Restoration of Dover Castle Great Tower evokes splendour and power of Henry II

By Culture24 Staff | 31 July 2009
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an aerial view of a castle keep and outer wallas

Aerial View of The Keep at Dover Castle. Picture © English Heritage

When Henry II built his Great Tower keep at Dover Castle in the 12th century, he was as mindful of its position as a symbol of power as its function as a strategic defence against enemies and invaders.

With his eyes focussed uneasily on the steady stream of Medieval tourists on their way to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket, he created a splendid Royal Court within the castle walls, representing an unequivocal and majestic emblem of his authority and wealth.

a photo of a conservator working on a medieval style painting

Wall hangings hand-painted by Meg Surrey. Picture © English Heritage

Now the huge interior of the keep at Dover Castle has undergone a major transformation by English Heritage, restoring the splendour of Henry's court for a new generation of tourists, albeit ones with less pious ambitions.

The developments have been informed by new research by Professor John Gillingham, who believes that the spectre of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in 1170 by four of the King's knights, was the main reason for the King building this impressive icon at Dover.

a photo of two conservators working on a medieval map

A Worcester-based husband and wife team have created a 12th century Mappa Mundi for Dover Castle. Picture: David Burges, ©English Heritage

Professor Gillingham believes the desire to erect a visible symbol of royal power to exploit and counter the growing cult around the Saint was foremost in the ruler's mind, alongside the need to have a suitably grand place to entertain dignitaries who were passing through Dover to visit Becket's shrine in Canterbury.

"The recreated Medieval interior of the Great Tower will show how Henry was eager to impress his audience amid the rise of a religious, some say anti-monarchical cult, around Becket," explained Professor Gillingham.

"Improving the King's castle at Canterbury was an uncomfortable option because in this place royal power would always be overshadowed by the power of the Saint, not the message Henry wished to send."

a photo of a medieval style wall hanging

One of the wall hanging designs by acclaimed theatre set designer Kit Surrey. Picture © English Heritage

Although Henry's Great Tower has remained preserved throughout the centuries to give off an outward impression of the ambition of its builder, it has been difficult to understand how it might have functioned during his time.

The restoration gives a refreshingly clear insight into the world of Henry and the 12th century life of his court.

For the last two years a team of historians has been working closely with 140 artists and craftspeople, who have spent thousands of hours designing and making 80 pieces of furniture, 21 oak doors, 140 metres of wall hangings, dozens of embroidered textiles, 47 cushions and over 1,000 objects – all in a convincing 12th-century artistic style.

a photo of a two conservators working on a medieval court banner

Embroidered textiles by the Royal School of Needlework. Picture © English Heritage

These are used to furnish the interiors of the King's Hall, the King's Chamber, the Guest Hall, the Guest Chamber, the privy kitchen and the armoury, capturing their original appearance.

To add to the atmosphere, Pepper's Ghosts (light projections of moving figures), costumed re-enactors and audio-visual presentations will evoke the gossip and rumour of Henry's complex family and court life, transporting visitors back to one of the most turbulent periods of European history.

The £2.45 million project has been core funded by the government's Sea Change Programme, which aims to drive regeneration and economic growth in seaside towns, and is supplemented by English Heritage grant-in-aid.

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