How Dover Castle became the Key of England – the Great Siege of 1216
Eight hundred years ago,
a French prince and his baronial allies controlled most of England.
Holding out almost alone against him,
Dover Castle and its stalwart
defenders played a crucial
part in preventing Prince Louis of France
from becoming King Louis I of England.
The Invited Invader: Prince Louis
The son of King Philip II of France,
Prince Louis "the Lion" was offered the English crown
by the rebellious barons fighting King John.
Though they"d forced John to sign Magna Carta in 1215,
he"d struck back hard, and by early 1216 the barons were losing the war.
The French prince"s arrival in Kent with a large army in May 1216 turned the tide back.
John fled before him, many towns and castles in south-east England greeted Louis with open arms,
and he was proclaimed king in London's St. Paul"s Cathedral.
But there was a big fly in Louis' ointment – untaken and defiant Dover Castle.
The Defender of Dover: Hubert de Burgh
"Most strongly fortified by man and nature", Dover Castle was held for King John by Hubert de Burgh,
Justiciar of England, with a strong garrison of 140 knights and many more soldiers.
Hubert was well suited for the task. Unlike John's hated foreign mercenaries, he was an Englishman from Norfolk,
with a track record of defending fortresses.
In 1204-5 he"d held John's French castle of Chinon for a year against Prince Louis's father,
until its walls were flattened by siege engines.
The First Siege
In 1216 the main entrance to Dover Castle was a gatehouse
at its northernmost point,
additionally protected by a barbican
outwork defended by a deep ditch and a stockade
of great oak posts.
According to an eye-witness serving with the French army,
Louis at first hesitated to attack,
but Hubert"s garrison taunted him by regularly parading in full armour outside their barbican.
And when a French crossbowman ventured too close, the defenders dashed out and snatched him.
Perhaps stung by this incident, Louis began the siege in earnest, probably on 22 July 1216. Having cut Dover off from relief by land or sea, he began bombarding the gateway with stone-throwing "perrier" and "mangonel" siege engines, while his crossbowmen shot down at the defenders from a tall siege tower. Protected by a "cat" (a hut on wheels) his miners got into the barbican ditch and undermined the stockade. The attackers poured through the gap, took the barbican and killed its commander.
Attack on the Gatehouse
Thinking the castle now as good as his,
Louis received admirers who'd come to pay him homage
including the King of Scotland.
Next he set his miners tunnelling under the
twin-towered stone gatehouse.
As one of its towers came crashing down,
the French launched a full-scale assault on the breach,
only to find that the garrison
behind it a barrier of boulders
cross-beams and mighty
oak posts. Assailed "with great vigour" by the garrison,
the attackers were driven out with very heavy losses.
"Hang them all"
Shocked by this unexpected repulse
the French backed off.
Settling down to starve
the castle out, they built such elaborate
siege works and lodges around it "that the place looked like a fair".
by Louis' threats to hang every man of them,
held out until a truce
was agreed on 14 October.
By now Louis and his allies
had taken all but a tiny handful of
in eastern England, and Dover stood almost alone for King John.
Four days later, John died at Newark.
Louis urged Dover's garrison to surrender,
since they now had no master to serve.
add that he offered Hubert East Anglia to rule if he agreed,
and threatened to hang
brother if he refused
But refuse he did, vowing
to hold the castle for John's heir,
the nine-year-old Henry III.
Leaving a token
force behind, Louis abandoned
the siege to seek easier prey
and Dover was temporarily left in peace.
The English Resistance
"But those in the castle",
recalled our French eye-witness
"kept the truce very badly".
Re-stocking with provisions,
the Dover garrison became the focus of a die-hard English resistance movement.
English freebooters seized French supply ships,
while the archers raised by a Kentish squire nicknamed "Willikin of the Weald"
ambushed French land-convoys, even attacking Louis himself.
Stone balls being hurled
at a castle by a siege engine similar to that
used by the trebuchets at Kenilworth in 1266.
From a French manuscript circa 1340.
Stone balls being hurled
at a castle by a siege engine similar to the trebuchets
used at Dover in 1217.
From a French manuscript circa
The Second Siege
Eventually, in May 1217,
Louis decided that Dover Castle
must be taken.
But even as his powerful new attacking force approached,
Willikin's guerrillas set the French siege "lodges" round the castle ablaze
killing their guards.
Camping in the open air,
Louis set up his secret weapon,
a massive counterweight-powered "trebuchet"
siege engine named "Malvoisin"
(evil neighbour), specially brought from France.
It did little damage
and the attackers found themselves
in by Willikin's raiders,
with English ships cutting off their supplies.
Then, only about ten days into the siege
Louis got the devastating
news that his main army and its
baronial allies had been decisively beaten at Lincoln by William the Marshal,
regent for the boy-king Henry.
his trebuchet and, once again, abandoned
The "Key of England"
Three months later, on 24 August 1217, Louis'
hopes of ruling
England were finally
when his fleet
a few miles off Dover,
with Hubert de Burgh"s own ship leading the attackers.
Before the fight
Hubert told his men not to give up the castle
if he himself was captured
"for it is indeed the key of England".
Eight hundred years ago, it proved
a key Prince Louis couldn"t turn.
Tracing the Great Siege today
Following the siege
north gateway was blocked
(it"s now part of the Norfolk Towers)
and replaced by the Constable"s Gate,
now the main entrance to the castle.
Outside the old gate,
Hubert built a new spur-barbican linked to the castle by a system of underground tunnels
You can still explore
One of them cuts through a rough-hewn
passage possibly mined
during the great siege