Julius Caesar and the East Roman Pharos, Dover Castle, Kent, United Kingdom

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John Latter on July 28, 2011

The East Roman Pharos and the adjacent Saxon church of St Mary-in-Castro, whose nave can be seen on the right, are situated in the grounds of Dover Castle on top of Harold's Earthwork about 170 yards south of Henry II's Keep (or "Great Tower").

The trees behind the two buildings mark the position of "Four Gun Battery" (built by Desmaretz, 1756); the Victorian building to the left of the Roman tower was once the Garrison School, and the chimneys above the school belong to buildings in the Keepyard set against the Inner Curtain Wall (Inner Bailey).

This "classic view" of the Pharos (a lighthouse, watchtower, or signalling-station) was taken at 10.43 am on Monday, 26th of July, 2011.

The East Roman Pharos and Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC and again in 54 BC, and while there are various dates given for the construction of the East Roman Pharos, none precede the beginning of the christian era (BCE). The one I was first taught at St Mary’s Primary School, and used today by English Heritage on their Pastscape website, is AD 46.

In the 1899 book, "The History of the Castle, Town and Port of Dover", the Reverend S. P. H. Statham ("Late Scholar of Queens' College, Cambridge and Member of the Historical Society of France") wrote (1):

In the days of Edward I, and as late as Elizabeth (Elizabeth I) the Pharos is spoken of as the "Tower of Julius Caesar" (Julius Caesar's Tower). In the reign of Henry III, if not earlier, it was converted into a bell tower for the church, and the date given by Lyon of 1259 for the flint casing is probably right (a reference to a medieval restoration of the upper level).

The rumour of an association between the East Roman Pharos and Julius Caesar appears to have a little more substance to it than is sometimes the case with local legends or urban myths. For example, after mentioning, "A monastic chronicle surviving in a much later manuscript...", the author of the 2004 book, "The idea of the castle in medieval England" (2) goes on to say:

The document in question is bound in with a miscellaneous collection of texts in the British Library manuscript Cotton Vespasian B.XI, and covers folios 72–9. For cataloguing purposes it is entitled Cronicon Sancti Martini de Dover, referring to the monastery of St Martin to which the text refers. The text documents the history of Dover Castle, as well as St Martin’s monastery, in some detail, beginning with Brutus’s arrival in Britain and ending with the reign of Henry II.

Julius Caesar also plays his part, and is connected specifically with building activities at Dover: the text records that Caesar built a tower as a treasury, in the place where the castle of Dover was later built. It even specifies that the same tower still stands next to the church in the castle. This is an unmistakable reference to the Roman pharos or signal station at Dover Castle:

Iulius Caesar fecit unam turrim in loco ubi nunc est castrum Doverr’ ad reponendum illuc thesaurum suum. Quae quidem Turris nunc stat ibidem in Castro Doverr’ iuxta ecclesiam

(Julius Caesar built a tower in the place where the Castle of Dover now is, to place his treasury in. This very same tower now stands in Dover Castle next to the Church)

Albert Einstein (who incidentally landed at Dover in 1933) said in a 1931 book (3):

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.

If Julius Caesar ever ordered a tower to be built within Dover’s pre-existing Iron Age Hillfort then the choosing of a suitable spot wouldn't have been random. The topography of the Eastern Heights would have been studied with an experienced eye (4):

The military engineering of Ancient Rome's armed forces were of a scale and frequency far beyond that of any of its contemporaries'. Indeed, military engineering was in many ways institutionally endemic in Roman military culture, as demonstrated by the fact that each Roman legionary had as part of his equipment a shovel, alongside his gladius (sword) and pila (spears).

When the decision to build the Pharos was made a hundred years later, the new generation of Roman military engineers would have been equally as capable of reading the terrain as their predecessors, and would have evaluated the criteria for construction from a similar perspective: perhaps they came to the same conclusion

Even without the "Julius Caesar connection", a build date of AD 46 is certainly stimulating enough. It would be easy, for example, to picture some grizzled Roman legionnaire near the end of his service pacing up and down while on duty at the Pharos, to hear him grumble about how the cold and damp weather was affecting his bones, and imagine him recalling the sunnier days of an earlier posting to Judea, and by the way, remembering certain events that happened there...

The next section shows the East Roman Pharos location to be interesting for more substantial reasons: for while St Mary-in-Castro may look like a church and feel like a church, it is of lego-like construction and was not the first building to occupy the site.

NB The West Roman Pharos is located on the other side of the River Dour valley (5):

A Roman Pharos was situated on the Western Heights at Dover and was known as Bredenstone and Caesar's Altar (Julius Caesar's Altar) in the 16th and 17th century and Devil's Drop (Devil's Drop of Mortar) in the 18th century. The latter name is perpetuated in "Drop Redoubt" the structure built on the site of the lighthouse.

