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Dover: Lock and Key of the Kingdom

A Brief History of Dover

Dover Castle from the Sea c.1904
Changing sea levels and erosion are thought to have  destroyed much of Dover's earliest Stone Age remains. Only  a handful of stone axes have been found in the area. The  first know inhabitants in the valley of the River Dour were  late Stone Age farmers who crossed to Dover by boat with  corn seed and domesticated animals about 6,000 years ago.  The earliest surviving cross-channel vessel was discovered at Dover in 1991 during excavations for the building of a new  road. The 3,500 year old Bronze Age Boat is now on show in  at Dover Museum.   It was about 9am on 26th August 55BC when Julius Caesar  arrived off Dover with his invasion fleet. From their ships the  Romans could see a vast number of well armed Britons lining  the cliffs. Caesar decided to find a more suitable landing  place and landed near Deal later the same day.
Roman Dover, the British port closest to the rest of the Roman Empire was a thriving town, believed to have covered at least a five  hectare area along the Dour valley. The Romans called the town DUBRIS after DUBRAS, the British name meaning 'waters'. The Roman  town had a large harbour, flanked by two lighthouses and three successive forts. The Classis Britannica, the Roman Navy in Britain  occupied one fort from AD130-208.     From the fifth century onwards, Germanic tribes crossed the North Sea to settle in Kent. Dover, then known as DOFRAS, became a major settlement in the new Kingdom of Kent. By the middle of the 10th century Anglo-Saxon Dover was prosperous and well organised with  it's own mint and established cross-channel trading links.   Following his victory at Hastings in 1066 William the Conqueror and his forces marched to Dover, then as now, a vital strategic point,  guarding the shortest crossing to France. William of Poitiers described the event "Then he marched to Dover, which had been reported  impregnable and held by a large force... our men, greedy for booty, set fire to the castle and the great part of it was soon enveloped in  flames".  After the Norman Conquest much of old Saxon Dover was rebuilt. The town benefited from the increase in cross channel trade and the  carrying of passengers between France and England stimulated by the Norman conquest. Great improvements were made to the Castle.  By 1190 the massive stone keep and inner walls or bailey surrounding it were complete. In the thirteenth century there were many  attacks on the town by French forces including the almost successful 1216 siege of the Castle by Prince Louis and a great raid of 1295  when 10,000 French burnt most of Dover to the ground. In about 1050 the five ports of Dover, Sandwich, Hastings, Romney and Hythe joined together to provide ships and men for the King,  Edward the Confessor. They became known as the Cinque Ports (after the Norman French word for five). In return for providing naval  and ferry services these towns received many rights and privileges. These privileges helped Mediaeval Dover to thrive as a port. Tudor and Stuart kings and queens took a particular interest in Dover. King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I both recognised the value  of the harbour, by this time threatened with blockage by shingle, and financed expensive repairs and enlargements. Henry also made  improvements to Dover's defences. During the reign of Charles I Dover declared against the King in the Civil War but enthusiastically  welcomed the return of his son Charles II in 1660.     In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Dover became a garrison town heavily defended against the threat of French invasion. At first earthen batteries were built along the sea front and across the Western Heights of Dover to supplement the limited protection offered by the mediaeval Castle against cannon and shells. In 1804, with invasion expected at any time, a massive programme of defensive  building in stone and brick began on the Western Heights creating two forts and deep brick lined ditches. A unique 140ft triple staircase,  the Grand Shaft, linked the town to the forts. The nineteenth century was a period of great change for Dover. The coming of the railways, the redevelopment of the harbour on a  massive scale, the growth of the cross-channel passage and the expansion of local industries led to the rapid growth in size of the town. Between 1801 and 1901 the population increased by 600%. Attempts were also made to develop the town as a seaside resort through  the provision of a pleasure pier, ice rink, bathing machines and impressive Seafront crescents of hotels and apartments. During the First World War Dover became one of the most important military centres in Britain. Vast numbers of men crossed from  Dover to France. The harbour became home to the Dover Patrol, a varied collection of warships and fishing vessels which protected  Britain's vital control of the English Channel. The first ever bomb to fall on England dropped near Dover Castle on Christmas Eve 1914.  Regular shelling from warships and bombing from aeroplanes and zeppelins forced residents to shelter in caves and dug-outs. The town  became known as "Fortress Dover".   The 1920's and 30's saw an increase in cross-channel traffic with the introduction of new luxury services like the "Golden Arrow" and  "Night Ferry" between London and Paris.     During the Second World War Dover again became a town of considerable military importance. In May 1940, over 200,000 of the  338,000 men evacuated from Dunkirk passed through Dover, filling the town and railway stations with soldiers, sailors and airmen. The  evacuation was controlled by Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay from his headquarters in tunnels beneath the castle. Dover came under  attack from both shells and bombs which caused 3,059 alerts and killed 216 civilians. 10,056 premises were damaged and many had to  be demolished. Dover and its White Cliffs became a symbol for Britain's wartime bravery, the centre of East Kent's "Hellfire Corner".  After the war Dover suffered the attentions of the town planners which led to many of the town's historic buildings that had survived the war being destroyed in the quest for modernity and free movement of road traffic. Traffic through the port continued to grow with the  increase in foreign travel after the war, the old rail and ship services being replaced by modern car ferries, hovercraft and high speed  catamarans. In spite of the Channel Tunnel passenger traffic through the port continues to increase. The cruise liner terminal, on the site of the old Marine Station, is attracting more and more cruise lines to use Dover as their UK base.     With the long awaited plans for the redevelopment of the St James area, there are hopes of a renaissance of the old heart of the town. So modern Dover, with its thousands of years of history and experience, is well placed to meet the challenges of the new millennium.