The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

The Roman Lighthouse, Dover, Kent

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Roman Lighthouse, Dover, Kent

Roman Lighthouse, Dover, Kent (photo credit: Garry Hogg)

OS grid reference TR 3260 4181. At the south-eastern side of Dover, Kent, along Mortimer Road on the promontory called Eastern Heights and in the grounds of Dover Castle, a 12th century Norman strong-hold, stands a ‘reasonably’ well-preserved Roman Lighthouse or Pharos, dating from around 46-50 AD (during the reign of the Emperor Claudius 41-54 AD) and, just after the invasion of Britain in 43 AD; the Roman army possibly first coming ashore here or further along the Kent coast at Walmer. There was a second Roman lighthouse at Breden-stone on the Western Heights but nothing much of that remains. The parish church of St Mary-in-Castro, a late Saxon foundation from 1000 AD, stands right beside the Pharos but is not attached.

The Romans built a large fort here in c130 AD in order to guard the harbour and sea-route for the fleet sailing from Gaul and through the English Channel. It seems likely they rebuilt the fort in the mid 3rd century. They called the place Portus Dubris or Dubrae, which eventually became the Port of Dover. A Roman road runs north-west from Dover to the Roman town (civitus) at Duruvernum Cantiacorum (Canterbury). There is also evidence to say that the mound and earthworks (hillfort) on which the castle, church and lighthouse stand dates back to the Bronze-Age or, more likely the Iron-Age? The M20 motorway is 12 miles to the west of the town.

Roman Lighthouse, Dover

Roman Lighthouse, Dover

Today the pharos is only a four-storey building at 19 metres or around 60 feet high with the top floor section being a medieval restoration, but originally it was six levels high at 24 metres or 80 feet and, maybe even eight levels high, according to some Roman historians? In the 13-14th century the lighthouse was in use as a church bell-tower and it was at this time the medieval stonework was added to strengthen the top 6 metre section, making it look more like a fortified ‘church tower’ with battlements. A flight of stone steps runs up the inside of the structure but is now cut-off at the belfry.

After nearly two thousand years the original Roman stonework on the seaward-side is looking quite weather-worn and crumbly and the entrance and window openings rather worse for ware, like gaping holes, though the top medieval section is still in a resonable state of repair. A beacon of fire would have burned every night on the top of the lighthouse enabling Roman sailing vessels crossing the channel between Gaul and Brittania to navigate their way into the harbour without coming to harm on the rocky headland. The lighthouse would have been manned all through the night by a regular ‘watch’ of sailors from the Classis Britannica naval fleet galley crews who may have camped beside the harbour and, with the help of slaves they apparently built the pharos as a replica to the design of Emperor Caligula’s (37-41 AD) lighthouse at Boulonge-sur-Mer near Calais on the northern coast of France, which was built in 40 AD; the Classis Britannica themselves coming from that area of Gaul. The fort at Dubris (Dover) was garrisoned by the Milites Tungrecani legion.

Sources:-

Hogg, Garry., Odd Aspects of England, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1968.

Ordnance Survey, Historical map and guide – Roman Britain, (Fifth Edition), Southampton, 2001.

http://www.dover-kent.co.uk/defence/pharos_st_mary.htm

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Author: sunbright57

I am interested in holy wells, standing stones and ancient crosses; also anything old, prehistoric, or unusual.

2 thoughts on “The Roman Lighthouse, Dover, Kent

  1. Hi sunbright57. A very thorough write up detailing what is known today about the Roman Lighthouse at Dover and its history. I enjoyed reading what you had written. I had not realised that during the Roman Period it had been a taller structure but yes the upper tier is clearly medieval. It looks like its reuse as a Bell Tower may be what saved it for history.

    BarryS

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