Dover Castle at War – Part 1 – Under Siege

Dover Castle – an impressive fortress situated on the cliff edge of Dover, guarding the country against invasion from the Channel. It has stood for 950 years and in a reference made by Hubert de Burgh in it is ‘the key to the country’. It has withstood sieges in addition to housing thousands of soldiers underground during both the Napoleonic war and was a base for Operation Dynamo in World War Two. Part one – Under Siege of this two-part blog post will look at the origins of Dover  Castle and how it withstood two sieges, even when the odds were against it.


Aerial view of Dover Castle. English Heritage

Dover Castle was begun under the instruction of King Henry II in 1180 (William the Conquer had fortifications constructed on the old Iron age hill fort). It was designed by a man named Maurice the The Ingeniator, who had worked on the keep at Newcastle. He would use every feature at the time on Dover. Dover was a Concentric Castle, the first in Western Europe. It was something that had been brought back by those who had been on a crusade and was in effect a castle within a castle. There was a keep surrounded by two walls, the inside usually being built higher than the first. These walls were great at keeping the new siege engines away from the Keep, which was usually where the lord of the castle would be based, where their great hall would be and more importantly the a siege. The gap in between the two walls became known as a death hole as those caught between the two would most likely face death from the defenders above.

When the Castle was being built, its well was dug 122 down, a very deep hole indeed. As deep as the Salisbury Cathedral tower was high. Such a deep well is an indication that the castle keep was also designed to be used as a potential refuge should it ever been under siege. Dover’s outer cover an area of 4HA, which makes it one of the largest in the British Isles, and its history is clear evidence that such planning and development by its defenders used to their advantage and kept the Castle such an imposing stronghold.

In 1216, Prince Louis of France would attack Dover Castle. He had been invited by a number of English barons at the time to come and take the crown.  They had become unhappy with how King John was ruling the country (known as the Barons War). Prince Louis wasted no time and was quite successful in securing southern England and was  offered the crown in there was a thorn in his side – Dover Castle.

In the words of Dan Jones, ‘if England was Dover was its main gate1]’ and to secure the country one needed Dover. At the time of Louis and the baron’s attempt to overthrown King John, Dover was being managed by a man named Hubert de Burgh and 140 of his knights. Not enough to thwart two attacks on the castle.


Hubert Du Burgh

You see not only was the Castle well built and fortified what really helped in was Hubert himself. A trusted servant to King John he had already proved his worth in holding Johns French Castle of Chinon for a year against Unfortunately, the Chinon was eventually lost when the siege engines came into that was where Dover would triumph, but at first, it seemed that Louis would be the victor.

Louis plan of attack was to head to the Castles weakest point – the north gate. He had stone throwing engines along with miners going underground. Eventually the outer of the castle were captured. Louis luck continued when the eastern tower collapsed because of the mining but things soon changed. Due to the fierce fighting of Hubert’s knights, the hole was soon patched up and the siege continued.


Illustration of the 1216 siege Dover Castle

Then on 14 October, a truce was called due to the death of King John but it Dover again in May the following year. This time he brought with him a siege engine, a Trebuchet named  Malvoisin’ (evil),  and new determination to take Dover Castle. It was during this second siege that Hugh said to his men that Dover is the key to England and that they must hold it even if he himself was captured, to which they did and Louis eventually accepted a settlement offer and went back home to France.


Replica of a Trebuchet (Laura Adkins)

Hubert did not waste any time after the siege. He took what had happened and decided to build a new set of at Dover. The siege had highlighted the strength and weaknesses of the castle, the main weakness being the high ground to the north. He had his men blocked it and it was replaced by the Constables gate (now the main entrance to the castle) beyond that he had a which could only be reached by underground tunnels, which enabled the defenders to control higher ground without exposing themselves. These tunnels still exist altered slightly in the 19 . In total, Hubert spent over £1000 on the new at the castle, which would also now have a garrison of 1000 men a year.


View of Huberts new fortifications (Laura Adkins)

There were many ways to attack a castle in the medieval period and Louis used a number of them to try to take Dover. First, he brought with him a siege engine, which is known as a Perrier. It was a form of a siege engine, which propels a missile from a sling using human muscle weight rather than the later developed which would use a heavy counterweight. Perrier’s were a lot lighter than most siege them more transportable.


