Interpreting Dover Castle’s great tower: Angevin innovation, or a medieval white elephant?

Dover’s massive castle, rising in tiers above the harbour to the crest 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 odd features indeed. Current Archaeology's Chris Catling reports on the efforts of English Heritage and Historic England, as well as castle specialists and medieval historians, to explain this extraordinary monument.


As reported in CA 376, everything changed for Henry II on 29 December 1170 when Thomas Becket, his former friend and Chancellor, and by then Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his own cathedral. Pilgrims flocked to Becket’s shrine not just from ‘every shires ende of Engelond’, according to Chaucer, but also from the Low Counties and the Baltic, from Iceland and Sweden, and from the different parts of what is now France.

Dover Castle, as seen from the north-east: a view that emphasises the visual effect of the layering from great tower to forebuilding, then the roofs of the inner bailey buildings, the blank towers of the inner bailey curtain wall, and finally the outer bailey, all speaking of strength, might, and wealth.

As Canterbury joined the international roster of established pilgrimage destinations – along with Jerusalem, Rome, Compostela, and St Davids – the shrine also received monarchs and Holy Roman Emperors, bishops and archbishops, counts, dukes, barons, and ambassadors. Dover, until then a minor port with a castle of no great significance, now grew to prominence as a reception point for foreign dignitaries at the symbolic entrance point to Henry’s English kingdom. Henry II invested heavily in the transformation of the castle, undertaking a rebuilding so complete that it has removed all visible traces of the earlier pre-Norman fortifications (dating from the 1050s) and the Iron Age hillfort that had previously crowned the high ground above the harbour.

The choice of Dover as a place of reception was not an obvious one, despite its location commanding the shortest sea-crossing between England and the Continent. The principal ports on the opposite side of the Strait of Dover – Wissant and Boulogne – were located in the territory of potential enemies: the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne. Landing at ports controlled by rival claimants to the lands ruled by Henry II, which included large parts of France, would have been hazardous. In his chapter in the newly published volume, The Great Tower of Dover Castle (see ‘Further reading’ on p.35), Nicholas Vincent calculates that Southampton and Portsmouth were the favoured points of arrival and departure on the English side for the 36 cross-Channel voyages that Henry II is recorded as having taken 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.

The approach from the north was designed to impress visitors with the power and strength of the massing. The effect was emphasised by the lack 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 bailey.

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 growing rich through 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 from endless days spent on horseback, whose favoured dress was the cap, boots, and light apparel of the huntsman, and who was rarely without a sword, spear, or bow in his hand, according to contemporary chroniclers, Kent was greatly deficient in royal forest.

A regal residence

As a result of this lack of royal interest, there was no house there suitable for the accommodation of a king and his retinue, and this became apparent on more than one occasion. The first was when Count Philip of Flanders turned up at Dover on 20 April 1177 and proceeded to Canterbury to visit Becket’s shrine. Henry went to meet his sometime rival and doubtful ally; they spent a night in Canterbury, and when Henry accompanied Philip back to Dover he spent the night of 22/23 April, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, at the castle above the port. But the next day, he celebrated Easter together with his earls and barons at ‘a certain vill called Wi [Wye]’, which the chronicler Roger of Howden goes on to describe to his readers, assuming they will not be familiar with the name of this rural manor. Wye might well have been the only place suitable in Kent for holding the king’s Easter Court, and it highlighted the lack of a place of sufficient capacity and dignity for one of the nation’s great court feasts.

Terry Ball’s cutaway image reconstructs the great tower from the south-east, showing that access was restricted to a narrow flight of steps on the southern front, then a right turn to face a chapel decorated with arches and capitals resembling those at the rebuilt Canterbury cathedral; here there was an opportunity for those visiting Dover on pilgrimage to pray before climbing the heavily defended steps and landings up the eastern flank of the castle to the ornate entrance of the ‘king’s hall’.

That fact was further highlighted when King Louis VII of France decided to pay a visit to Becket’s shrine in 1179 after his only son and heir, the 12-year-old Philip, fell dangerously ill. The news that the French king was on his way took Henry by surprise. He rode through the night to greet Louis and his huge entourage, which included numerous French barons and counts, when they landed on Dover beach on 22 August. After accommodating the French party at Dover for the night in various billets, Henry accompanied Louis to Canterbury and they spent the next night together in a vigil at Becket’s tomb. They spent a further night as guests of the Canterbury monks, before returning to Dover for Louis’ last night on English soil. He and his numerous supporters sailed for Wissant on 26 August.

