History and Stories

Dover Castle: History and Stories

Commanding the shortest sea crossing between England and the continent, Dover Castle has a long and immensely eventful history. Known as the ‘key to England’, this great fortress has played a crucial role in the defence of the realm for over nine centuries, a span equalled only by the Tower of London and Windsor Castle.

Find out more about Dover Castle’s history below.

Dover Castle’s History

The chalk of Castle Hill has been shaped and reshaped over the centuries into massive earthworks, ditches and mounds. Imposing walls and towers have been raised and networks of tunnels excavated beneath them. Henry II began the building of the present castle in the 1180s, and ever since its buildings and defences have been adapted to meet the changing demands of weapons and warfare.

  • History of Dover Castle

    Learn about the long history of the castle, from its likely origins as an Iron Age hillfort, through its development as a great fortress, to its secret role in the Cold War.

  • The Angevin Empire

    King Henry II, who built Dover Castle’s great tower, also created the largest European empire of his age, stretching at its height from Scotland to the Pyrenees. 

  • The Great Siege of Dover Castle

    Find out how, in 1216, Dover Castle and its stalwart defenders played a crucial part in preventing Prince Louis of France from becoming King Louis I of England.

  • Eleanor de Montfort and the Siege of 1265

    Caught up at the centre of a civil war, Eleanor de Montfort held Dover Castle against the king in 1265 after her husband and eldest son were killed in battle.

Roman lighthouse at Dover Castle

The Dover Pharos: A Rare Survival

Within the walls of the medieval castle stands a much older building, dating from a time when Britain was an outpost of the Roman Empire. The Romans built a lighthouse here after they invaded in AD 43, to guide ships into the harbour.

The Dover pharos is now one of only three Roman lighthouses to survive from the whole of the former Roman Empire. It is also the most complete standing Roman building in England.

Read more about the Dover pharos on Google Arts & Culture

Dover in two world wars

Throughout the First World War, Dover harbour was one of the main links in the chain supplying Britain’s armies in Europe. Thousands of soldiers came to the area to defend the port at all costs, with their headquarters at the castle.

During the Second World War Dover was again on the front line, against attack from both air and sea. From 1939 the tunnels in the cliffs beneath the castle housed the command centre for naval operations in the Channel, and it was from here that the extraordinary evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk was masterminded in May and June 1940.

Read more about Dover’s role in the Second World War – and watch this short film to see how English Heritage has restored an anti-aircraft gun used in the First World War and now at Dover Castle, where identical gun batteries were used to see off German Zeppelins.

More Resources

  • Buy the Guidebook

    Packed with plans, reconstructions and historic images, this guidebook tells the story of how the castle’s defences were adapted to meet the needs of modern warfare right up to the Cold War.

  • Plans of Dover Castle

    Download these PDF plans of Dover Castle to see how this great fortress has evolved over time.

  • Dover on the Front Line

    This guidebook tells the story of how a network of tunnels, first cut within the white cliffs during the Napoleonic Wars, played a vital role in Britain’s defences in the Second World War.

Photograph of Clifford's Tower from ground level, showing daffodils in foreground

Discover more with membership

With English Heritage membership, you can enjoy a full year of free entry to over 400 historic sites, including our stunning medieval castles.

12 months’ unlimited access from only £4 per month.

Join now
'step into englands story