Dover Castle occupies a spectacular site overlooking the White Cliffs of Dover and dominating the harbour. The castle's site was probably in use during the Iron Age, but it was William the Conqueror who built the first castle here. Ever since, Dover has been a critical site for the defence of southern England.
It was Henry II who started the first stone castle here and began the impressive fortification that we see today. The military engineer Maurice the 'Ingeniator' was brought in to design the fortress. Dover was the first fortress in Western Europe to use concentric defences. The inner and outer baileys date from this first phase, as does the massive rectangular keep.
It wasn't long before Dover castle's defences were put to the test. Louis VIII of France besieged and undermined it in 1216. Uniquely the English defenders tunnelled out to attack the French and created a counter tunnel which can still be seen in the medieval works.
Louis' forces failed to take the castle, but they did manage to breach the north gate. Henry III commissioned new northern defences to prevent this happening again. The defence complex included St John's Tower and a system of underground tunnels as well as two new gates.
Although Dover was built mainly for defence, its location at the shortest sea crossing to France meant that it had to be able to accommodate visitors and royalty. Henry III added a great hall and Edward IV modernized the keep in the late 15th Century.
After the 1500s the development of gunpowder reduced the castle's defensive importance, but it remained in use.
The castle rose to prominence again during the Napoleonic Wars. The growing threat from France meant that it needed to be capable of repelling assault. The extensive works were directed by William Twiss. He remodelled the outer defences adding new barracks, several huge new bastions and gun positions. He also took the roof off the keep and replaced it with stronger brickworks to mount heavy artillery. Most of the inner baileys buildings date from around this time.
Dover remained important during both World Wars. During the Second World War the tunnels under the castle were first used as air-raid shelters and were subsequently converted into a military command centre. The command centre directed the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo which rescued 338,000 allied personnel.
Dover continued to be an important command centre during the rest of the war. The navy used the tunnels as a communications centre to direct fleet movements and to get air-sea rescue craft to downed pilots in the Straits of Dover.
A garrison was maintained at the castle until 1958. English Heritage acquired it and it now welcomes visitors in their thousands.
A number of the tunnels are open to visitors and house exhibitions on the Dunkirk evacuation with recreations of the Army Headquarters and telephone exchanges. The underground hospital has also been faithfully reconstructed.
Above ground in the great keep exhibitions have a more medieval flavour. The keep has been restored to its 13th Century splendour, just as it would have been after Henry II built it. The exhibition has costumed characters and aims to take you into the court of Henry II.
The castle has numerous historical events throughout the year with themes as varied as World War II through to medieval battle preparations.
Other facilities available at the castle include car parking, a coffee shop, restaurant, picnic area, wide open play areas for children and two souvenir shops. Tours around the castle are self-guided, while the tunnels are part-guided by site staff.
Other places of note within the castle walls include The Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment museum, a Roman lighthouse and the Royal Chapel. The museum is open on the first Friday of every month and visitors can trace the history of the regiment over 400 years.
Dover castle has been used in a number of films and television series. It was a destination in the US series Treasure Hunters; used as a set for Johnny English and hosted a Most Haunted Live televised event.
Status: Museum / Visitor Attraction
Owner: English Heritage
Tel: +44 (0)1304 211 067
Opening Times: April to July daily 10am to 6pm / September daily 10am to 6pm / October daily 10am to 5pm / November to March weekends only 10am to 4pm
The keep and towers at Dover Castle
The keep and entrance to Dover Castle