The Pharos and St Mary-in-Castro

Excerpt from the Victorian book, "The Church and Fortress of Dover Castle" (6):

The lines of the building (of St Mary-in-Castro) were so curiously set out for working, that there is not a true right angle among them; no two walls are perfectly parallel with one another. Also the two noble arches of the nave and chancel, of such lofty and really impressive proportion, nevertheless will not centre together; and neither member of the building can be made to range evenly co-ordinate with the rest. It exhibits a curious blending of the faults of a ruder age with the conceptions of one higher and better (my emphasis).

The Victorian restorations to St Mary-in-Castro show how easily it is to change walls and windows, and hence the very purpose of a building. Foundations, on the other hand, are entirely another matter. The book goes on to say:

The foundations are deposited in a very strong and workmanlike manner, far more comparable to those of Roman than of any Anglo-Saxon construction (my emphasis).

Returning to the Reverend Statham's 1899 account (1):

With very little hesitation we suggest that the (Roman) fortress when first constructed consisted of the (church) tower, nave and Pharos.

From an examination of these buildings we find that an arched passage existed on the ground floor between the Pharos and nave, the remains of the arch are still clearly visible, whilst, beneath the surface, of the ground, the solid concrete foundations for the connecting walls remain intact. Entrance to the tower was gained through a portal in the west face of the tower wall, remains of which opening were discovered by the clerk of the works during Sir Gilbert Scott's restoration (in 1862). It was therefore easy to pass through the entire length of the structure, from the Pharos to the tower, upon the ground floor.

It is quite clear, from the existence of a second series of openings some sixteen feet above the ground level, that a first floor existed in the Pharos. It is remarkable that what Sir Gilbert Scott very rightly describes as the "doorway " in the west wall of the nave corresponds exactly, so far as height and width and level above the ground are concerned, with the opposite opening in the Pharos. There is no doubt that a passage across the top of the arched approach beneath provided an easy means of communication between the two buildings at this point. Whether a gallery was placed in the, nave, communicating through a door with the tower is uncertain, the present windows are said to be typically Saxon, although that is open to question, but even that would not prevent them having taken the place of smaller openings which could have been used for defensive purposes. We are inclined to think that this may have been the case, and that a through communication was also possible on this storey.

Ascending again some sixteen feet in the Pharos another storey was reached, well defined by three windows on the north, west and south sides, as well as by another opening towards the church. The west wall of the nave is pierced at this point by two openings, with brick capitals, which seem to be of a later date, and probably superseded the original single opening. A floor or connecting gallery must have existed in the nave at this level, as we find a wide door pierced in the west wall of the tower, which was evidently meant to connect it with the nave and Pharos. No attempt has hitherto been made, so far,as we know, to explain the presence of these various openings on the same level in the east and west walls of the nave and Pharos, they could not have been made for ornament, and were presumably made for use. To what use could they be put except their natural one as a means of egress and ingress?

Pastscape and Listed Building Text (7)

This tower is a Roman lighthouse or watchtower, one of a pair constructed during the reign of Emperor Claudius in AD 46 on the headland flanking either side of the major Roman port of Dubris.

Aulus Plautius led the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD, and became the first governor of the new province, serving from 43 to 47 AD.

The lighthouse survives within Dover Castle and comprises an octagonal stepped tower approximately 19 metres and four storeys high. The fourth storey was reconstructed between 1415 and 1437 when the lighthouse had been adapted for use as a belfry to the church of St Mary-Sub-Castro (St Mary-in-Castro).

The original design of the top of the lighthouse has been destroyed by these alterations, making its functionality unclear. It is thought that both lighthouses were used during fine weather as sea-marks in guiding vessels into the harbour. At night this role would have augmented by fire-lit braziers situated at the top of the lighthouse. The lighthouse may have also been used as a smoke beacon during certain weather and visibility conditions. Another possible role is as a signal tower.

Medieval and later alterations within the immediate locality of the lighthouse have removed any possible evidence of structures associated with the running of the lighthouse. Changes to the lighthouse took place in 1582 when it was converted into a gunpowder magazine.

The following is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under the terms of the Click-Use Licence (PSI licence number C2010002016):

Building Details:

Building Name: THE ROMAN PHAROS Parish: DOVER District: DOVER County: KENT Postcode:

Details:

LBS Number: 177825 Grade: I Date Listed: 07/03/1974 Date Delisted: NGR: TR3260441815

Listing Text:

1. 1050 DOVER CASTLE The Roman Pharos TR 3241 1/48

I

2. AD 46. Built under the Emperor Claudius. This guided the Roman fleet round to the port of Richborough. In mediaeval times it was used as a belfry to the Church of St Mary Sub-Castro. 4 storeys, 3 being Roman and the top storey and remains of battlements mediaeval. An octagonal tower with originally vertical stepped walls rising in tiers set back each within the last, now almost smoothed. Rubble with a facing of green sandstone and tufa and levelled at an interval of 7 courses with a double course of brick set in hard pink mortar. Round-headed windows with a small recessed spy-hole inside them.

