Road Trip Through History: Dover

Image courtesy of Webzoloo via Creative Commons

Dover is the reason My Own True Love and I headed to England. I had questions related to one of my personal writing projects that could only be answered on the ground.

We weren’t expecting much. The guidebooks all say something along the lines of “this workaday town has lost whatever luster it once had” and blow it off as worth no more than a day trip from London. To which I say: wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s true that Dover lacks the picturesque charm of Canterbury,* but it also lacks all the tacky, touristy bits. And it has two attractions that will keep any history nerd happy.

We spent our first day at the Dover Museum. It is a small museum with a solid, if slightly old-fashioned, local history exhibit–beginning with the Roman invasion and ending with World War II. The museum makes it clear why Dover was considered the “lock and key of England” for centuries.

Dover to Calais--almost no distance at all

Only twenty-some miles away from France, its history can be told in terms of invasion, invasion fears, and fortification. Dover’s role as England’s first line of defense didn’t end when Louis Blériot flew the first airplane across the Channel and landed near Dover Castle in 1909; the first bomb dropped on England in WWI, on Christmas Eve, 1914, landed in Dover.

Local history would have kept me happy**—after all, that’s why we were in Dover. But the Dover Museum also has a Big Deal Exhibit: a well-preserved Bronze Age boat that was found near the Dover shoreline and is considered to be the oldest know sea-going vessel. (To put it in context, the boat is a thousand years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza.) Dover has done an excellent job exhibiting the Bronze Age boat. They’ve provided cultural context about Bronze Age Britain, a fascinating discussion of how archaeologists extrapolate data from an incomplete find,*** and what they learned from building a copy of the “complete” boat using Bronze Age tools. Bottom line: ancient people were crossing the English Channel in frighteningly little boats by 3000 BCE.

But wait, there’s more!

We spent our second day at Dover Castle, an English Heritage Foundation site that draws day-trippers from London and tourists across the Channel from France. Henry II built the castle between 1180 and 1185  to impress the European princes and churchmen who began to come on pilgrimage to Canterbury after the death of Thomas Beckett. When King John (of Magna Carta infamy) lost Normandy in 1204, Dover Castle became England’s frontline defense against invasion. From the 1500s on, the castle was  rebuilt and updated with every invasion scare–up to World War II, when an existing system of tunnels was expanded into a bomb-proof shelter that housed Britain’s naval headquarters.

The English Heritage people have done an excellent job of bringing the castle as it was in the time of Henry II to life, without turning it into a Disney attraction. (I have nothing against Disney, just not in my history, please.) A small, clever exhibit tells visitors how Henry built a great kingdom and how his sons lost most of it. The castle itself is full of “yes, please touch” reproductions of period furniture. Projected images and voices of its twelfth century inhabitants talk about their lives. (I particularly liked the disembodied voice of the seneschal doing the castle accounts in the corner of the castle “office”). The docents are knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I must admit, I passed on the tunnels, which include an exhibit of the Dunkirk evacuation. (Tunnels give me the willies.) My Own True Love gives them a thumbs-up.

Because we are indefatigable readers of historical markers and My Own True Love is a vintage aircraft enthusiast, we also tracked down the monument to Blériot’s landing. The design of the monument is actually pretty cool, but finding it felt a bit like a snipe hunt. Only for the true believers.

* Because it got bombed in WWI and WWII.

** I was particularly taken with sand table models showing the development of the harbor over time. The Dover Museum also introduced me to a historical event that deserves its own blog post: the French invasion of 1216. Keep your dial tuned to this station.

***Which would be pretty much all archaeological finds.


Travel notes for those who want to storm Dover Castle

  • Our stay was greatly enriched by the knowledge and enthusiasm of our hosts at the Amanda Guest house, Mike and Anne McFarnell. If a room is available and you’re a B & B fan, it’s the place to stay. (
  • The English Heritage Foundation offers 9 and 12 day passes for overseas visitors at a reasonable price. If you’re going to two or more English Heritage sites, it’s well worth the money. (


  1. jon iveson on October 31, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you for your very kind comments. I see that you are interested in the siege. This might interest you.

