Avranches Crossbow Tower, Eastern Outer Curtain Wall, Dover Castle, Kent, UK

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John Latter on June 3, 2011

The inner face of the medieval Avranches Tower located on the first corner where the Eastern Outer Curtain Wall of Dover's Norman Castle briefly changes direction on its way southwards from the Norfolk Towers (by St John`s Tower) to the edge of the White Cliffs of Dover above the Eastern Docks.

The plaque below the first window on the left reads:

Avranches Tower: Late 12th Century. Numerous arrow-loops make this one of the strongest towers in the castle.

Behind the first window is a spiral staircase, once leading to the top, or roof level, which is accessed via the tall doorway immediately to the right.

The roof level of Avranches Tower was "lowered" (removed) in 1755 by the military engineer, John Peter Desmaretz (J P Desmaretz, c. 1686-1768) as part of strengthening the northern defences of the castle.

Desmaretz remodelled the outer curtain wall from Avranches Tower to the Norfolk Towers which then gave two artillery positions, Four Gun Battery (near the Saxon church of St Mary-in-Castro and the Roman Pharos) and Bell Battery (between the Inner Bailey and Pencester Tower), clear fields of fire.

The opening on the far-right of Avranches Tower (with the irregular arch masonry) is at end of a short stretch of battlements terminating at the now-demolished Pencester Tower.

There are two vertical slits visible in the second archway from the right on the ground level of Avranches Tower which are part of a triple-loop embrasure (window) on the outer wall. The vertical slit on the right goes straight through the outer wall, while the one next to it goes through angled to the left. A third slit, hidden by the tower's inner wall, angles to the right. A crossbowman could therefore shoot through three different windows from a single firing position.

In addition to the roof and ground levels, Avranches Tower has another level underground (photos not yet available, but links will be added to this webpage when they are).

Avranches Tower is probably open at the rear so that it could come under fire from Pencester Tower and the Inner Curtain Wall (etc.) if taken by an enemy.

The above photo was taken at 5.21 pm on Friday, 20th of May, 2011. Alternative names for this tower: Avranche's Tower, Averanches Tower, Averenches Tower, Averanche's Tower, Averenche's Tower. The nearby Horseshoe Bastion was added by Colonel William Twiss during the Napoleonic Wars with France.

A crossbow is a weapon consisting of a bow mounted on a stock that shoots projectiles, often called bolts or quarrels. The medieval crossbow was called by many names, most of which derived from the word ballista, a torsion engine resembling a crossbow in appearance.

Abridged extract from a Historic Fortifications Network webpage (1):

Avranches Tower was probably built between 1185 and 1190 by Maurice the Engineer (or mason; Latin: Ingeniator), the architect of the Keep, or Great Tower (night view), on the possible site of the gateway to the Iron Age hillfort. It is a very early example of a purpose built crossbow tower. (NB Henry II Curtmantle was king at this time).

Abridged extract from Medieval fortifications (2):

Dover Castle has produced a thirteenth-century example of a crossbow bolt, and in this connection it is interesting to note that the castle has the earliest example of a tower (the late twelfth-century Avranches Tower) built with slits specifically designed for use by crossbowmen (Renn, 1969).

Abridged extract from The medieval castle in England and Wales (3):

Castle defence was assisted from the later years of the 12th century by the introduction of the crossbow. The traditional English bow was the short-bow, with a range of no more than 200 metres. The medieval crossbow derived from the classic ballista (_balista). It was a more accurate weapon, with a longer range, and the quarrel which it fired was in all respects more deadly than a simple arrow. It had been condemned by the Papacy in 1139 at the Second Council of the Lateran, held by Pope Innocent II (Gregorio Papereschi), but never ceased to be used. It was adopted in England in the later years of the 12th century. Richard I Coeur de Lion (The Lionheart) favoured it, and from the time of King John (John Lackland) small bands of balistarii, or crossbowmen, were stationed in the more important castles.

They clearly ranked high among the mercenaries of the king. Their wage was from 4 to 6 pence a day, greatly in excess of that of ordinary serving soldiers. They were mentioned in writs sent to constables, and a half-dozen made a useful garrison. Sixty crossbowmen were sent to Dover Castle in 1242, and small companies were despatched from castle to castle as need arose.

The records distinguish between 'one-foot' and 'two-foot' crossbows, according to whether or not both feet were used to hold the bow when drawing back the cord.

Abridged extract from The History of the Castle, Town and Port of Dover (4):

Averanche Tower was placed in the angle of this curtain (ie the outer curtain wall above the moat/ditch surrounding Dover castle) and "...its foundations were laid below the bottom of the deep ditch on the one side, and the wall was carried up, about ten feet thick, to a level with the inner vallum_ (vallum was a type of palisade, originally used as part of the Roman defensive fortification system). _In this wall they built a gallery on each of the five sides of the tower. At every angle there were several slope steps, leading from one platform to another..."

William de Averanche seems to have acted as Constable of Dover Castle until 1227. He was a descendant of the William de Albrincis (Averanche) to whom William I (also see William the Conqueror) granted lands for the defense of the Castle, and it is more than probable that Averanche's Tower is named after him.

Abridged extract from Dover Castle (5):

...Furthermore, attention has recently been drawn to the sophisticated design and concentrated fire-power of that section of the curtain (ie Eastern Outer Curtain Wall) which is undoubtedly Henry's from the Fitzwilliam Gateway (alt. Fitzwilliam Gate, Fitzwilliam Tower) to Avranches Tower, again reminiscent of Edwardian work a century later at, say, the Tower of London (Mint Street) or Caernarvon. The Avranches Tower itself, which blocks and guards the potentially dangerous re-entrant and entrance of the former Iron Age earthworks, is polygonal to the field (five sides of a pentagon, and cf. the near-contemporary Bell Tower of c. 1190 at the Tower of London), and on each face has two tiers of triple loops evidently designed for the crossbow (6) (see "The English Castle)".

(1) Accessed via Historic Fortifications Network (under, "Walking the Walls - Dover")

(2) From Medieval fortifications by John R. Kenyon

(3) From The medieval castle in England and Wales: a social and political history by Norman John Greville Pounds

(4) From The History of the Castle, Town and Port of Dover by Reverend S. P. H. Statham, Rector of St Mary-in-the-Castle (ie St Mary-in-Castro) (Longmans, Green, and Co., 1899)

(5) From Dover Castle by R. Allen Brown (Her Majesty's Stationery Office, HMSO 1974)

(6) The crossbow reference appears to originate (or at least is discussed) in Renn, D.F., The Avranches Traverse at Dover Castle, Archaeologia Cantiana v.84 (1969), p. 79-92. If anyone can email me a copy then I would be very grateful!: jorolat AT gmail.com

A Dover Middle Ages photo.

Click to see all photos of Dover Castle, a Dover English Heritage site and a Grade I Dover Listed Building.

Dover Castle appears in the video, "Dover in World War Two: 1942", a ten minute British Ministry of Information film, released by the US Office of War Information, and narrated by the American journalist, Edward R. Murrow].

John Latter / Jorolat

Dover Blog: The Psychology of a Small Town

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John Latter on November 29, 2012

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on May 27, 2011
  • © All Rights Reserved
    by John Latter
    • Camera: PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D
    • Taken on 2011/05/20 17:31:44
    • Exposure: 0.004s (1/250)
    • Focal Length: 18.00mm
    • F/Stop: f/11.000
    • ISO Speed: ISO200
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • No flash