours are available around the site.

Getting to Dover Castle

Dover Castle is located in Dover, Kent on the A258, and can be reached via the A2. There is free parking at the site, and an overflow car park also available with a free connecting mini-bus. Dover Priory train station is 1 mile away, while a number of bus services drop off at the site, including the Stagecoach in East Kent services 15, 15X, 80, 80A, and 93.

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