This article was first published in the August 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine


On the evening of the fifth day of Christmas 1170, as the monks of Canterbury chanted vespers, four knights in armour pushed their way into the cathedral church where the archbishop was waiting for them. They killed him with sword strikes at his head; while his brains and blood oozed out over the paving stones, they looted his palace. The four killers had ridden from King Henry II’s court. No one doubted that behind the most notorious murder in medieval history lay the king’s anger.

Thomas Becket, the archbishop who for years had very publicly stood for the privilege of the church against the secular power of the state, had been publicly killed by agents of that state. Henry, like the rest of Europe, was shocked. He shut himself away and would see no one. For three days, the most powerful ruler in the west – king of England, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou – did not leave his room. None of his subjects quite believed his protestations of innocence – though such was his power and ruthlessness that few of them dared to accuse him openly. Outside his dominions, there were no such inhibitions.

Within a few weeks miracles of healing were said to have occurred where Becket fell. In 1172 Henry acknowledged a degree of guilt and was formally reconciled with the church, but his reputation remained in shreds. In February 1173 the pope declared Becket a saint and a martyr for the liberty of the church. And a few months later, Henry’s situation got dramatically worse: his three most powerful neighbours, King Louis VII of France, King William of Scotland and Count Philip of Flanders, launched invasions of his lands from south and north, while simultaneously his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his elder sons rose in rebellion. Few kings have ever faced so great a political and military crisis. Yet he overcame it, and ironically he and many others came to believe that he owed his survival to the help of St Thomas Becket.

During the last ten years of his reign Henry oversaw the rebuilding of Dover Castle on such a scale as to turn it into the greatest fortress in western Europe, a massive symbol of the kind of power – secular and military – to which Thomas had fallen victim. Yet Dover Castle too owed its construction to St Thomas.

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For ten consecutive years, beginning in the financial year 1179–80, Henry spent more money on Dover than on any other castle in England. From 1179 until his death his outlay on the fortress totalled £5,991. This was almost two-thirds of total recorded expenditure on all English castles (£9,263) during those years – the greatest concentration of money on a single English castle in history.

Ever since the record of this prodigious expenditure was published in the 1950s by R Allen Brown, then Britain’s leading castle historian, scholars have tried to explain just what was so special about Dover. Allen Brown’s own explanation was in terms of military strategy. He never tired of quoting the description of the castle as “the key to England” – by the mid-13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris. Its strategic location, commanding the shortest crossing to the continent, led to the natural assumption that so massive a castle was designed as a frontier fortress ready to hold any invader at bay – just as it was when Napoleon and Adolf Hitler dominated the continent.

Dover had long been the site of an important fortification and the financial records of Henry II’s reign show that he had occasionally spent money here – about £500 in total in the first 25 years of his reign (1154–79), including £236 over the two years 1172–74 when Count Philip of Flanders was threatening to invade. But in 1179 and throughout the 1180s there was no invasion scare. Count Philip, when he wasn’t thinking about crusading, looked to Henry for help against the young king of France, Philip Augustus. In the 1190s King Philip was to make territorial gains in north-eastern France at the expense of Flanders. But England was in no danger from the king of France for as long as England’s king also ruled Normandy – as he did until 1204 when the outcome of King John’s political ineptitude was the loss of that great duchy. It was only after 1204 that Dover found itself in the front line of Anglo-French rivalry. This cannot explain what happened in the 1180s.

The medieval castle in the English county of Kent
DOVER, UNITED KINGDOM - 2009/07/19: The medieval castle in the English county of Kent. (Photo by Olaf Protze/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Symbol of authority

If Dover was not a response to military threat, then some other explanation was needed. The castle no doubt functioned as a powerful symbol of authority, and few symbols could be better placed than one visible to all shipping using the straits. But why did Henry feel this particularly in 1179? In recent years English castle specialists have argued that Dover Castle was Henry’s riposte to the burgeoning cult of Saint Thomas. At this time the monks of Canterbury Cathedral were rebuilding the east end of their church, including the magnificent Trinity Chapel and Corona as a glorious new shrine to Saint Thomas. Dover Castle, it has been argued, was a visible assertion of Henry’s power in the face of a developing anti-monarchical cult.

But the problem with seeing the castle as Henry’s answer to an anti-monarchical cult is that by 1179 this is not how Henry saw Becket. Faced by rebellion and invasion in 1174, on 12 July 1174 he had done public penance at Thomas’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral: “taking off his cloak, he thrust his head and shoulders into one of the openings of Saint Thomas’s tomb”. Then he was flogged, five lashes from each of the prelates present and three from each of the 80 monks. “When he had been disciplined, he withdrew his head from the tomb and sat down on the dirty ground with no carpet or cushion under him, and he sang psalms and prayers all night, without getting up for any bodily need.”

