Dover Keep: One of the Last British Keeps

The White Tower was one of the first keeps built in Britain and constructed during the late eleventh century (Toy 66). Dover’s keep, on the other hand, was one of the last ones built, and it was completed a century after the White Tower in the late twelfth century (Brindle 12). It is not entirely surprising that Dover was picked as a place to build a keep. It seems that the region had been deemed strategically important early. An Iron Age hill fort was originally constructed there, and a lighthouse had been built on top of that by the Romans in the 1st century AD (“History of Castles” para. 12). Indeed, the crumbling remains of the lighthouse can still be seen within the current castle.


chaoticblackcat. “Dover’s Lighthouse.” 14 July 2014.

As a region declared important early on, it seems inevitable that a castle would eventually be constructed here. William the Conqueror also seems to have recognized the importance of this region because he built the first Dover castle soon after arriving (Morris 00:1:10-00:1:29), making use of the preexisting fortifications (“History of Castles” para. 12). Unfortunately, nothing of William’s version is left (Morris 00:15: 47-00:16:02). The oldest surviving castle structure at Dover was the stone keep that was constructed much later (Brindle 53).

This rectangular keep was built by Henry II, who was the great-grandson of William the Conqueror (Brindle 12). The construction took place “between 1180 and 1191” (Brown 365) and was part of the period’s great operation of rebuilding castles along the south-east coast (Brown 357). Dover’s keep was “the most elaborate and expensive, as well as the last, of the Anglo-Norman palace-keeps” (Brindle 12). The Pipe Rolls, which are historical documents from the Exchequer that recorded the royal income, say the entire expenditure on Dover “between 1155 and 1215 [was a] little under £8000” (Brown 356). That was the most spent on any English building during this particular period of castle construction (1154 to 1216), and one might “safely assume that the new fortress at Dover, the key of the kingdom, was exceptional in its military strength” (Brown 366).

Dover’s construction was guided by the master-mason Maurice, who had overseen the building of an earlier keep erected at Newcastle (Brindle 12). The areas of the Dover Castle that were under construction during this particular time period were “undertaken by Henry [II] and completed in Richard’s reign, consisting of the present keep and the walls of the inner bailey,”(Brown 365) which can be glimpsed in the picture below.


chaoticblackcat. “Dover’s Keep from a Distance.” 14 July 2014.

This keep is rectangular in shape and design (DeVries & Smith 247) with an attached forebuilding (Toy 79). The base is approximately a square of 30 meters by 30 meters with a height greater than 25 meters from the base to the top of the parapets (Lepage 51). The walls are about six meters thick (Lepage 51) and are supported by multiple buttresses (Toy 79).

The keep has three levels, though it is technically four stories high (Toy 79). The top story was a fake “screening a countersunk roof” (Brindle 12). It seems that “this was a fairly standard feature of 11th– and 12th-century keeps, which seem to have been built as much for show, as symbols of lordship and places to entertain great visitors” (Brindle 20). These three official levels consisted of a basement and two stories (DeVries & Smith 247).

The two stories had “nearly identical suites of rooms” (Brindle 15). The halls of each level are created “by a cross wall which ascends through the full height of the keep, dividing each floor into two long halls” (Toy 79). In addition to the halls, both levels had “a number of smaller chambers, a latrine (which emptied its contents onto the outside castle yard), a well, and a chapel” (DeVries & Smith 247). The second floor was for high-ranking residents (Brindle 15). The keep’s floors were connected by “two large circular stairways, one at the north-east and the other at the south-west corners” (Toy 80). Since they accessed all of the keep’s levels they were probably spaces open for public access (Brindle 15). One of the roof entrances to the spiral staircase can be seen in the picture below.


chaoticblackcat. “Dover’s Staircase: Roof Entrance.” 14 July 2014.

The other area constructed alongside the keep was inner bailey walls, which were “built of rubble masonry faced in Kentish ragstone” (Brindle 9). Based on “foundations from the late 12th or early 13th century” that were found during excavations, it is likely that “Henry II and his builders evidently intended the inner bailey to house other buildings as well as the great tower” (Brindle 10). These walls can be seen in the picture below.


chaoticblackcat. “Dover’s Palace Gate: The Inner Bailey.” 14 July 2014.

Overall, Dover’s designs were slightly different from the early design of the White Tower. At Dover, “the entrance was on the third [story]” (Toy 66). Dover also had two chapels in the forebuilding, built one on top of the other (Toy 66). The relatively newer keeps, like Dover, had “a postern or sally-port providing escape from the keep in the event of its main entrance being carried by the enemy” (Toy 66). The differences in design between the White Tower and Dover Keep are not entirely surprising. There is a good century between the two keeps’ constructions. Keeping in mind the fact that they were two separate buildings and therefore unlikely to be exact copies of each other, there is still quite a few differences between the two.

It is important to keep in mind that Dover keep was one of the last rectangular keeps to be built (Brindle 12). As one of the last rectangular keeps, it was likely built in the midst of the transition away from the traditional keeps. As the thirteenth century progressed, castle builders stopped making these rectangular keeps turning instead to newer designs that had been influenced by information gleaned during the crusades (Lepage 70). This sentiment is nicely phrased by Kelly DeVries and Robert Douglas Smith who write in their book Medieval Military Technology:

The Norman rectangular castle style continued in use in later fortification construction and was especially favored by Henry II in his numerous late-twelfth- and early-thirteenth-century castle-building projects. However, by the middle of the thirteenth century, its popularity had diminished, replaced by a round-shaped castle style that nevertheless retained the residential aspects introduced by earlier Norman castles. (DeVries & Smith 233)

Works Cited

Brindle, Steven. Dover Castle. Edited by Katy Carter. English Heritage Guidebooks, 2012.

Brown, R. Allen. “Royal Castle-Building in England, 1154-1216.” The English Historical Review, vol. 70, no. 276, 1955, pp. 353-398. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Nov. 2016.

chaoticblackcat. “Dover’s Lighthouse.” 14 July 2014.

chaoticblackcat. “Dover’s Keep from a Distance.” 14 July 2014.

chaoticblackcat. “Dover’s Palace Gate: The Inner Bailey.” 14 July 2014.

chaoticblackcat. “Dover’s Staircase: Roof Entrance.” 14 July 2014.

DeVries, Kelly, and Robert Douglas Smith. Medieval Military Technology, 2nd ed., University of Toronto Press, 2002.

“History of Castles.” Historic UK: The History and Heritage Accommodation Guide. Accessed 01 Dec. 2016.

Lepage, Jean-Denis, G. G. “Chapter 2: The Revival of Military Architecture from the 10th to the 12th Centuries.” Castles and Fortified Cities of Medieval Europe: An Illustrated History. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2002. pp. 28-106.

Morris, Marc. “Castle Episode 1: Tower of London & Dover Castle.” Discovery Channel, Youtube, uploaded by HistoriaandHistory, 2003, Accessed 06 Dec. 2016.

Toy, Sidney. “Chapter VII: Rectangular Keeps or Donjons.” Castles: Their Construction and History. 1939. Dover Publications, Inc., 1985. pp. 66-81.





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