The Roman Pharos at Dover Castle

England's only Roman lighthouse

Aerial View, Dover CastleOriginal Source: DOVER CASTLE

The Dover Pharos: A Rare Survival

Mighty Dover Castle commands a view of the shortest sea crossing between Britain and continental Europe, a position of immense strategic importance. But within the walls of the medieval castle stands a much older building, dating from a time when Britain was an outpost of the Roman Empire. 

Around 2,000 years ago, in the early 2nd century AD, the Romans built a pharos, or lighthouse, here. This would have guided the ships of a Roman fleet into the harbour below.

Aerial View of the Church and Pharos, Dover Castle (43/410 AD)Original Source: DOVER CASTLE

Not only is the Dover pharos the most complete standing Roman building in England, it's also one of only three lighthouses to survive from the whole of the former Roman empire.

The others are at Leptis Magna in Libya and La Coruña in Spain.

War Habit Of Romans (1824)LIFE Photo Collection

The Romans invaded Britain in AD 43, and in the first half of the 2nd century Dover was chosen as the base for the Classis Britannica, the fleet that patrolled the English Channel and North Sea.

View of the Church and Pharos, Dover CastleOriginal Source: DOVER CASTLE

The pharos was probably built on Castle Hill around this time, along with another on the high ground opposite (the Western Heights).

They were clearly intended to act as beacons, guiding shipping into the entrance to the harbour in the Dour estuary below.

The views from the topmost stage of the pharos seem to have been deliberately angled so that it could communicate not only with the second lighthouse on Western Heights but with Cap Gris Nez on the French coast. Platforms at the top of the towers would have held burning braziers to act as beacons.

View of the Church and Pharos, Dover CastleOriginal Source: DOVER CASTLE

About the Building

This extraordinary survival is the tallest Roman structure in Britain.

Aerial View, Dover CastleOriginal Source: DOVER CASTLE

The eight-sided pharos stands on the highest part of Castle Hill, within the outer curtain wall of the medieval castle.

The tower stands 15.8 metres high and is 12.2 metres wide at the base. The Roman fabric survives to a height of 12.5 metres. The external facing has been patched many times.

View of the Church and Pharos, Dover CastleOriginal Source: DOVER CASTLE

On top of this can be seen the wall of a medieval belfry built to serve the church that was later built beside the pharos. The belfry walling is almost vertical – its facing is quite distinct from that of the sloping Roman walls.

At the base of the tower is a vertical plinth of Kentish ragstone. Above this, the walls are built of mortared flint rubble, faced with blocks of tufa (a riverine deposit found in the Dour valley) and greenish sandstone laid in thick layers.

This material is separated by bands of orange-red brick at the base of each stage, or level, of the tower. The tiered arches are also formed of brick.

The interior is a hollow space about 4.2 metres square, retaining evidence for five Roman stages or levels. Each stage originally had a floor or balcony. Three or four round-vaulted recesses extended from each of these into the thickness of the wall.

Roman Window, Pharos, Dover CastleOriginal Source: DOVER CASTLE

The end walls of these recesses probably contained windows – one fine example survives on the fourth stage.

At each level there was a complex arrangement of internal beam slots and sockets. Some may have supported a timber frame tying the pharos together, while others may have supported the beams of timber decks and perhaps a series of ladders.

Floor tileBritish Museum

Some historians think the pharos would have had a stepped external profile, because many Roman lighthouses are depicted in this way in Roman sculpture, art, coins and graffiti.

The outline of a contemporary lighthouse is scratched on this Romano-British floor tile.

Cutaway Reconstruction of Pharos, Dover Castle by Richard LeaOriginal Source: DOVER CASTLE

However, a recent survey of the building itself has shown that it is more likely to have had a smooth, conical profile, as shown in this artist’s reconstruction.

Dover Roman Pharos and Church, Dover CastleOriginal Source: DOVER CASTLE

After the Romans

The pharos owes its remarkable survival, in
part, to its reuse over the centuries. 

Immediately east of the pharos is the Anglo-Saxon church of St Mary in Castro, built in about AD 1000. It stands nearly 16 metres high, including its medieval additions.

Castle Hill probably became the centre of a fortified Anglo-Saxon settlement, which would help to explain why this huge church was built there.

The pharos was almost certainly incorporated into the design of the church as a bell tower. This makes it a rare example both of a western church tower, and of a double tower arrangement.

The doorway in the church west wall at first-floor level almost certainly linked to a corresponding opening in the pharos, converted from a Roman window.

The top stage of the belfry was rebuilt in about 1426–36 by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Masons were paid to set up its five windows, which were brought from nearby Folkestone.

Engraving of Pharos, Dover Castle (1735) by Samuel BuckOriginal Source: DOVER CASTLE

Three of the bells were sold in 1542–3 and in 1582 the pharos was given a new roof so it could be used to store gunpowder. A covered passage between church and pharos, shown in this 1735 engraving, may have been related to this new role.

Roman Pharos, Dover Castle (1772) by William StukeleyOriginal Source: DOVER CASTLE

In the early 18th century the pharos began to fall into disrepair.

In 1722, when William Stukeley made this drawing, he noted that the lead had been removed from the roof of the lighthouse, leaving ‘this rare piece of art and masonry to struggle with the sea air and weather’.

Church of St Mary in Castro at Dover CastleOriginal Source: DOVER CASTLE

The church was extensively restored in the 1860s by the architect George Gilbert Scott. In 1888, William Butterfield decorated the interior in his distinctive style.

Historic Photograph of the Base of Pharos in 1915, Dover Castle (1915)Original Source: DOVER CASTLE

But the lighthouse had to wait until 1913 to be repaired. Excavations in 1915 revealed its ragstone plinth.

Dover CastleOriginal Source: Dover Castle

Today, this unique survival at the heart of Dover Castle remains the most complete Roman structure in Britain, and one of the rarest throughout the Roman world.

Credits: Story

Kevin Booth, Rose Arkle

Visit Dover Castle and the Roman pharos.

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