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England Invaded (5): High Noon at Dover Castle

Updated on March 8, 2018

By Nils Visser

Prince Louis of France, Louis le Lion, had moved against Dover at last, although to a layman things would appear to have moved agonizingly slow. Upon arrival, at the beginning of July 1216, Louis first set up camp in the town of Dover, not investing the castle at all. In a show of defiance the castle’s garrison would march out fully kitted out and hold a parade on the grounds by the north gate. To contribute some discomfiture to this occurrence, the French would send out crossbowmen as skirmishers, presumably in pairs so that one could cover the other during the reloading process, but that is just a guess. One of the French chroniclers did record that on occasion these derring-do crossbowmen would get too close, for at one time a group of the defenders sallied from the parade and captured a certain Ernaut, one of the crack shots amongst the French crossbowmen.

I include this because we don’t often find out a great deal about the average man from these medieval records, concerned as they are with the deeds of the high and mighty. Funnily enough, the few words accorded to Ernaut are sufficient for me to develop a liking for him. We don’t know what happens to him once he is captured, but I sincerely hope he survived the war and got to tell his grandchildren about time Ernaut the gutsy Crossbowman had a bad hair day and was captured by the defenders of Dover Castle.

More important than this subjective empathy of mine, is the fact that we get to see crossbowmen in a role laymen don’t usually associate with them. As I pointed out in the last chapter, we tend to think of the big battles when we think of medieval warfare, I’ve had debates with re-enactors who were convinced that all archers ever did was stand in a line and shoot en masse. If your main references are the big showpiece battles like Crécy and Agincourt, and, of course, your own experiences and this is where the argument that living history is the only way to truly understand the past tends to lose some of its shine, then such an assumption would make sense. However, having learnt that siege warfare was far more common than field battles it would make more sense to assume that on these occasions archers and crossbowmen operated in small groups rather than massed ranks, something confirmed by the command structures of English archers, which include a Ventenar in charge of some 15 to 20 men and the type of action Ernaut was involved in at Dover Castle, as well as the more constricted maneuvering space in or around a fortification.

Some fifty years after the Baron’s War, for example, records show that the occupants of Nottingham Castle were fighting out a conflict on behalf of the king with an enemy concealed deep within the forest of Sherwood. A familiar ring? No names of the participants are given, and I will not enter speculation, there were outlaws aplenty in England. What we do know is that in 1266 and 1267 wages were paid to 20 mounted crossbowmen, 10 crossbowmen on foot and 20 regular archers. No massed ranks here, but a small force able to operate as an independent body. Such numbers can be found in similar documents listing the garrisons of castles such as Dover Castle, a mixed body of crossbowmen and archers, usually between 50 and 100 men in total.

To understand why Louis didn’t invest Dover Castle straight away we need to understand what an immense effort a siege was, especially the siege of a fortress the size of Dover Castle. One simply didn’t march up to the gate and set up a tent there. If in luck, a castle garrison might be underpaid, have shaky loyalties, be intimidated or have no food or water supplies, in which case a surrender might be negotiated. An example of this was the 1216 siege of Framlingham Castle. It’s occupant, Roger Bigod II, was a rebel who opposed King John. When royal foreign mercenaries showed up outside the gates, Bigod commanded 26 knights, 20 sergeants, seven crossbowmen, a chaplain and three other people. The castle had recently been rebuilt and had projecting towers along its walls, loopholes and battlements. However, having loopholes is not so much use if you only have seven crossbowmen and no archers, and the castle was surrendered after two days, the defenders not having the oomph to defy the besiegers for much longer.

If a garrison was determined to resist, however, then reducing a castle could become a drawn-out affair, King John’s three month siege of Rochester Castle being a prime example of this. As already mentioned, King John was extremely displeased with the amount of time, money and soldiers the siege cost him.

