One of the mightiest fortresses in Western Europe
You can swim from Dover, England to Calais, France, the fastest time in eight hours and five minutes. It is far safer and quicker by ferry. The distance is only 26 miles between the island of Britain and the continent, which did not escape the attention of foreign invaders.
Dover is the gateway to England, and Dover Castle is the key to those gates. For this reason, Dover has been protecting England for over 900 years. With its impressive mile-long curtain wall, built into the famous white cliffs, this castle has seen off attacks from the medieval French, Napoleon, and Hitler. It boasts remains of a Roman lighthouse, a Norman fortress, medieval keep, secret WW2 wartime tunnels, and is an enduring statement of royal power and supremacy.
Dover Castle is ideal for those interested in the drama of World War Two and the historical conflicts and sieges that took place in the past. Apart from the stories, Dover Castle is an enormous structure dominating the white cliffs and will impress anybody that visits. A tour here is the obvious choice if you have arrived at the port of Dover. Combine a day with Canterbury Cathedral or Leeds Castle. Book a day tour from London; our suggested itinerary is our Dover and Leeds Castle Tour.
The key to England's security
A brief history of Dover Castle
Hole in our defences
Dover Castle's site is vital to protect the shortest distance from Britain to mainland Europe. The first fortifications date from the Iron age, hill forts were typical across Britain before the First Centuries Roman invasion. Below the enormous cliffs is the only break in the natural chalk defences for 13 miles, the River Dour. The mouth of the river has provided shelter for boats. The port of Dover grew from its humble beginnings to one of the busiest ports of entry into the country.
The only remains of the first Norman Castle are embedded in the foundations of the old lighthouse. King Henry II (1154-1189) is the father of our common law, formidable warrior and decisive leader, and one of the medieval world's great builders. Henry invests in no less than 90 castles across England and spent vast sums on Dover.
Everyone wants a castle siege story, well Dover has a super one. During the civil war between King John and the English and French barons, Dover became centre stage in the conflict. In support of English rebels who hated King John, Prince Louis of France landed on English soil with an army in May 1216. Luckily for John Dover had just been completed and was a shiny new fortress ready to defend the realm. Although hurriedly supplied with provisions and 140 knights, under Hubert de Burgh.
The attack came in the form of giant catapults launching huge rocks against the walls. Meanwhile, miners dug under the barbican to disturb the foundations and collapse the outer defences. The French were successful and breached the outer defences, and also destroyed the next gate-tower. The garrison tried to counter tunnel and expel the invaders underground.
Eventually, the French and English rebels poured into the castle, scrambled over the rubble of the ruined gates and met by determined resistance from the garrison. Hubert and his Knights denied the attackers a Victory. Three days later King John’s forces under William Marshal’s leadership defeated another French army at the battle of Lincoln Castle. The take over by the French thwarted.
Think of Dover as a frontier fort, protecting the port, English shipping and England's southern perimeter. Low numbers of knights and foot soldiers could defend such carefully designed castles. The constable would be responsible for the hospitality of passing dignitaries, shipping and defence, it was a demanding job and required intelligence and discipline.
The fortress declined from 1500 onwards and wasn’t viable and used as a prison. From the 18th Century to 1945 Dover Castle was modified and upgraded to cope with changes in warfare. For Britain to succeed militarily on the continent, the port of Dover needed defending.
During the threat from Napoleon, engineers added walls, gates and barracks. The government strengthened the town defences, and beneath the castle, built underground barracks to accommodate over 2000 British soldiers.
World War Two
Again in 1940, the grand dame of castles is centre stage. The building of a secret underground hospital and command centre for World Ward Two operations are fascinating to see. It was from the tunnels that Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay directed Operation Dynamo, the remarkable evacuation of over 330,000 servicemen from the beaches of Dunkirk. The Secret World War Two, tunnels tour, is a highlight of a visit to Dover Castle.
Touring and accommodation
Relive the drama of these events written above, then climb to the battlements where views of France can be enjoyed on clear days. Finish your day with English Sparkling Wine Tasting at one of Southern England's many vineyards.
A tour of Dover is a stroll through the history of Britain’s defence. An archaeological extravaganza, with structures from Roman to the 20th Century. Our suggested day tour from London features Leeds Castle and Dover Castle. The itinerary is designed to allow enough time at each place and enjoy without feeling rushed. Combining Canterbury Cathedral with Dover is also an option. A visit to Dover Castle and an afternoon shopping and having a lazy lunch in the historic town of Rye makes for a lovely day. The town has a plethora of independent shops, some selling antiques, art and various crafts.
The five-star option for the South East of England is South Lodge Hotel and Spa. This hotel is ideal if you wish to tour the wine region, castles and gardens mentioned, and it is only 25 minutes to Gatwick airport and one hour to Heathrow.
If this is your first time to England, we would recommend a custom version of our Town and Country Tour; it covers the famous places and allows you to utilise your private driver-guide by getting-off-the-beaten-path. Our Classic tour of Ireland is a good place to start for the first trip to Ireland, and we suggest the Classic tour of Scotland for your first trip to the bonny Highlands. There is a wide choice of accommodation in the UK; Cottages, Manor House Hotels and traditional Guest Houses.
The Frontier Castle
The key to Britain's security over centuries
- Tour the Secret Wartime Tunnels
- Explore Henry II Keep
- Tour the Medieval Tunnels
- Walk the Battlements
- Hear the Story of the Siege of 2016
Fun for all the Family
Wartime Tunnels at Dover
The South Coast of England
Dover's Spiral Staircases
The Castle at Dusk
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