For a politician then, as now, to say sorry occasionally can be a shrewd move, and no politician ever said sorry more theatrically than Henry II. Few have been able to exploit their penance more cleverly. The next morning, at the very hour that he heard mass before leaving the cathedral, King William of Scotland was captured at Alnwick. That same day an invasion fleet was scattered. Henry won the war. It seemed to the world and to Henry himself that, thanks to Thomas, he had God on his side once again. Whereas he had initially discouraged pilgrimages to Thomas’s tomb, from 1174 on he led the devotion. A Book of Miracles was presented by the monks to the king – at the latter’s request. It became his custom, every time he returned to England, to visit St Thomas. Before 1174 he is only once recorded at Canterbury. After his penance, he made at least ten more visits. Whatever the Becket cult’s potential for celebrating opposition to public power, after 1174 Henry himself evidently did not see it as directed against him.

On Palm Sunday (17 April) 1177 King Henry was at Reading when he heard of Count Philip’s intention of visiting Becket’s tomb. King and count met at Canterbury on 21 April. The next day (Good Friday) he escorted Philip back to Dover and stayed there while the count made a night crossing. Next day Henry went to Wye, a manor near Ashford, where he celebrated Easter “with his earls and barons”. This is the one and only time Henry is known to have visited Wye. To have to celebrate one of the great court feasts in a village instead of one of the major centres of royal power such as Windsor, Winchester or Le Mans was awkward and embarrassing.

Henry’s show home

Henry II, like his predecessors, almost never visited Kent. There was no royal forest in Kent, and he had no houses there. When he crossed the Channel he went to Normandy and to western France, not to Flanders or north-eastern France. In the first 23 years of his reign Henry II sailed from Dover just once, but he embarked and disembarked at Southampton and Portsmouth 18 times. Count Philip’s pilgrimage had dragged him out of his usual itinerary, and accommodation fit for a king was evidently hard to find.

Henry II of England (From the Historia Anglorum, Chronica majora). Artist: Paris, Matthew (c. 1200-1259)
Henry II of England (From the Historia Anglorum, Chronica majora). Found in the collection of British Library. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Two years later, in August 1179, something similar occurred. The only son of King Louis VII of France fell dangerously ill and his distraught father took the astonishing decision to go to Canterbury. As contemporaries observed, no king of France had ever set foot in England before. It was the first state visit in English history. Louis’s decision caught Henry on the hop. He rode through the night in order to be able to greet Louis on Dover beach. Next day he escorted him to Canterbury, where Louis prayed at Becket’s tomb and gave offerings, including the great ruby which Henry VIII was to grab for himself when he destroyed the shrine. Henry then escorted Louis back to Dover, where the two kings spent another night.

The chronology of expenditure shows that it was in the financial year beginning in September 1179, just one month after Louis VII’s pilgrimage, that Henry first spent more on Dover than on any other English castle. It is hard not to think that it was this extraordinary visit, and the prospect of more to come – and in the 1180s great secular and ecclesiastical princes continued to descend on Canterbury – that triggered the king’s decision to build something truly spectacular at Dover. This is supported by a recent interpretation of Henry’s great tower – in particular the forebuilding, with its three flights of steps leading up to the upper floor – which have suggested it was designed as a setting for ceremonial entrances and exits.

When Henry visited Paris he stayed in the royal palace. But what palatial residence could Henry offer important guests coming from abroad? No doubt it would have been possible to improve the king’s castle at Canterbury. But Canterbury would always be the city of the archbishop and monks of Christ Church. Dover was obviously the place for a great building which could not only accommodate foreign princes and their entourages – Louis came with dukes, counts and many barons in his train – but which as a symbol of royal power visible from afar would overwhelm visitors even before they set foot on English soil. Evidently, Dover Castle as it was in 1177 and 1179, did not meet the bill.

By 1179 Henry was at the height of his power. He had become the arbiter of Europe. His sons and daughters were all provided for. His wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was safely locked up. Henry, with Thomas Becket’s help, dominated his world. This is what the new Dover Castle represented and it became a place Henry was happy to visit. In 1184 he sailed from Wissant (located between Calais and Boulogne) to Dover – the first time since 1156 that he had used the port of Dover. In the last years of his reign he used it twice more, in 1185 and 1187, sailing from Dover to Wissant, and then travelling overland to Normandy. Why was he now taking so circuitous a route? Because he was conducting VIPs out of England, and had something truly impressive to show them.

Despite the strength of its site, the old fortress at Dover was not impregnable. It surrendered to Duke William in 1066, and to King Stephen in 1138. But when Louis VII’s grandson, Prince Louis of France, came to England at the invitation of the barons in revolt against King John in May 1216, Dover did not surrender, as Canterbury, London and Winchester did. Matthew Paris’s description of Dover as the key to England was made in his account of the great siege of 1216. So crucial did Louis judge Dover Castle to be that between 10 July and 14 October he kept the bulk of his army there. While Dover held up Louis’s forces for three months, his cause – which in May and June had been sweeping all before it – lost momentum. Failure before Dover laid the foundations for Louis’s defeat. The castle built to welcome princely pilgrims to Becket’s shrine – built at a time of peace when Henry was the richest ruler of western Europe and had nothing to fear – turned out to be the saving of his son’s and grandson’s throne. It was yet another example of the murdered archbishop saving Plantagenet hide.


John Gillingham