Listing NGR: TR3260541815

Source: English Heritage.

A Victorian Perspective

Except from an 1869 journal (8):

There can be no doubt that the Romans held a favourable position on the eminence where the present Castle stands. Their camp was oval in form and mainly adapted to the nature of the ground; within the entrenchments were the buildings they usually erected, with the uncommon addition in the present instance of a pharos or beacon. This was, in all probability, the very first building raised in England by the Roman conquerors.

In constructing the pharos they followed their usual method of laying a certain number of courses of ashlar alternated with two courses of Roman bonding tiles. Finding the Kentish rag too small and shapeless, and no other materials being within easy distance, they laid their foundations upon blocks of calcareous tufa brought from Normandy, to the depth of 7 feet 4 inches: below this they placed a single course of tile, and a stratum of conglomerate, a foot-and-a-half thick, resting upon yellow clay mixed with flints. The rules laid down by Vitruvius were accurately followed, and an analysis of the mortar proves that his precepts in that respect were as carefully adhered to.

This building, in its original condition, is said to have resembled the curious lighthouse at Boulogne, attributed to Caligula, and which was destroyed in 1644. The old facing of the walls is almost entirely gone, but on the south side some of the Roman bricks still remain, with grooves and projections to dovetail into each other. One of the original entrances still exists, with the voussoirs of the arch formed alternately with pieces of travertine and double tiles: it bears a strong resemblance to arches of an aqueduct near Luynes, at Lillebonne, Pompeii, and other places.

The Pharos is octagonal without and square within, and the walls are 10 feet thick; in its present state it is 40 feet high, but has had a much later portion imposed upon it, though at the present day this addition may be considered ancient. This was probably the work of Richard de Grey, Constable of Dover Castle in the beginning of the fourteenth century, whose arms appear upon a small square stone; but it was again altered at a later time by William de Clinton, Earl of Huntingdon, and constable.

The Pharos is called the tower of Julius Caesar in documents of Edward I. (1287), and appears at that time to have been used as a bell-tower; and in the following reign repairs of the great bell 'in turri Caesar' are mentioned. In the beginning of the last century 'a pleasing peal of bells' was removed from hence to Portsmouth, since which time it has been suffered to go to ruins.

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

(2) Abridged from: "The idea of the castle in medieval England" by Abigail Wheatley (2004)

(3) "Cosmic Religion: With Other Opinions and Aphorisms" by Albert Einstein (1931)

(4) Wikipedia entry for Roman military engineering

(5) English Heritage Pastscape entry for The Drop Redoubt

(6) "The Church and Fortress of Dover Castle", by Canon John Puckle (1864)

(7) English Heritage Pastscape entry for The Roman Pharos (Abridged)

(8) Abridged excerpt from The architect and contract reporter: a weekly illustrated journal (Volume I, January - June 1869)

A Dover Roman and Saxon history photo.

Other photos of the Pharos ruins recently uploaded include:

The East Roman Pharos in the grounds of Dover Castle (mystery stone explained)

Roman Pharos and Saxon Church from the Great Tower of Dover Castle (recommended)

Roman Pharos, Saxon Church, and Victorian Garrison School, Dover Castle (pretty good, too)

Click to see all photos of the Pharos (both east and west towers), St Mary-in-Castro; other Dover Churches and Towers.

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

The general listing text for the whole of the castle is appended to a number of photos, a personal favourite is Rare View of Peverell Gateway). The Pharos and St Mary-in-Castro have separate Grade I Listings.

Dover's 12th Century Norman 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

This is the Images of Dover website: click on any red or blue "John Latter" link to access the Entry Page.

John Latter on November 16, 2012

Also see an 1834 "in days gone by" woodcut of the Roman lighthouse and Saxon church at:

Georgian Engraving of St Mary-in-Castro Church and the Pharos, Dover Castle

A photo on the Pinterest Old Dover board.

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Photo taken in Dover Castle, Castle Hill, Dover, Kent CT16 1HU, UK
Dover Castle

Photo details

  • Uploaded on July 27, 2011
  • © All Rights Reserved
    by John Latter
    • Camera: PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D
    • Taken on 2011/07/25 10:43:30
    • Exposure: 0.004s (1/250)
    • Focal Length: 33.00mm
    • F/Stop: f/11.000
    • ISO Speed: ISO200
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • No flash

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