    Siege of Dover Castle, 1216.

    During the civil war between King John and his barons Louis, the son of the King of France, was invited to be the rebel leader and to take the English throne. Dover Castle, later named by Matthew Paris as the “key of England”, was an important Royalist stronghold and was entrusted to Hubert de Burgh, veteran of the siege of Chinon and the abortive expedition to Poitou. Hubert was Justiciar and one of King John’s most trusted adherents.

    Louis and his forces landed in Kent on 21 May and rapidly gained control of most of south-eastern England. He was welcomed by the people of London and towns such as Norwich surrendered without resisting. The two castles which Louis did not capture were Windsor and Dover.

    Dover was besieged around 22 July and a number of accounts of how the siege progressed survive – the fullest of these are transcribed below.

    At this time the main entrance to Dover Castle was by way of a gateway to the north where the Norfolk towers stand today. This gateway was constructed during the reign of John and consisted of two round towers flanking a narrow entrance passage. Beyond this, and reached by a drawbridge and bridge, was an outwork on the site of what is today the Redan. The form of this barbican was probably that shown on the 1737 map of Dover by H. Foucquet. Histoire des Ducs describes the barbican as “enclosed with very good palisades of oak trunks, and (had) a big ditch all round it.”

    According to Roger of Wendover the castle had been well prepared with a garrison of 140 knights and their men at arms. The Patent Rolls list Gerard de Sotingham as Hubert’s lieutenant and Histoire des Ducs has Pierre de Creon as commanding the North Gate and Barbican.

    It appears that Louis initially captured the town and lodged at St Martin’s Priory (now Dover College). He then seems to have split his forces before investing the castle. The castle was surrounded on all sides, with ships guarding the approach from the sea. It is possible that this delay was a result of Louis waiting for his siege train to arrive as Roger of Wendover states that Louis “with a powerful force of knights and soldiers laid siege to Dover Castle, having first sent to his father for a petraria which was called by the French “Malvoisine” or “bad neighbour”.

    Histoire des Ducs tells us of a period during which the castle garrison made sorties against the French before “Louis went up the hill with all his army”. At this point all the sources agree that siege engines were erected to batter the walls of the castle. Histoire des Ducs adds that a siege tower was constructed and a covered gallery was built up to the wall. He goes on to say that “he made his miners enter the ditch and they mined the stone and earth under the palisades. Then he made the knights from the army attack, and the barbican was soon taken.” Leading the way into the barbican was Huart Paon, a cavalryman who was possibly the standard bearer of the Lord of Bethune.

    An eighteenth century map reproduced by Jonathan Coad in “Later Fortifications of Dover” shows a mound labelled Oliver’s Mount on the site of Connaught Barracks. The style of this fieldwork is not consistent with the Civil War and this might well be the remains of one of the fieldworks built by the French.

    Later in the text of the Histoire the writer says that “then Louis set his miners to work on the gate, and they mined so that one of the towers fell, of which there were two”. This seems to show that there were two mining operations, one to reduce the palisade of the barbican, and a second to attack the North Gate. The tower which was damaged by this undermining is fossilised within the Norfolk towers. The French then broke into the castle but were pushed back out and the breach blocked with timber palisades. Within the present underground works at Dover Castle, set half way up the wall of a steeply sloping medieval passage, is what may well be the remains of one of the tunnels dug by the French miners.

    At this point Louis settled down for a protracted siege. On 19 October King John died at Newark after a brief illness, and word quickly reached the two forces. Louis seems to have asked Hubert to surrender at this point but with Hubert’s refusal withdrew. Hubert made good use of the interval to destroy the siege engines left by the French.

    The Close Rolls mention that 73 rings set with emeralds, 23 with sapphires, 9 with garnets and nineteen with rubies were given to Hubert de Burgh to pay the garrison at Dover. These came from a collection of rings held by Thomas de Sanford at Devizes, and the payment was authorised by William Marshal because the whole administration was in a state of total confusion due to the war and the fact that taxes had not been collected in the areas held by the French. The country could not continue to pay for the war by the sale of royal treasures indefinitely and William Marshal, the Regent, took urgent steps to attempt to raise money in the normal way. To this end in 1217 he ordered Faulkes de Breaute to give five hundred marks of the money collected in the counties he controlled to Hubert de Burgh to pay the garrison at Dover.

