Travel Destination 2012: Dover Castle

First of all, I commented in my last update that Facebook was an entirely different post. Well, I wrote that post – but for a different blog, my colleague Ben Railton’s American Studier. If you’re interested in my musings about social media and American views of isolation, check it out here.

I also mentioned that I would be doing a series of posts on various sites I plan to visit this summer in England.

My travel MAP.

Today, let’s go to Dover Castle.

(VERY) Brief history:

Potential Iron Age earthworks

Roman lighthouse, c.50CE (the Roman invasion is usually dated to 43CE)

Saxon fortified settlement

Norman invasion, 1066

  • Due to Dover’s strategic location, it played a role even in the early negotiations between William the Conqueror (when he was still just the Bastard) and Harold Godwinson. According to William of Poitiers (of course, William was on the Conqueror’s payroll, so we have to be a little careful about his statements) in his Gesta Guillelmi Ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum (“Deeds of William Duke of the Normans and King of the English,” 1071-77), Dover was part of the fealty Harold swore to the Duke, promising to fortify the castle for William at his own expense:

“traditurum interim ipsius militum custo dise castrum Doveram, studio atque sumptu suo commu uitum”[1]

  • Later, after the Battle of Hastings, William, on his way to his coronation, made a point of stopping at Dover – a side trip that ended in flames, according to William of Poitiers. The Duke then had a timber fortification constructed.

Henry II, 1133-89

  • Designed by Henry’s architect, Maurice the Engineer, the actual castle was built between 1180-85.
  • It was designed as both a defensive fortification and a location for royal ceremony.
  • It is believed that Henry took advantage of the new popularity of the nearby Canterbury Cathedral, after the murder of St.Thomas Becket. Ironic, given his involvement in the death.

First Barons’ War, 1216

  • The French king Louis VIII tried to take the castle with the help of some of the barons.
  • During the battle, the only example of a counter tunnel was created. The tunnels, and later additions, played a role in Napoleonic times and during the World Wars.

Personal interest:

Well, any one of the bullet points above would be enough to make me want to spend days tromping around the castle and its environs. (If I’m completely honest, a castle wouldn’t even need to have a history to make me happy.) However, I’ll pick one reason here. Henry II. My favorite English king. Was he a good guy? Probably not – okay, really not. But is he cool? Absolutely. I wrote an encyclopedia article on him several years back. An excerpt:

At the time of Henry’s succession to the throne, which was the first peaceful transition of power in several generations, he was the most powerful lord in Europe; he controlled over half of the French territories through inheritance and marriage, an area stretching over 500 miles, approximately the length of Britain. As a result of Henry’s mass accumulation of land, the power structure in Europe changed considerably in the 1150’s; French duchies that had once been in competition with one another now owed allegiance to one man, who was also the king of England. Given the breadth and wealth of his holdings, Henry could claim to be more influential than the king of France, his ostensible overlord. By the end of his reign, his provinces would extend all the way to the Mediterranean, successfully preventing any territorial expansion on the part of the French monarchy. In Britain, he effected the restoration of Cumberland, Westmorland, and Northumbria from the king of Scotland in 1157, conquered parts of Ireland in the 1170’s, which he later granted to his son John, and negotiated the fealty of the Welsh princes. [2]

All interesting developments. Great history. But my overriding interest in him is simple: his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. My medieval heroine. To think of wandering around a site Henry II commissioned and where Eleanor stayed from time to time never fails to make me shiver with excitement.

Teaching potential:

  • Dover’s long, varied history provides an excellent example of the early history of Britain. Iron Age. Romans. Saxons. Normans. Plantagenets. They all left their mark, and they all wanted to exploit Dover’s strategic location.
  • The way the medieval history of the castle is woven into more recent events, such as WWII, makes for a poignant connection.
  • The “history” written by such men as William of Poitiers allows for a moment to consider the genre and the biases of particular individuals.
  • The court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine is the center of much of the literary activity of the twelfth century. Locating it in a place like Dover makes it real.
  • The relationship between Canterbury and Dover provides some interesting considerations.
  • Have one of your own to add? 

There is more, so much more, about Dover Castle – its use as a defensive fortification, its political significance to Henry, the restoration of its Great Tower…the list could go on.

— Kisha


[1] William of Poitiers, Scriptores rerum gestarum Willelmi Conquestoris, ed. John Allen Giles (London, 1845), 108.

[2] “Henry II,” The Early Peoples of Britain and Ireland: An Encyclopedia, ed. Christopher A. Snyder (Oxford: Greenwood, 2008), 303.

1 Comment

Filed under Anglo-Norman, History, Teaching, Travels

One response to “Travel Destination 2012: Dover Castle

  1. Pingback: England Study Abroad…Test Run | MASSachusetts State Universities MEDIEVAL Blog

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