Dover Castle’s western defences

History and Stories: Dover Castle

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 here.

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.  

  • Aerial view of Dover Castle, Dover, Kent

    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.

  • Recreated king's chamber in the keep at Dover Castle

    The Angevin Empire

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

  • An artist’s impression of the great siege of Dover Castle in 1216
© Historic England (illustration by Peter Dunn)

    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, depicted in a 13th-century genealogy of the Kings of England
© British Library Board (MS Royal 14 B.VI)

    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.

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.

  • Observation area in the Fire Command Post at Dover Castle

    Fortress Dover and the First World War

    Use our virtual tour to explore a building at Dover Castle that played a vital role in safeguarding Dover as a garrison and naval base in the First World War.

  • Troops on the beach at Dunkirk in May 1940, awaiting evacuation (© Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

    Operation Dynamo: Things you Need to Know

    Find out the key facts about Operation Dynamo, the near-miraculous evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, which was controlled from Dover Castle.

  • Wrens in front of the Officers’ Mess at Dover Castle

    Dunkirk on the Home Front

    Read some of the personal stories of what it was like to work in the tunnels beneath Dover Castle in the gruelling, hot days of May and June 1940.

More resources

  • Dover Castle guidebook cover

    Buy the guidebook

    Packed with plans, maps, historic photos and eyewitness accounts, 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.

  • Plan of Dover Castle

    Plans of Dover Castle

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

  • Bird's eye view of Dover Castle

    Interactive maps of Dover Castle

    Use these interactive maps to explore Dover Castle, including the great tower and the wartime tunnels.

  • Dover Castle: A Frontline Fortress guidebook cover

    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.

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