Thus passed what has been described as the first state visit in English history, and Henry might well have concluded as a result that he needed to invest in suitable accommodation, if visits of this nature were to become a regular occurrence. He needed to turn Dover into a place where he could provide suitably regal hospitality and maximise the opportunities for diplomacy. The pipe rolls recording Henry II’s household expenditure showed that Henry began investing large sums in Dover Castle within a month of Louis’ visit. Nicholas Vincent cautions against treating exchequer records as an accurate and comprehensive account of royal expenditure in any one year, because large lump sums were handed to the monarch and we have no record of how they were used. Even so, it is clear that the £6,000 that Henry spent from this time onwards ranked Dover Castle as the most expensive secular building project of his reign.

An aerial view showing the great tower and its ‘girdle’: the inner bailey curtain wall, with its 14 towers and the many service buildings, halls, and chambers built against its inside. It has been suggested that the wall follows the alignment of an Iron Age hillfort.

The money was spent on building a great tower of massive proportions, surrounded by an inner bailey curtain wall with 14 towers and two gateways – described in the accounts as the ‘girdle around the tower’ – and the many service buildings, halls, and chambers constructed against the inner side of the wall. Tower and curtain wall were built of the same materials. White limestone imported from Caen in Normandy was used for quoins, string courses, and door and window surrounds. It was also used on the great tower to create horizontal bands of white ashlar masonry alternating with rubble masonry in grey Kentish ragstone. This was quarried from outcrops along the shoreline between Dover and Folkstone, and mixed with flint nodules sourced from local beaches. The wall core was made of ragstone rubble and flint, all bonded with slow-curing non-hydraulic lime mortar brought by boat from Gravesend and mixed on site with greensand. The white banding, which has survived best on the northern flank of the tower, but which once wrapped three of the sides, was probably intended to make the tower shine out in the sunlight, making it more visible from afar and thus impressing visitors as they approached Dover from the sea.

Also contributing to the dignity and aesthetic appeal of the castle is the carefully planned use of the natural contours of the hill to create a tiered appearance, with the great tower standing on the crown of the hill, rising high above the east-facing forebuilding and the curtain wall. This layered effect was later enhanced by the construction of the outer curtain wall (the precise date for which has yet to be established) on a lower terrace. Though the scale of the subsequent earth-moving has obliterated earlier structures, including any earlier castles, it has been plausibly conjectured that this terracing was influenced by the ramparts of an Iron Age hillfort, which may well have encircled the hill before the present castle was built. In any event, it remains an impressive prospect, even if the full visual impact was blunted by the reduction in height of the mural towers and battlements in the 18th century.

A reconstruction drawing of the southern flank of the great tower in the 12th century, showing the white Caen stone banding contrasting with the grey Kentish ragstone. Overlooking the entrance steps at second-floor level is evidence for a wide doorway that may have led to a balcony from which guests could be greeted.

Idiosyncratic elements

It is when the authors turn to the great tower’s architectural form that oddities begin to emerge, starting with the archaic nature of the great tower, a building form already some two centuries old in France. Historians have described Dover as old-fashioned at the time of its construction, a white elephant and a dinosaur. This is perhaps true, if Dover’s great tower is considered solely in military terms: castle design in the later 12th century placed much greater emphasis on curtain walls, mural towers, and gatehouses, with the keep playing a less central role, perhaps as a secure storehouse or a last line of retreat in the event of the castle’s capture. But recent scholars have made a strong case for castles both as symbols of lordship and authority, and as spaces for entertaining and ceremonies (see CA 255), and Dover seems to have had both functions – with its sophisticated curtain wall and emphatic great tower.

The great tower was originally built without fireplaces. Those that were inserted at a later date have spandrels decorated with the rose-and-sunburst badge of Edward IV, dating their addition to c.1480.

And Henry II would not be the first or last monarch to see value in employing a long-established building type with ancestral connotations to emphasise continuity and legitimacy. In teasing out the complex symbolism of the great tower, Steven Brindle and Philip Dixon point to the contrasting distribution patterns between cylindrical and polygonal towers and square or oblong keeps. The first were associated with the French royal house and the house of Blois-Champagne, while Henry II’s ancestors, on both the Anglo-Norman and the Angevin sides, tended to build rectilinear towers.

