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Dover Castle, Kent

Roman lighthouse and Saxon church

The site of Dover Castle in Kent has a history that encompasses the entire history of castles. There are iron age ramparts here, constructed when castles consisted of banks and ditches built around hilltops. These castles were often the last refuges for resistance against the Romans when they invaded Britain in 43AD. The Romans themselves built a lighthouse here, part of which still survives. Next to the lighthouse now stands a restored Anglo Saxon church. This church represents the next period in English history, the Saxon invasions that followed the early fifth century Roman withdrawal. The Saxons in their turn had to defend themselves from Scandinavian invasions. Fearing the Scandinavians, a Saxon fortified town was built at the site of Dover Castle.








Looking towards the keep, from a nineteenth century area of Dover Castle

The Norman invasion of 1066 was marked at Dover Castle by fortification work carried out by both King Harold and the man who defeated him, William the Conqueror. None of these works now survive, since they were replaced during the reign of Henry II, 1154 - 1189, by the present stone keep. Henry II built this keep at huge expense between 1180 and 1190, and it is a building which announces a new conception of castles, and in fact of nations. Until this point many castles had been owned by barons who used them to play their own private power games. Henry II had to fight against many such powerful barons during his difficult reign. Theoretically all castles were at the king's disposal, although in practice this wasn't true. By the 1170s Henry was trying to make sure that all castles really were at the king's disposal. All rebel barons who opposed Henry had their castles demolished. Those castles that survived were swapped around amongst loyal barons to make sure than no individual became too closely identified with a castle. Today Dover Castle is a symbol of England, overlooking the Channel, seemingly defending the country. This change from castles as fortresses for individuals to fortifications for a country began during the reign of Henry II. During the reign of Henry's son King John, Dover Castle thwarted an invasion attempt by Prince Louis, son of the French king Philip. The role that Dover Castle played during the Napoleonic Wars and Second World War as an installation for national defence has its beginnings in the reigns of Henry and John.

During the Second World War Dover Castle was an important command centre. Naval operations were run from a secret underground headquarters deep in the chalk cliffs below the castle. It was from here that the evacuation of Dunkirk was organised by Admiral Ramsey in May 1940. The British Army had been pushed back to the coast at Dunkirk, and the only way out was on a flotilla of small boats hastily assembled to cross the Channel and take hundreds of thousands of men off the beaches and back to Britain.


View of the entrance to Dover Harbour from Admiralty Casement

A tour of the underground headquarters takes visitors through a hospital, in which the experience of emergency surgery during an air raid is recreated. This is very affecting, but might not be suitable for children. You will also see the operations rooms which look much as they did during the war. Some of the furniture and equipment is original. The tour ends on the balcony where Admiral Ramsey stood to look at the Channel during the desperate days of the Dunkirk evacuation. It's remarkably moving to stand there, seeing the entrance of Dover harbour in front of you. The balcony is actually built into the white cliffs of Dover, one of the great identifying symbols of Britain. You are standing in a castle that represents a country rather than an individual. Henry II used castles as a symbol of his power, a national power that went beyond even that of his most powerful subjects. Dover Castle was his most expensive castle, and his most ambitious symbol.

There's a nice tea shop too.






Opening Times: Opening hours for English Heritage properties can be complex. Please use contact details below.

Address: Dover Castle, Dover, Kent CT16 1HU

Directions. Dover Castle sits above the town of Dover in Kent. Drive to Dover town centre and follow tourist signs. Click here for an interactive road and satellite map centred on Dover Castle.

Access: Most of the site is accessible to wheelchair users, although there are some rather steep slopes. Mobility scooters are available at the Keep Shop. A lift can be used in the wartime tunnels to avoid difficult stairs. A hearing loop is available with all audio tours. Ask at the Keep Shop.


telephone: 01304 211067

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©2006 InfoBritain (updated 12/12)