Rare view of Avranches Crossbow Tower at Sunrise, Dover Castle, Kent, UK

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John Latter on June 16, 2011

The medieval Avranches Tower (late 12th Century, c. 1185 -1190) is a very early example of a purpose built crossbow tower and was probably built by King Henry II's architect, Maurice the Engineer (see below).

The eastern side of Dover's 12th Century Norman Castle is very much the "wild side" with exterior close-ups of structures on the Eastern Outer Curtain Wall being few and far between.

This view of Avaranche's Tower, for example, taken at 6.59 am on Wednesday, 25th of May, 2011, first required an "interesting" climb up the steep side of the Horseshoe Bastion (a huge earthwork added to the north-western defences of the castle by Colonel William Twiss of the Royal Engineers sometime during the Napoleonic Wars with France).

On the way down, however, "interesting" turned into "hair-raising".

Anyway, I survived - and so to business:

A 180-yard stretch of the Eastern Outer Curtain Wall reaches the right-hand side of Avranches Tower from the Norfolk Towers and St John`s Tower via the Fitzwilliam Gate, North Watchtower, and South Watchtower. It then changes direction for 30 yards (the "Avranches Flank" on the left of the photo) before resuming its previous course at the point where Pencester Tower once stood, just out-of-shot to the left.

The Eastern Outer Curtain Wall terminates at the White Cliffs of Dover above East Cliff. Northfall Meadow, now a wood containing the Louis Bleriot memorial, is behind the viewer.

Avranches Top Level

The top, or roof level of Avranches Tower was "lowered" (removed) in 1755-1756 by the military engineer, John Peter Desmaretz (J P Desmaretz, c. 1686-1768) as part of an earlier attempt to strengthen the northern defences.

Desmaretz remodelled the Eastern Outer Curtain Wall all the way from Avranches Tower to the Norfolk Towers in order to give clear fields of fire to the two artillery positions of Four Gun Battery (near the Saxon church of St Mary-in-Castro and the Roman Pharos) and Bell Battery (between the Inner Curtain Wall and where Pencester Tower one stood).

The remaining height of the parapet on the roof of Avranches Tower is a fraction of what it once was.

Middle Level

In the photo, the middle level of the tower has three vertical slits (embrasures, or windows) on the centre panel, or face.

This is a triple-loop windows, however, and providing you're not looking at too small a version of this photo, you should be able to make out a small square of blue sky through the bottom of the centre slit, but nothing through the slits on either side: the flanking slits are angled and converge on the inside wall of the tower to a firing position manned by a single crossbowman.

Bottom Level

From inside the castle, the tower appears to have only two levels (see: Avranches Crossbow Tower) because the bottom level of triple-loop windows is underground.

At the moment, I have two usable photos from inside this bottom level - one of which has a very unusual feature - which I'll upload if I can't get any better ones. This text will be changed, or links will appear in a later "comment", once the new photos are available.

Avranches Tower and the Iron Age Fort

The Outer Curtain Wall of Dover Castle is built above the ditches (moats) of a much earlier Iron Age hillfort. The left-hand face of Avranches Tower in the above photo faces the point where the main entrance to the hill fort was believed to be - see The Avranches Gap, Entrance to the Iron Age Hill Fort of Dover Castle.

Standard Information (varies from photo to photo)

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

Alternative names: Avranche's Tower, Averanches Tower, Averenches Tower, Averanche's Tower, Averenche's Tower, and Maunsell's Tower.

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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Photo details

  • Uploaded on May 30, 2011
  • © All Rights Reserved
    by John Latter
    • Camera: PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D
    • Taken on 2011/05/25 06:59:42
    • Exposure: 0.003s (1/320)
    • Focal Length: 40.00mm
    • F/Stop: f/11.000
    • ISO Speed: ISO200
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • No flash

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