St Mary-in-Castro and Roman Pharos, Harold’s Earthwork, Dover Castle, Kent, UK

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John Latter on December 26, 2007

This is the "classic view" of the 'Saxon' church of St Mary-in-Castro, standing alongside its 1st Century Roman neighbour of the East Pharos [1] (a lighthouse/watch-tower - the West Pharos being located in the Drop Redoubt on the Western Heights).

By the mid-19th Century the ruined remains of St Mary-in-Castro had become filled with earth and rubbish, both inside and out, to a height of 9 feet above the ground-line. Then, in 1860, restoration on the building began under the guidance of the architect, Sir Gilbert Scott, who published an account of the work in Archaeologia Cantiana in 1863. At the same time, Canon John Puckle (Vicar of Dover's St Mary the Virgin) was given permission from the then Secretary of State for War to make an independent examination of the building during the progress of Scott's work. Canon Puckle subsequently published his observations in the book, "The Church and Fortress of Dover Castle" (1864).

The church of St Mary-in-Castro is a very curious building. The foundations under the actual tower, for example, are continuous, with the walls of the transepts and chancel being built onto the tower, rather than having been bonded in. This indicates the original tower was perhaps a donjon (an earlier word for keep) with solid walls.

The lines of the whole building, as Canon Puckle noted, "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... will not centre together; and neither member can be made to range evenly co-ordinate with the rest".

Indeed, these and many other 'oddities' (reflected in the vagueness of the 2007 pamphlet appended below) led the Reverend S. P. H. Statham, Rector of St Mary-in-the-Castle, to write in his 1899 book, "The History of the Castle, Town and Port of Dover" that the original building of St Mary-in-Castro was part of a Roman Fortress, a view sympathetic to that of Canon Puckle's:

With very little hesitation we suggest that the fortress when first constructed consisted of the 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. 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?

It will be remembered that Sir Gilbert Scott speaks of them as doorways, they are unsplayed and the arch is sprung from an impost of tile bricks so arranged as to represent a worked stone capital. In one instance a stone impost, skilfully worked, is found. With regard to the openings in the north and south faces of the nave wall, Sir Gilbert Scott says they are typically Saxon because the splay is equal inside and outside. He could have given very little attention to this point, for the actual measurements give the following results: depth of splay outside fifteen inches, depth of splay inside twenty-seven inches, that is the splay inside is practically double that of the outside, which absolutely refutes the statement of Sir Gilbert Scott. We are not concerned to prove that these openings were the original ones, but we are entirely of opinion that Canon Puckle was correct when he assigned them to the end of the fourth century. [Pages 228 - 229]

Text of a 2007 St Mary-in-Castro leaflet:

There is no documentary record of the age of the Church of St Mary-in-the-Castle). Archaeologists have assigned dates to it extending from the 4th century to the 10th.

The large arches in the east and west walls of the tower are constructed of Roman brick and are Roman in character. Whether they were built by the Romans themselves or the Saxons who followed them is open to argument; however the foundations of the Tower are continuous under these arches as if they had originally been solid and the arches are generally considered to be Saxon work and probably date from about the 7th century. The layout of the church as it is today was, in the opinion of the Victorian architect Sir Gilbert Scott, to have been complete at some time before the beginning of the 10th century.

The change from monastic establishment to a church used by people living within the castle occurred in the 12th century when the interior was altered by the insertion of pointed arches in the walls of the north and south transepts; this together with the removal of any internal walls effectively opened the centre of the church to become much as it is today. At that time the church was also divided bythe construction of a screen across the arch by today's pulpit and lectern, the clergy and officers using the eastern part of the church and the military the western part.

The division led to the establishment of an altar specifically for the military thought to have been done when the Constable of the Castle [a post long since combined with that of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports] was directed to 'repair the Church of St Mary' in 1223. To this period belongs the sedilia and double piscina at the south east corner of the nave and also the small window pierced in the wall near the west door. The castle statutes of the time directed that one sergeant and one guard be sworn to keeping a light burning within the church, probably before the Soldiers' Altar, the small window being used to allow the sentry to command a view of the light without entering the church. The light is still kept burning.

The use of the old Roman Pharos (south face, north face) was changed about the year 1265 from the sentries' guardroom to become the bell tower, being connected to the church by an enclosed passage and the insertion of the west door. Its use as belfry continued until 1690 [2] when due to the decline in church going following the Commonwealth and the reduction of the Castle Garrison the church became disused and neglected for almost 200 years.

A restoration was started in I860 under the supervision of Sir Gilbert Scott, to replace the roof which had fallen in, to dig out and relay the floor and to replace doors and windows, the church once again being opened for services from June 1862. Shortly after the restoration, donations from the congregation resulted in the addition of the stained glass windows, the lectern, altar rails and other fittings within the building. From one of the many gifts of Mr Martin Gibbs came the mosaic and tile wall covering to the design of Mr William Butterfield which was completed in 1889.

The church today is still the Garrison Church for the military from the barracks just beyond the Castle walls as well as being a parish church with a regular congregation both service and civilian.

Historic Periods

Roman: AD 43 - AD 420

Jutish: AD 450 - AD 550

Saxon: AD 550 - AD 1066

Norman: AD 1066 - AD1200

Early English: AD 1200 - AD 1350

[1] See the Pharos: South Face or Pharos: North Face photos for more information.

[2] The "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) states:

...the Pharos served as a bell tower until the desecration of the church in 1780, when, according to the usual belief, the bells were transferred by a government order to Portsmouth. [Page 215]

John Latter on March 21, 2011

An updated version of the above photo (quoting different sources in the caption) is at:

Roman Pharos and Saxon church of St Mary-in-Castro, Dover Castle, Kent, UK

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 details

  • Uploaded on December 26, 2007
  • © All Rights Reserved
    by John Latter
    • Camera: PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D
    • Taken on 2007/10/19 10:39:25
    • Exposure: 0.003s (1/350)
    • Focal Length: 18.00mm
    • F/Stop: f/11.000
    • ISO Speed: ISO200
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • No flash