The symbolic significance of the round tower could not be spelled out more clearly than in the habit of Philip II Augustus, King of France from 1180 to 1223, of adding cylindrical towers, known as tours philipiennes, to those castles that he acquired in Anjou and Normandy after the defeat of Henry II’s son John in 1205. His addition of a cylindrical tower to the inner bailey of Henry II’s great castle at Chinon and to Henry I’s square keep at Falaise seem to have been making a pointed statement about who was now in charge.

Cylindrical towers were associated with the French royal house, so Philip II Augustus was making a pointed statement about who was now in charge when he added one to Henry I’s keep at Falaise (Calvados). Photo: David Robinson.

Equally, the sight of a grand square tower rising above the port of Dover might well have been seen by visitors arriving in England from the Continent as an architectural reference by Henry II to his dual heritage and to his grandfather, Henry I, the most important of his ancestors. Henry I was not only a great builder of great towers – at Caen and Falaise, for example, and Bamburgh, Carlisle, and Norwich – but he was also clearly seen by Henry II as the benchmark of legitimacy and propriety. Henry II’s official documents frequently refer to the customs and laws of ‘the time of my grandfather’ as the gold standard of authority.

There are, however, some other idiosyncratic features of the great tower that cannot easily be explained as symbolic. The main rooms on the first and second floors now have fireplaces, as do the two mural chambers on the western side, but these are Perpendicular in style and some bear the rose en soleil (rose and sunburst) emblem of Edward IV (r. 1461-1470 and 1471-1483). The archaeological evidence shows that these were inserted c.1480 by cutting new flues through the massive walls and lining them with brick. There is no evidence at all to suggest that the great tower was originally built with fireplaces, even though other great towers had them. (Indeed, the White Tower at the Tower of London has the earliest surviving fireplaces in Britain.)

The great tower from the south, showing the massive forebuilding to the right and, to the right of that, the red-tiled roof of one of the halls and chambers lining the curtain wall of the inner bailey.

The lack of fireplaces and the implied use of braziers or central hearths relates to another peculiarity of the Dover tower’s original construction, namely the small size, low-level location, and disposition of the windows. The windows lighting the chambers and the chapel could not have ventilated these rooms adequately to remove smoke from any braziers. The windows lighting the main rooms, by contrast, were set very high in their walls so that looking out from them would have been impossible, and these relatively small windows would not have admitted much light. Perhaps that was why almost all the windows were substantially enlarged and their sills lowered in the 15th century.

Political theatre

Dover’s great tower, then, seems to be a pre-eminent example of a building constructed for political and symbolic reasons and for welcoming high-ranking foreign visitors to England, but far from being a light and airy place of reception, it seems to have been dark, cold, and smoky. On the one hand, it is difficult to interpret the thinking behind a way of welcoming visitors that involved all the ceremony and symbolism of a gleaming tower visible from the sea and a long uphill ascent to the great tower, with its three flights of steps leading to the upper floor halls, the balcony (which no longer survives) from which the king may well have greeted his guests, and the chapel on the entrance staircase to remind visitors of the purpose of their pilgrimage – only to end in a dark room lit by a single high window. On the other hand, it is reasonable to suppose that the great tower’s design arose from Henry II’s own commands and preferences, so that none of this can be put down to accident or negligence. The most plausible solution to the conundrum is that the great tower was not so much a place of hospitality as a stage set for whatever ceremonial entrances and exits the king wished to perform.

Today, Dover Castle is open to more than just royal visitors and diplomats. But, in interpreting its halls for modern visitors, the castle team was faced with ‘achingly empty’ large spaces to fill. Left is the western hall; this spartan space could only have come to life when dressed as a stage set and lit with torches, candles, and braziers.

The great tower was, after all, part of a much larger complex, and, despite its enormous scale, could only have accommodated the senior members of court and their guest and attendants, with use being made of the other buildings around the perimeter of the inner bailey for accommodation and catering. With its great walls draped in richly coloured textiles, lit by flames of torches, candles, and braziers, the great tower perhaps served as an atmospheric place apart. In offering this interpretation, Steven Brindle and Philip Dixon draw a comparison between the great tower at Dover and the vast throne room at Aachen in Germany, seat of the Holy Roman Emperors, and with the now-lost castle-palace built c.1155 by the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, with its huge tall tower and high-ceilinged throne room, which also had the windows set high in its walls.

