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Dover Castle

Photo by Stevebidmead

When I watched films about Richard the Lionheart, I was struck by one thing — the lack of colour. The Angevins, Richard’s family, were one of the wealthiest and most powerful in Europe in the High Middle Ages; his father Henry II was king of England, much of Ireland, and over half of France; They could afford the best. The film ‘The Lion in Winter’ shows them dressed in brown, beige and black. In various films about Robin Hood, the interior walls of castles are bare stone.

If you live in England or are fortunate enough to visit, you will be stunned by Dover Castle, the ‘key to England’, a fortification built to guard the Kentish coast, the land closest to the European continent. 

Many of the structures within the curtain walls were greatly changed as the castle was used through the centuries, even as a vital part of defence in World War II. 

But Dover Castle still looks like a medieval castle, and the recent reconstruction and furnishing of the interior of the keep is of great interest to anyone who wants to know what life was like in the 12th century. The keep was built as a royal palace between 1182 and 1188, during the reign of Henry II. His son Richard the Lionheart became king in 1189.

The keep, the residence, was deliberately constructed to recall the royal keep of a hundred years earlier; the similarity between the keeps at Dover and the Tower of London was no accident. Royal palaces were expected to look a certain way: imposing and impregnable

Two concentric walls with strong towers at intervals protected the keep. And this castle withstood a siege in 1216 when King John’s barons rebelled against him and invited the French king Louis to come and take the throne of England. (John hadn’t learned much from a previous rebellion and ignored the provisions of the Magna Carta.) Fortunately for England, Dover held out and Louis went home. 

The staircase leading to the first floor of Dover Castle
The Entrance Stair to the Keep at Dover Castle

If you were to visit the castle as an important guest, you would enter by a long staircase leading to the first floor. Essentially the nobility of the period lived in a two-room apartment, the large public room was called the hall and the private room the chamber.

Trestle tables for a feast with hangings behind

The Hall

But the keep at Dover Castle was a royal palace. On the ground floor was a huge kitchen, fitted with hearths, tables, bowls, baskets and dishes where men and boys prepared food for the castle. Men and boys (This was a garrisoned castle after all) sweated to produce the delicacies required by the royal family. Guard rooms are positioned to control the entrance to the royal palace. On the first floor (the second floor in American terms) are the throne room and the queen’s chamber, and, on the second floor, a great hall is set up for a feast and beside it is the king’s chamber. 

Thrones in the Keep at Dover Castle
The Royal Thrones

The King's bed and chest with bold colours all around
The King’s Bedchamber

The thrones are cerulean blue with red cushions; the chairs in the chambers are also blue. Chests and armoires are vivid greens and reds. There are small chambers in the walls which were used for storage of clothing or papers. A white-washed room built into the wall was used for writing to administer the kingdom. Small candle holders, wall sconces and freestanding candle holders are everywhere. Tallow for candles was expensive, but cost was not considered in this household. In the chambers, clothing, draped over the chairs and chests, is bright in colour. 

Every room is plastered or painted white or light colours; hunting scenes were painted round the top of the great hall. The lower parts of the hall are hung with wool hangings. Eleanor of Castile is said to have introduced tapestries to England when she married Edward I.

Richard the Lionheart is perhaps the best-known ‘king of the castle’. His father, Henry II, built up a large empire consisting of England, Wales and almost half of France. Mostly lost by John Lackland. The castle was the introduction to England seen by important folks from abroad. The many underground tunnels under Dover Castle were used in World War II to house staff for rescues and raids on the continent. Still an impressive fortress to this day.

Dover Castle (English Heritage)

Dover Castle (Wikipedia)

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