A good illustration of the investment required for a siege can be found a few years after the First Baron’s War, the siege of Bedford Castle in 1224. As you can probably remember from a previous chapter Falkes de Breauté had captured Bedford Castle in 1216 and made it his headquarters. After the First Baron’s War, de Breauté’s power base was enormous and this brought him into conflict with King Henry III who demanded he yield Bedford Castle. Falkes refused and a siege was organized. For this purpose siege engines had to be transported from Lincoln, Northampton and Oxfordshire, as well as timber from Northamptonshire with which carpenters made more siege engines at Bedford Castle itself. Further necessities included ropes from London, Cambridge and Southampton; hides from Northampton; tallow from London; labourers from Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire; miners from Bedfordshire and the Forest of Dean; 43,300 crossbow bolts were ordered from the depot at Corfe Castle; local foresters cut down trees for timber; stoneworkers quarried stones which were needed as ammunition by the siege engines. The king required his tents from London along with ingredients for his royal meals and wine to supplement these meals. The food and beverage, of course, required an extended kitchen staff. Apart from the king the rest of the army had to be fed as well, on average there would have been 2,000 troops present for the duration of the siege (eight weeks). 

The siege engines consisted of six mangonels, a trebuchet, and two siege castles. It took four attacks to reduce the castle. The Barbican and outer bailey were stormed, at considerable cost. Miners then collapsed part of the wall allowing access to inner bailey. The miners then lit fires along the walls of the keep, which meant that the stone started cracking and the keep was filled with smoke, which led to the surrender of the garrison.

Royal losses amounted to seven knights and more than 200 soldiers and labourers. The three defending knights were spared, as usual the rich upper class toffs looked after their own, but the code of chivalry doesn’t count for commoners, and they were all hung by the neck.

In other words, a siege required considerable logistical skills and cost a small fortune. In the case of Dover, certain supplies had to be transported from France, the siege engines, for example, were brought across by Eustace the Black Monk, and any convoys travelling from the channel ports along the south coast to Dover had to be well protected as they were harried in the Weald by Willikin’s archers.

On July the 19th Louis was ready with his preparations, and he took the larger part of his army to the high ground to the north of the castle. Presumably this is also where he set up his siege engines, since this was the place where subsequent attacks were to take place. Other troops formed a encompassing line around the castle, the enclosure completed by French ships on the seaside of the castle (Eustace again?).

The castle was held by Hubert de Burgh, with 140 knights and men-at-arms and untold further defenders, the latter probably included “watchmen”, often armed with hand bows, and armed inhabitants of the castle whose primary task was to keep the place up and running. Because Louis had taken his time getting to Dover, the castle’s defenders had had time to stockpile ample supplies.

They physical situation on the northern side of the castle, where most of the action was to take place, was as follows: The French occupied the higher ground to the north of the castle, the saddle between this higher ground and the upwards slope towards the hilltop occupied by the castle had had a deep ditch dug into it. Facing this ditch was a barbican (small redoubt) with a palisade made of oak timbers or stakes. Behind the barbican was another ditch, and then a twin-towered gate-house with a number of flanking towers. The gate-house is no longer there today, but traces of it have been found in archeological explorations of the north end of the outer curtain wall.

Thomas de Burgh, Hubert’s brother, had been captured by the French, and Louis attempted to use him as a bargaining chip, threatening to hang Thomas in full view of the defenders if Hubert de Burgh refused to surrender the castle. When Hubert refused to do so, Louis tried promises of silver and gold. Exasperated at Hubert’s continued refusal to yield he then threatened to hang every member of the garrison by the neck from the highest points of the keep if they didn’t surrender.

Hubert, no doubt aware of selling movie rights to Hollywood, purportedly replied:

“Let not Louis hope that I will surrender as long as I draw breath. Never will I yield to French aliens this Castle, which is the very key and gate of England!”.

As with most such supposed quotations it’s doubtful that these very words were spoken but something very similar must have been said, for Hubert and the defenders remained unperturbed by Louis’ various attempts to entreat, cajole or demand surrender. At any rate, the words are simply too suitably heroic to leave out of this account.

