From earliest times, Dover was the gateway between England and the European continent. Dover Castle is one of England’s most castle-like castles, partially because no monarch or artistocrat ever endeavored to transform it into a plush residence, but also because its strategic location made it militarily vital as late as the 20th century, long after every other castle in England was obsolete. As a fortification, Dover Castle is in nearly pristine condition, and features state-of-the-art military architecture from centuries of improvements, including a vast network of underground tunnels developed during the Napoleanic and World Wars. For those who want to experience a no-nonsense fortress without the regal trappings, Dover is the place to visit.
Dover may be the most ancient of all castle sites in Britain. It was the location of the first Roman fortifications in the British Isles, probably constructed in the 1st century AD, and was used by the Celts even earlier than that. Of the original Roman construction, only an ancient lighthouse remains. However, ensuing construction at the site followed the Roman pattern and incorporated some of the Roman foundations. The site was later adopted for use by the Saxons, who rebuilt and maintained fortifications there long after the Romans were gone. It is possible that Dover was the strongest castle of the Saxons, who were not famous for their castles. Nevertheless, it was seized by the Normans in 1066 AD without too much effort.
The Normans fortified the site in turn, but it was not until a century later when Henry II decided to rebuild a substantially larger and more modern castle. Most of what remained of older Roman and Saxon structures were removed, though the Church of St. Mary de Castro, a 10th century Saxon building, was spared. Most of the castle as it is today was built by Henry II, and the timing couldn’t have been better. A few decades after it was completed, Dover Castle was responsible for foiling an attempted French invasion of England. Because of this event, Dover’s strategic importance was considered more vital then ever, and in the 13th century considerable additional defenses were added.
After the development of gunpowder, most castles around Europe were suddenly obsolete; but Dover was considered so key to the defense of England from its continental neighbors that its fortifications continued to be upgraded with every new advance in weaponry. Unfortunately, Dover still proved vulnerable to subterfuge. By this means Dover Castle fell into the hands of the Parliamentarians of Oliver Cromwell, the only time since the Normans that Dover was conquered. During Napolean’s rise to power, Dover Castle was massively refortified, this time with a large complex of tunnels that could house an enormous garrison. Nearly 2,000 English soldiers hunkered down beneath Dover Castle during the Napoleanic Wars, but thanks to the English fleet, the castle never saw action.
That changed a century later, when Dover became a vital communications center between England and France during the two World Wars. During the Blitz, Dover Castle was caught in the thick of things. It once again became vital to the defense of Britain, and its tunnels modernized for 20th century military use. Dover Castle was the command center for the coordination of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Later it was used a major intelligence center for the war effort, including espionage, counter-espionage, and the dissemination of propaganda into the occupied countries. Officially Dover Castle is still a quasi-military installation under the jurisdiction of the Warden of the Cinque Ports.
Dover Castle enjoys a commanding position over the town, with a broad view of the English Channel. The castle, built directly at the top of cliffs, is protected by a broad outer wall enclosing the hill-top. Access to the castle is via an ancient tower known as Peverell’s Gateway. There are also a number of outer bastions, bunkers that were built in the early 20th century. And gun batteries around the castle, displaying weaponry from 18th century cannons to 20th century anti-aircraft guns. Inside the main wall can be found the keep, as well as two structures of antiquity: the Roman Lighthouse, and the Church of St. Mary de Castro. The Lighthouse dates from the 2nd century AD, and is one of only two intact Roman lighthouses in the world. The church is one of the best-preserved surviving Saxon structures in England. It replaced an even older church that may have dated back to pre-Saxon times.
The Keep is one of the finest early medieval structures in England. It houses a number of exhibits, including arms and armor. Dover Castle’s most memorable feature is the subterranean network of tunnels and rooms dating from the Napoleanic and Nazi Germany periods. The earlier tunnels were designed to house and accommodate thousands of troops which were available on a moments notice to repel an invasion of French armies landing in southern England. The more interesting tunnels are the Secret Wartime Tunnels, developed during World War II for a variety of functions. These tunnels have been restored and preserved as an exhibit. Highlights include recreations of the commincations and war rooms.
Dover Castle is located on a hilltop overlooking the town and the seam, approximately fifty miles southeast of London. It is open to the public every day of the year except for Tuesdays and Wednesdays from November to January. From April to June the Castle is open from 10:00am-6:00pm; from July to August from 9:30am-6:30pm; in September from 10:00am-5:00pm; and from October-March from 10:00am-4:00pm. Web: www.english-heritage.org.uk (official site).
Dover is the only significant castle in the Cinque Port region to survive to the present day. Most of the others were long gone by the 19th century, and the remainder were flattened during World War II, including Dover’s twin across the English Channel in Calais. However, the road from London to Dover is still guarded by the Walls of Canterbury, which still boasts a formidable gatehouse.