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Dover Castle Under Siege

In 1215, many English Barons had turned against King John and his tyrannical rule, in a rebellion which drove him from London. The rebels sought to make Prince Louis of France king. Louis landed with an army in Thanet, in May 1216, forcing John to flee.

Canterbury welcomed Louis, who took Rochester castle after a short siege and entered London on 2nd June. Once the capital was secured, Louis quickly moved to take Winchester and the surrounding area. Unopposed, the French Prince marched on Dover Castle which he needed in order to protect his lines of communication with France.

Work on constructing a totally new Castle at Dover had been commenced by Henry II in 1180 and continued, following his death, by Richard I, his brother King John, and finally being completed by Henry III. Henry II more or less demolished the old castle, building a vast U-shaped perimeter set inside a great encircling wall of stone, which extended right down to the cliffs at the southern end of the enclosure. At the centre was a square keep, surrounded by an inner baily. A great gatehouse was constructed at the northern tip of the castle enclosure. The main gate had a barbican, which was enclosed with palisades of oak and surrounded by a ditch.

Hubert De Burgh, who was a seasoned soldier and had held out for over a year at Chinon Castle in the Loire Valley, was the senior knight at Dover Castle. At his command were over 140 Knights, a large number of men at arms and was well supplied.

When Prince Louis first arrived in Dover, he and his men were billeted in and around the town, as the castle was not immediately under siege. On several occasions, the castle garrison paraded outside the gate, which was high above the town, and a French bowman who came to close, was captured.

In mid-July, the siege began with Louis dividing his forces, by moving half to a camp on the hill in front of the castle with the rest staying in the town. His fleet was sent to sea, to prevent supplies being smuggled in and to surround the castle on all sides. A siege tower was built, to be placed against the walls. Great catapults were brought in, but had little effect on the strong stone walls. Shops and buildings were built in front of the castle, together with a market, to give the impression that the French were prepared for a long stay. This also increased the feelings of hunger on the garrison, with a protracted siege. Meanwhile Louis employed miners to dig under the barbican on the uncompleted north wall. A breach was created in the timber palisade, enabling it to be stormed and captured. The King of Scotland travelled to Dover to accept Prince Louis as King of England, and pay homage to him, in front of the castle.

From the barbican, French miners dug tunnels beneath the main gate. Hubert de Burgh also had tunnels dug in the hope of intercepting the attackers. The French managed to cause the North Tower to fall, allowing large numbers of Louis’s men to enter the castle, but the defenders resisted and a counter attack repulsed the French. The breach was repaired using timber from other parts of the castle.

Realising the determination of the defenders, Louis struck a truce on 14 October, but within four days, King John had died at Newark Castle. His heir, Henry III, at just nine years old, was proclaimed king. Louis held a meeting with Hubert de Burgh, and offered him lands and position if he would surrender the castle and accept Louis as king. Hubert declined, stating that King John had a son, and after discussion with the remaining Knights, he also refused to surrender. Therefore, after three months at Dover, Prince Louis abandoned the camp, and left for London.

Once the French had departed, men from the garrison burnt down the French camp and its buildings, and then searched the land to restock their supplies. In the months that followed the garrison at Dover did not keep to the truce and intercepted all communications with France, until the situation became so intolerable that by May 1217 Louis was back in front of Dover Castle, but with only half his army. A trebuchet was erected, but the huge catapult also proved to be ineffectual.

The other half of Louis army had gathered at Lincoln where they were destroyed in battle, the news of which forced the prince and his army to leave Dover and return to London.

Louis sent for reinforcements from France, but in August Hubert de Burgh set sail with a small fleet and inflicted a crushing defeat on the new men and supplies. The French prince had no other choice than to give up his attempt at the English crown and return to France.

The forethought of Henry II in realising that Dover Castle was ‘the key to England’, as described by Mathew Paris, resulted in the building of a great castle, and when well-defended, proved to be invincible.

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