This week: Castles

Dover Castle. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Michael Coppins.

The most expensive secular building of its day, Dover Castle was described by the 13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris as ‘the key of England’. But though its imposing fortifications tower over the shortest sea crossing between Britain and the European mainland, it wasn’t built in response to any threat of imminent foreign invasion.

Instead, its construction in the years after the murder of Thomas Beckett in 1170 owed more to the growing numbers of foreign dignitaries who had begun to make the pilgrimage across the Channel to Canterbury to pay their respects to the slain archbishop.

As we learn this week on The Past, the visit of one such VIP was to prove particularly significant. When, in 1179, Louis VII – the King of France himself – decided to make the trip, his English counterpart (and long-time rival) Henry II was embarrassed that he had no suitable venue on the Kentish coast in which to impress his guest with a display of regal hospitality.

Within a month of Louis’ return to France – after what was, in effect, the first ever state visit in English history – money was being poured into Dover as Henry responded to the burgeoning Beckett cult by creating the building that still watches over the town today. In the new issue of our sister magazine Current Archaeology, we tell the story of Dover Castle’s construction, and throw light on the efforts of historians and specialists to explain its significance.

Continuing this week’s Castles theme, we’ve also been delving into the archives to remind you of some of the most enlightening coverage from past issues of Current Archaeology: we went behind the scenes at Windsor to explore the castle’s rich history and to examine how it has changed with each monarch; we visited Bamburgh to tell its story and to examine the work done there by Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, the legendary eccentric who conducted the first systematic excavation of the site; and we even questioned some of our own long-held assumptions, catching up with a new generation of castleologists who believe these buildings are about much more than trebuchets, portcullises and the pouring of boiling oil.

Elsewhere, we’ve also been marking the 80th anniversary this week of Operation Barbarossa, the largest military invasion in history and the turning point of the Second World War. In a special feature in the latest issue of our sister magazine Military History Matters, David Porter presented his two-part analysis of this most momentous of military campaigns, while in a recent edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, MHM editor Neil Faulkner gave his take on Barbarossa, and explained how Hitler’s hubris paved the way for the operation’s ultimate failure.

Also this week on The Past, we return to Dover Castle for the latest edition of our PastCast podcast (from 25 June), in which our expert Chris Catling tells Calum Henderson more about the history of this extraordinary edifice, and asks: was it really an Angevin innovation, or just a medieval white elephant?

And finally, if you are still hungry for more castle-related coverage, why not have a go at our fiendish quiz, which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of fortified structures. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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