    In January 1217 Louis returned to France for reinforcements and to deal with a threat of excommunication from the Pope.

    On 23 April 1217 Louis returned to England and set about recapturing those castles which he had lost whilst away. As part of this exercise he resumed the siege of Dover.

    Historical Source Material.

    Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum.
    ….on the day of the nativity of St. John the Baptist, Louis with a powerful force of knights and soldiers laid siege to Dover Castle, having first sent to his father for a petraria which was called by the French “Malvoisine”; and the French having disposed this and other engines before the castle they began to batter the walls incessantly; but Hubert de Burgh, a brave knight, with a hundred and forty knights, and a large number of soldiers, who were defending the castle destroyed many of the enemy, until the French feeling their loss removed their tents and engines further from the castle; on this Louis was greatly enraged and swore he would not leave the place till the castle was taken and all of the garrison hung. They, therefore to strike terror into them, built a number of booths and other buildings in front of the entrance to the castle so that the place appeared like a fair; for they hoped that they would by hunger and a protracted siege force them to surrender, as they could not subdue them by force of arms.

    When Louis and the barons who were besieging Dover received news of the death of King John they were all greatly pleased…. Louis then summoned Hubert de Burgh, constable of Dover Castle, to a conference and said to him “Your lord King John is dead and you cannot hold this castle against me for long…. therefore give up the castle and become faithful to me and I will enrich you with honours and you shall hold a high post among my advisers”. To this offer Hubert is said to have replied “Although my lord is dead, he has sons and daughters, who ought to succeed him; and, as to surrendering the castle, I will deliberate with my fellow knights”. He then returned to the castle and told his friends what Louis had said, but they were all unanimous in refusing to surrender it to him lest they be branded with treachery for a cowardly submission. When this was announced to Louis and the barons they resolved to reduce the smaller castles in the country, that, after the lesser fortresses were in their power they might attack the larger ones; they then raised the siege and returned to the City of London. Directly after their retreat, the knights who had defended the castle, sallied out and burnt the houses and buildings which Louis had erected in front of the castle, and then ravaging the country, they procured a plentiful supply of necessaries for the garrison.

    The C and B versions of the chronicle have extra information inserted by Matthew Paris.

    Matthew Paris Chronica Majora
    One day Louis sent word that he wished to have a peaceable interview with him; and when Hubert consented, Louis sent special messengers to him at a postern gate… The messengers….. were the Earl of Salisbury, William Longsword, who brought with him for security Thomas de Burgh, brother of the said Hubert, who had been taken prisoner by Louis at the castle of Norwich, and three of the most noble of the French. Hubert then came to the postern, followed by five cross-bow men with bows bent and arrows fitted, so that if there was necessity they should not spare their enemies. Earl William then said “Louis…. has sworn that when he takes possession of this castle by force of arms, all found within it shall be hung without fail. Consult therefore your own safety and honour. You cannot long retain this castle; the power of our lord Louis increases daily, while that of the King decreases….. or you will at least perish of hunger… therefore without delay or difficulty give up this castle to Louis.” Thomas, his brother, moreover, said to him with tears “My dear brother, have compassion on yourself, on me and all of us by yielding to the advice of these nobles; for we will then be freed from impending destruction.” The earl added “Listen to my advice Hubert, and obey the will of our lord Louis and he will give you as an inheritance, the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, and you will also be his chief counsellor and friend; but if you do not do this your brother Thomas will be hung, and you in a short time will suffer the same punishment. To this Hubert then replied “Earl, wicked traitor that you are, although King John, our lord and your brother be dead, he has heirs, namely your nephew, whom, although everybody else deserted him, you his uncle ought not to abandon, but ought to be a second father to him; why then base and wicked man that you are, do you talk thus to me?” Then casting a scowling look at him, and breaking out into a harsher tone, he added “Do not speak another word, because by the lance of God, if you open your mouth to say anything more you shall all be pierced with numbers of arrows, nor will I even spare my own brother.” The Earl therefore, and those who were with him seeing that they would be killed in the flash of an eye, because the crossbow men were ready to discharge their weapons, retreated at once, glad to escape alive and uninjured. When Louis heard this, although he was sorry and enraged, he greatly applauded the firmness of Hubert.

