2000 years ago, Dover Castle was at the edge of the kingdom. This is where Julius Caesar first landed his legions and here on Dover’s eastern heights they built an incredible structure that is still standing today. Today it has towers, gatehouses and a wall around it a mile long. In the middle of it stands a massive stone keep. In its time, this gigantic castle has kept Britain safe from the French Emperor Napoleon to Adolph Hitler. But the story of Dover Castle starts long before that.
When William the Conqueror invaded England and ransacked the Saxon fort, he was quick to realise just how important Dover was. But the credit for rebuilding the massive stone fortress we see here today has to go to William’s grandson, Henry II who ruled for 30 years. He’s the one who added the foundations of the castle as it is today. He built what is still the centrepiece of Dover, called the Great Baily, together with 14 defensive towers protecting all of the most important castle keeps ever constructed. The Great Tower.
Henry was the big dog in Medieval England and he loved building castles and although it was a fortress, it was also a palace on which no expense was spared. Inside were palatial suites for entertaining guests as well as himself. On the second floor was his retreat. His chapel. Henry spent a lot of time here after the brutal murder of his best friend and councillor, Thomas Beckett. You see, Henry felt responsible.
Their friendship blew up in a rather spectacular fashion when Henry appointed Beckett the Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking Beckett would help him in his fight with the church. But instead, Beckett remained firm to his church.
Henry’s angry words were spoken without intent, but it sent his knights to Canterbury with murderous intent in Dec 1170. Beckett was unarmed in the Cathedral but the knights murdered him anyway. It was certainly the worst thing Henry could have done because instantly, Beckett was regarded as a martyr. Beckett became a saint two years later while Henry became a hated man, repenting here in his chapel until his death.
Henry built Dover into a great military fortress and it was just as well he did. These walls would face their first great challenge during the reign of Britain’s most despised monarchs, King John. He alienated his subjects and imposed crippling taxes, waging war on the barons. They finally rebelled against him in 1215 and the country erupted into civil war. The nobles offered King Louis of France the crown of England and Louis immediately lay siege. While John hunkered down in Dover Castle, Louis arranged his forces on a hill north of the castle and catapulted Dover Castle. But Dover held firm. Louis’ thought was to change strategy and instead of going over the walls, he decided to go under – through the white limestone cliffs beneath the foundation of the castle.
Nine months later, frustrated that he could not break through despite extensive tunnelling, the nobles withdrew their offer from Louis just after King John died of dysentery and his young son became king. Louis left England angry and frustrated, determined that the English would regret their actions.
Those same tunnels came in handy in 1803 when Britain was at war with France again. Napoleon was on the march across Europe but his eyes were firmly fixed on Dover.
130,000 men gathered across the channel with one purpose – the invasion of England – and once again Dover Castle was at the heart of English history. Dover was transformed into a modern fortress, building towers and filling them with heavy artillery. But there was one big problem. Britain had troops but there was nowhere to put them. Until they remembered the tunnels. By 1805, the threat had thankfully passed with Napoleon’s retreat.
For the next 130 years, the castle remained unchallenged but the threat of invasion returned, not from France but this time from Germany. In May 1940, the British army was facing almost complete annihilation on the beaches of Dunkirk where almost 400,000 allied troops were surrounded by Adolf Hitler’s German army, closing in for the kill.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill needed a rescue mission and the man he chose to head it was Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay and his headquarters needed to be as close as possible to Dunkirk. Once again Dover Castle became the key to the war because the tunnels expanded during the Napoleonic wars were still a secret to the outside world.
They were transformed into Ramsay’s military command centre for Operation Dynamo to evacuate the troops out of Dunkirk as fast as possible and an almost impossible task took place on 20th May 1940. The evacuation began.
From deep below the castle in his bunker, Ramsay gave the order for Operation Dynamo to begin and 35 destroyers set out in fear, panic and chaos for Dunkirk 47 miles away.
Within 3 days, the English people had rallied together and the fleet had swollen with private boats, speed boats and yachts all heading for Dunkirk to help. Their job was to pick up the troops and take them to the larger ships and then return to the beaches for more troops. In the end, on 1st June, the last of the troops were evacuated. Instead of the estimation of saving 45,000 troops, 328,226 people were saved and that incredible spirit probably changed the course of the war. ‘We shall never surrender’ Winston Churchill said in a broadcast 3 days later and England listened raptly.
Admiral Bertram Ramsay never saw the end of the Second World War or celebrated the victory he had been instrumental in bringing about. He died shortly before the end but his part is still remembered today.
In history, Dover has contributed more to the defence of Britain than any other castle. From Roman lighthouse to Saxon Force to the greatest, most formidable castle of the middle ages. From royal palace to underground bunker and one of the most ingenious military bases of the 20th century, Dover Castle remains a testament to Britain’s determination, resilience and bravery. And more.
If castle walls could talk.