Eight hundred years ago this year, 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 had erected behind it a barrier of boulders, timber 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’. But undaunted by Louis’ threats to hang every man of them, the garrison held out until a truce was agreed on 14 October. By now Louis and his allies had taken all but a tiny handful of fortresses in eastern England, and Dover stood almost alone for King John.
Four days later, John died at Newark. A jubilant Louis urged Dover’s garrison to surrender, since they now had no master to serve. Some chroniclers add that he offered Hubert East Anglia to rule if he agreed, and threatened to hang his captive 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.
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 hemmed 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. Louis dismantled his trebuchet and, once again, abandoned the siege.
The ‘Key of England’
Three months later, on 24 August 1217, Louis’ hopes of ruling England were finally dashed when his fleet was destroyed 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 even 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, the damaged north gateway was blocked solid (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 these ‘medieval tunnels’. One of them cuts through a rough-hewn passage possibly mined during the great siege itself.
Author’s Note: This summary of the Great Siege is taken from the contemporary or near-contemporary Latin chronicles of Roger of Wendover, Matthew Paris, Ralph Coggeshall and the anonymous Barnwell chronicler, and particularly from the apparently eye-witness account in the medieval French ‘Histoire des Duc de Normandie et des Rois d’Angleterre‘. Unfortunately, modern English translations of these sources are not easily available.