Set-dressing based on archaeological and manuscript evidence has allowed the castle team to create an immersive experience for modern visitors. Here we see the ‘guest hall’ (on the second floor of the great tower), dressed as if for a state banquet, and a lavishly adorned bedroom.

With this in mind, in a concluding chapter in the book, Steven Brindle and Paul Pattison describe the project completed by English Heritage in August 2009 to ‘dress’ the great tower for modern visitors. Appropriately, they say they employed ‘a degree of unashamed theatrical flair’, alongside detailed research, to transform the ‘achingly empty’ and unimpressive shell of the interior into an evocation of Angevin and English royal splendour. The project marked a break with past practice in presenting historic buildings, where much would be left to the imagination of visitors, aided by reconstruction drawings and phased plans. Traditionally, too, monuments in state care have been presented holistically, with no privilege being granted to any one particular period in their histories. On the other hand, the greater immediacy of the castle’s role in the Second World War had drawn attention away from the original medieval scheme, and it was felt by the custodians of the 21st century that the 12th-century significance of the great tower needed to be restated.

Spaces like the ‘king’s hall’ have been transformed from stark walls to a royal stage set, with wall hangings designed by Emily Howe that were based on mural paintings from English and French churches.
This cushion is embroidered with silk peacocks in a design inspired by the 12th-century Islamic-influenced silk shroud of St Sernin in Toulouse, which then formed part of Henry II’s Angevin empire.

One can imagine the agonies of decision and the debates that went on among experts in reaching any kind of consensus. This was, all seem to agree, a building whose very essence, like that of a theatre, was its flexibility, and yet the custodians needed to adopt a moment-in-time interpretation. The building has clearly definable elements: two large halls with adjoining suites of mural chambers on the first and second floor, which are now presented as ‘the king’s floor’ and ‘the guest floor’, while the ground floor is ‘the service floor’, consisting of the king’s private kitchen, brewery, and bakery, and the armoury. Just as in a theatre, stage lighting was installed on high-level tracking to contribute to the drama of the presentation, and some 1,150 items of furniture, wall hangings, pieces of pottery, and replica coins were commissioned and made, their designs based on contemporary descriptions and manuscript illustrations.

Of all these furnishings, it is the textiles that most contribute to the interpretation of the great tower. As no original wall hangings are known to have survived from this period, the designs were based on Emily Howe’s survey of mural paintings in churches across England and France, some of which were clearly intended to represent fictive textile hangings. This survey led to the conclusion that 12th-century decoration commonly told stories (the Bayeux Tapestry being an earlier example), and one wonders exactly what versions of his own story Henry II might have had depicted on his textiles. For this reconstruction, the curators chose episodes from the lives of two English royal saints – Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor – as well as hunting scenes, the Labours of the Months, the Zodiac, and military themes. The only overt reference to Thomas Becket is in the form of the Chapel of St Thomas on ‘the king’s floor’, which has been given a new stained-glass window inspired by the Canterbury cathedral windows depicting the Miracles of St Thomas.

The Chapel of St Thomas Becket with its modern stained-glass windows inspired by the windows of the Corona Chapel (c.1200) at Canterbury cathedral, depicting the miracles attributed to Thomas Becket. This is described in 13th-century documents as ‘the king’s chapel’, as distinct from the public ‘oratory’ at the entrance to the great tower.

The project has transformed an empty building into a luxurious display of colour and elegance, just as Henry II used Dover to transform the Becket cult from a potentially dangerous threat to his own power into a stage-managed assertion of his own sovereignty. Having visited Dover only twice in the first 23 years of his reign, he returned six times in the final 12: on one occasion on his way to Choisy to act as peacemaker between King Philip of France and Count Philip of Flanders, and on others to greet guests who included papal legates, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Archbishops of Rheims and Cologne, the Bishop of Auxerre, the same Count Philip of Flanders, Count Theobold of Blois, the Count of Guines, and many other French nobles. Even when Henry himself was not present at Dover to preside over these ceremonial comings and goings, he was symbolically present in the form of a monument that spoke to every pilgrim arriving in Dover of a powerful ruler to compare in wealth, might, and magnificence with any of the kings, prelates, and emperors of Christendom.

Further reading
Paul Pattison, Steven Brindle, and David M Robinson (eds), The Great Tower of Dover Castle: history, architecture and context, Historic England, £35, ISBN 978-1789622430.
ALL IMAGES: Historic England Archive, unless otherwise stated Right: Paul Pattison.