    Histoire des Ducs de Normandie et les Rois d’Angletterre
    Now hear about Louis, who came to Dover. When he came there, he did not at once besiege the castle, but lodged at the centre of the town in a priory, and billeted some of his men in the town, and the rest of them in their tents. There, the Count of Roussi, and Jean de Monmirail, and Hugues de Rumegny, and the Vicomte of Touraine, and many other knights parted from him, by which the army was very much reduced in numbers. The men of the castle came forth from the gates many times: they had a barbican outside the gate, which Pierre de Creon had to guard. It was enclosed with very good palisades of oak trunks, and had a big ditch all round it. Pierre de Creon, who had to guard the gate had likewise to guard the barbican. The men of the castle often came in front of this barbican, fully armed, so that the men in the army could see them plainly. Often Louis’ crossbowmen went there to shoot. Once a very skilful crossbowman called Ernaut went to shoot there, and approached them so close that they ran upon him, and he waited for them, and he was taken prisoner because he was not well helped. Soon afterwards, Louis went up the hill with all the army, and besieged the castle. He made one part of his forces remain in the town, so as to surround those within from all sides, and sent his ships back to sea, and so the men in the castle were shut in on all sides. Then Louis had his perriers and mangonels set up to bombard the gate and the wall, and he had a very high siege tower made of hurdles, and a covered gallery to lead up to the wall. He made his miners enter the ditch, and they mined the stone and the earth under the palisades. Then he made the knights from the army attack, and the barbican was soon taken. A cavalryman named Huart Paon, who bore the banner of the Lord of Bethune, was the first to enter. Pierre de Creon, who had the duty of guarding the barbican, had such a wound by it that he was never afterward healed, and died soon after. This Pierre was the son of Maurice de Creon, the good knight.

    Then the King of Scotland came to the siege of Dover, to do his homage to Louis, and Louis went to meet him as far as Canterbury, and brought him to the army at Dover with great joy. Next day the King did his homage to Louis for his land of Lothian, and then returned to his country, and the Count of Nevers escorted him as far as beyond Cambridge. The Count of Nevers, who had turned to the side of Louis, repented of what he had done, and went off to the King of England and begged his mercy, and the King forgave his misdeeds with very good will. Before the King of Scotland came to Dover, the Count of Perche had arrived there, who came to the service of Louis, but I had forgotten to tell you that. Then the Count of Brittany arrived, and his brother Robert went off to France. Then Louis set his miners to work on the gate, and they mined so that one of the towers fell, of which there were two. Then a very large part of Louis’ forces got into the castle, but the people inside drove them out with great vigour, and then closed up the place where their walls had fallen, with great timbers, and crossbeams and palisades of oak trunks. Guichars de Biaugen died at this siege, and was taken to be buried in his land; but before this there died a knight from the Boulonnais who was much mourned, named Jean de la Riviere, and he was also taken away to be buried in the Boulonnais. At the siege the news came that Pope Innocent had died, and that the new Pope was named Honorius. Louis was very glad at this news. Then there came news of the Emperor Henry of Constantinople, who had also died in the land of Romania, in the city of Salonika. This Emperor Henry was Louis’ uncle on his mother’s side.

    Louis besieged Dover Castle until a truce was arranged between him and those inside, about which the King of England was very angry. Soon after he heard the news he was taken ill, and he came, ill as he was, to a castle of the Bishop of Lincoln called Newark, and he died there…..

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    • Pamela Toler on October 31, 2012 at 11:03 pm

      Jon: Thanks for the info on the siege. You’ve saved me a lot of research time.