The defenders’ defiance left Louis no choice but to open the siege properly, beginning a bombardment of the north gate of the castle. The main siege engine was a petraric, a type of stone-throwing trebuchet, called “Malvoisine” meaning bad neighbour. Work was started on a large siege tower, the top of which was on a par with the height of the walls. On a couple of occasions the defenders were roused into making sorties to attack the siege engines or enemy troops.

Interestingly enough Roger of Wendover has the following to report on the opening procedures of the siege: “having first sent…. for…. ’Malvoisine’….and the French having disposed this and other engines before the castle, they began to batter the walls incessantly, but Hubert de Burgh….and a large number of soldiers who were defending the castle, destroyed many of the enemy, until the French feeling their loss removed their tents and engines farther from the castle, - on this Louis was greatly enraged and swore he would not leave the place till the castle was taken.”

If Wendover is accurate in his description, this would suggest that the French had placed their camp and siege engines within range of the defenders and were forced to relocate. This would suggest the defenders’ sorties were extremely effective in that they endangered the French camp, or else the French had underestimated the range and effect of the crossbows employed by the defenders (hand bows not yet having the power and range of later war bows). As there is no other mention of defender’s counter-siege engines, I would venture that crossbows came into effective play here.

French troops proceeded to undermine the barbican. You’ll note there is a lot of mining going on, John having employed it at Rochester Castle in 1215, Philip Augustus at Richard I’s supposedly invincible Château Gaillard in Normandy in 1204, and Henry III yet to do so at Bedford Castle in 1224. During the archaeological explorations of the old north gate at Dover Castle archaeologists found short tunnels on the defender’s side, most likely as listening posts or as counter-tunnels dug towards the sound of enemy mining activities. This was one of the options available to defenders, to hope counter-tunnels would link up with attacker’s tunnels and then fight in the dark and narrow confines of these tunnels, presumably a very claustrophobic experience. Bernard Cornwell gives a spine-chilling account of such fighting in his novel Azincourt. After the siege of Dover the northern gate was blocked and new gates were built, including the present day Constable’s Gate, which is where most visitors enter the castle. New defences added to the northern part of the outer bailey included a number of tunnels, it’s possible to enter these today and wondering about them get a vivid impression of what combat conditions might have been like in such locations.

When a segment of the barbican’s palisade collapsed, French troops stormed the breach and after vicious hand-to-hand combat the barbican fell. A contemporary French chronicle informs us that Huart de Paon, “a horse soldier who bore the banner of the Lord of Bethune was the first to mount the breach, and that the captain of the gate and barbican, Pierre de Creon, was mortally wounded in the fighting.”

The same chronicler informs us that the next step was to mine towards the eastern tower by the northern gate, which was done successfully: “they mined, so that one of the towers fell, of which there were two.”

Louis ordered his troops to storm the fresh breach in Dover’s defenses, and initially a large number of his men managed to enter the castle. Following intense hand-to-hand combat amidst the rubble of the fallen tower the French lost their foothold in the castle, and Hubert de Burgh directed emergency reparations in which timber and crossbeams were used to make a new makeshift wall across the breach. Presumably, de Burgh knew that the French were digging towards the gatehouse (the counter tunnels could have served as listening posts, miners using mining equipment to hack through chalk rock tend to make noise) and had a number of buildings stripped of the beams as a precaution, one cannot imagine demolishing part of the castle to prop up another part whilst combat is taking place all at once. Either way, it’s clear that Hubert de Burgh was a good man to have around if you found yourself in a besieged fortress, the man knew his business.

Prince Louis came to the same conclusion, and in October 1216, after three months of siege, he arranged for a truce with the defenders of Dover Castle. Four days after the truce was agreed upon King John died, and Louis sought a parlay with the defenders. According to Roger Wendover: Louis then summoned Hubert de Burgh, constable of Dover Castle, to a conference, and said to him, 'Your lord King John is dead, and you cannot hold this castle against me for long, as you have no protector; therefore give up the castle, and become faithful to me, and I will enrich you with honours, and you shall hold a high post amongst my advisers.'To this offer Hubert is said to have replied, ‘Although my lord is dead, he has sons and daughters, who ought to succeed him; and, as to surrendering the Castle, I will deliberate with my fellow knights.’ He then returned to the castle and told his friends what Louis had said, but they were all unanimous in refusing to surrender it to him.”