Medieval tunnels with the last showing some of the 19th Century adaptations (Laura Adkins)

After using his Perrier, Louis then sent in his miners. What would usually happen is the miners would dig under the castle walls, using wood to prop up the tunnel. When they had reached a decent length under the castle, they would place explosives, usually pig fat, or something similar and after evacuating, the tunnel one man would light a fire and quickly flee. The aim was that the explosion would damage the foundations of the castle walls and bring it all a gap for the soldiers to gain access.

The second siege, Louis would bring a much larger siege engine, known as  this type of siege engine was called a Trebuchet. Like the a would also launch large were more accurate in their aim and would cause a lot more damage. They were the largest and best-known siege engines of the middle ages. They would work by using a counterweight system of suspense ballast. At the other end, the arm would be pulled down and a missile placed in its sling. When reels the arm would swing up launching the missiles through the air towards its target. It is believed that it was the first time a was used in England at the siege of 1217.


Constables gate from the inside. Huberts new tower (Laura Adkins)

Elanor

Nearly half a century would pass before Dover was laid to siege again in 1265. This time it was during a period we now know as the Second Barons War. The barons, once again, were unhappy with the King (Henry III, a now grown man) and had risen up against him. The man who led the rebellious barons was a man Simon de Montfort. He had managed to capture the King and his son Edward and became the de facto ruler of England but things began to go against him. Edward, the king’s heir managed to escape from captivity in 1264 and this prompted Simon’s wife, Eleanor the king’s sister to flee to Dover for better security and to hold sway over the Cinque Ports2]

During the battle of Evesham, on 4 August 1265 Simon and  their eldest son, Henry . Rather than begging for mercy or even attempting to flee, Eleanor stayed at Dover and tried to keep hold of her position. She had even planned for a that Edward would want control of Dover. She has a siege engine and engineer brought to the castle. While this she also managed to get her surviving son Richard over to France for safety.

What made Eleanor eventually hand over Dover to her nephew was not the fact that he had taken Dover but due to some knights, only 14, who were imprisoned at Dover at the time escaping, and with the help of some of the garrison soldiers managed to take control of Dover’s great keep and harass Eleanor from there. Eleanor had attackers from outside and from within, enough for anyone to give up. She negotiated a settlement with her nephew and was allowed to head to the continent. She would become a nun at in France and would pass away in 1275.

Dover would not be under attack again. It continued to be a magnificent fortress, which stood proud against the backdrop of the White cliffs. It would not really come into prominence again until just over 600 years later when once again England was at war with France only this time rather than being under attack, Dover would be a base   base for and in the 20th century the hub of Operation Dynamo in the Second World War. 

Find out more about Dover in part two – Deeper underground coming soon.

Today Dover Castle is managed but English Heritage and is open daily to the public, including the medieval tunnels that Hubert de Burgh created. For more information and their opening times please visit their website:

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/dover-castle/

Sources:

Brindle, S (2012) Dover: English Heritage

Anon (nd) Eleanor de Montfort. Available from: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/histories/women-in-history/eleanor-de-montfort/ [accessed 19.2.19]

Anon (nd) Hubert de Burgh. Available from: http://battle-castle.tv/hubert-de-burgh/ [Accessed 9.2.19]

Anon (nd) Operation dynamo – everything you need to know. Available fromhttps://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/dover-castle/history-and-stories/operation-dynamo-things-you-need-to-know/

Anon (2014) Dover Castle. Available from: https://tvbattlecastle.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/dover-castle/] [Accessed 19/02/2019]

, C (2016) The great siege of Dover Castle 1216. Available from: http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/the-great-siege-of-dover-castle-1216/ [Accessed 9.2.19]


[1] Great British Castles

[2] Originally, the Cinque Ports (pronounced ‘Sink’ Ports) were a confederation of five Sandwich, Romney, DoverHythe, and Hastings plus the twoAncient Towns of Rye & Winchelsea. These were grouped together, for by Edward the Confessor (http://www.open-sandwich.co.uk/town_history/cinqueports.htm)

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