While Louis and his French troops had been trying to reduce Dover Castle and pacify Kent, John’s armies had been ravaging the lands of Louis’ supporters in the Midlands. Even though the barons still supported Louis, John’s death was to change matters. The royalist party wasted no time in having John’s nine year old son Henry crowned as Henry III at Gloucester Abbey (the West Country was firmly royalist) ten days after John’s death. William Marshal was appointed Regent, and he promised that he and King Henry III would abide by the Magna Carta, which John had refused to do, one of the main causes of the barons’ rebellion. Marshal also specifically made a point of reminding the barons that Henry III couldn’t be blamed for the sins of his father as well as making much of the fact that Louis represented not England but a foreign power. Last-but-not-least, he promised a pardon for those rebels who would acknowledge Henry III as their king. All of Marshal’s arguments resonated well and opinion began to shift.

By arranging a truce with Herbert de Burgh, Louis wasn’t planning to abandon the siege of Dover, merely to postpone it while he dealt with urgent matters elsewhere first. He left his camp at Dover intact and a number of his troops there to protect the siege engines and took off for London to deal with the Royalists for once and all.

As chronicler Matthew Paris put it: “Ye haue hearde how Lewes has spent long tyme in vayne about the besiegyng of the Castell of Douer for although….constrayned them within ryght force, yet Huberte de Burghe and Girarde de Sotigam bare themselues so manfully….that their aduersaries coulde not come to vnderstande their disresse and daunger within the Castell, in so muche that dispairing to winne, it in….shorte tyme….contented to graunte a truce to them that kept this Castell, tyll the feaste of Easter nexte….Lewes….supposed nowe wythin a shorte tyme, to bryng the whole Realme vnder hys subiection: and therefore raysyng his siege from Douer, in hope to compasse enterprises of greater consequence, came backe vnto the Citie of London.”

At first Louis was successful. On the 6th of December he took Hertford Castle, allowing the garrison to depart. Later that month he took Berkhamsted Castle, “whyche was valiauntly defended by a Dutche Capitayne named Waleron, who with hys people behaued hymselfe so manfully, that a greate number of Frenchemen and other of them without, were lefte deade in the ditches.” None-the-less, Louis allowed Waleron and his garrison an honourable withdrawal after the castle surrendered.

John de Erley, William Marshal’s squire was less than happy about the surrender of Hertford castle, suggesting that the defenders of Hertford had not waited to see if the Regent would send help, but arranged a truce with Louis, which also involved the surrender of Norwich and Oxford castles.

Despite these successes William Marshal’s plans were working, and an increasing number of former rebels were appealing for King Henry’s clemency, receiving a pardon in exchange for their pledges of loyalty. Moreover, there was no winter campaign stop, the fighting raged on everywhere. Early in 1217 Louis decided to go back to France to raise new troops to reinforce his English campaign. Accompanied by an army of roughly 4,000 men, Louis set off for the channel.

It is at this stage that we encounter Willikin of the Weald again. So far, I have accepted at face value the claim that Willikin, a.k.a. William of Cassingham, commanded a small army, no less than 1,000 men despite the fact that it is wise to remember that medieval chroniclers tend to exaggerate numbers. With regard to logistics, I forwarded the suggestion that it was unlikely Willikin kept them all in one place, pointing out that he would have been most effective had his troops covered great swathes of the Weald, rather than just a single focal point. The reason I accepted the 1,000 as seemingly realistic is related to the remarkable events that now followed.

As Prince Louis and his army travelled south, they were ambushed by Willikin of the Weald in the vicinity of Lewes. That this was more than a pin-prick, i.e. unexpected volleys fired by invisible archers who disappeared ere the French could get at them, is suggested by the reports that the French army fled from Willikin’s archers, moving south as fast as they could, pursued by Willikin’s bands of merry men, who are reported to have destroyed bridges that the fleeing army had passed so that Louis couldn’t turn around and head back north. There are indications that the French army’s movement wasn’t an ordered withdrawal, but a panicked flight. It seemed that at least a part of the population partook in an uprising of sorts, something much more likely to succeed against small fragmented elements of an army in panic, rather than well-organized units of disciplined soldiers. Willikin’s own men captured two cousins of the Count of Nevers, and it’s claimed the French lost up to a thousand soldiers during their flight from Lewes towards Winchelsea on the Sussex coast.

John de Erley, describing the scenes of destruction he encountered as William Marshal also hastened south, said: “I saw eaten by dogs a hundred of….the ribalds of France….whom the English slew between Winchester and Romsey….In a number of places in England, people did the same or worse, witness Willikin of the Weald.” to which he later adds “Furthermore, Willikin of the Weald was harrying him, and had many of Louis’s men beheaded.”

The Weald must have been a place of nightmares for the French troops, who soon discovered that leaving those woods behind didn’t offer much solace. Winchelsea itself had been deserted by its inhabitants, who had also broken the mills needed to grind grain and taken all foodstuffs to be found in town with them. The French fleet that was supposed to await them just beyond Winchelsea was nowhere in sight, having been detained by adverse weather conditions. Moreover, the enemy were closing in, Willikin still behind the French army, William Marshal closing in from the West, and Philip d’Aubigné, who commanded the royalists in Kent and Sussex, closing in from the East.

Louis was hemmed in at Winchelsea for two weeks, his men subsisting from nettles and nuts, before Sir Hugues Tacon and Eustace the Black Monk arrived with the French relief fleet and took Louis back to France. This isn’t to say that the rebellion was over, cities and castles throughout England were garrisoned by men who were loyal to Louis, Frenchmen and Englishmen alike. Moreover, Louis’s intention was to go to France to raise new armies, not lick his wounds and try to forget about the enterprise. He would be back within two months and offer both Willikin of the Weald and Hubert de Burgh new opportunities to distinguish themselves. However, to the royalists, whose chances had been ebbing fast for the first nine months of the campaign, it seemed that the tide was turning at last.

Find out how all this ended in the next part of England Invaded: End Game

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    • Nils Visser profile imageAUTHOR

      Nils Visser 

      7 years ago from Brighton UK

      Bleeding heck. I spoke too soon, the next episode is not going to be the last. This stage of the campaign sees the Battle of Lincoln Fair, which is way too interesting to cut short, but I don't want to spare the words for the final battles of Dover and Sandwich either. So, two more to go. Archers in all three battles of course, and also playing very decisive parts.

    • Nils Visser profile imageAUTHOR

      Nils Visser 

      7 years ago from Brighton UK

      Thanks, noted, two servings of the Weald and a Dover Special.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      In the worlds of the legandary Billy Connely:

      I want this, I want that, I want more of THIS and ALL of that! And I want it NOW!!

      Awesome reading ( again ;o) )

    • profile image

      bob the warbow 

      7 years ago

      Praise Nils,another thrilling chapter. Now I know it for sure... I want My OWN WEALD !!!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      everything's already said! nothing more to say but keep'm coming!

    • Nils Visser profile imageAUTHOR

      Nils Visser 

      7 years ago from Brighton UK

      Wow, cheers mate.

    • profile image

      Ricardo Mjöllnir 

      7 years ago

      There are few who know about true honor. Your stories help me remember what life is about. I thank you for that!! There are times we live in darkness and there are times we are free men. I salute you!!

    • Nils Visser profile imageAUTHOR

      Nils Visser 

      7 years ago from Brighton UK

      Thanks for the comments so far all. Frank, one more episode to go. More Willikin, Hubert, William Marshal, a bit of female heroics and Eustace the Black Monk enters the fray.

    • profile image

      Frank of the Spoon 

      7 years ago

      Me wants even more!!!! I was disappointed you didn't show up today at the Castle ruins to shoot with us, but now I've had my Sunday evening read, you are more than forgiven.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Keep 'em coming Nils! :oD

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      love these stories!


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