|The Castle Keep - Photo Copyright Janet Cameron|
When the Romans first tried to invade Dover, they had to withdraw due to the barbaric warriors who hurled stones at them from the clifftops. Magnificent Dover Castle was built to protect the harbour from invasion. Work began in 1180 and the Castle remained a military fortress until the 1960s. The following stories, like most legendary tales, almost certainly contain grains of truth, while the fiction and fantasy imparts an insight into the beliefs and concerns of our ancestors.
A Living Death
While Dover Castle was being built, masons were confounded by the way one of the towers (Peverell's Tower) kept collapsing. They would build it up again and again, but still it kept coming down and no one could work out why. The builders did not blame their own poor workmanship, but instead decided the collapses were due to evil spirits that needed appeasing. An old woman was walking nearby with her dog, so the men seized them both and interred them in the wall alive as a sacrifice to the angry spirits. The terrified old woman cursed them as she and her innocent pet were entombed, but it didn't deter the masons.
After the building was finished, the chief mason fell from the top of the tower to his death. Rumour had it that it was the old woman, wreaking her revenge. (In medieval times, it was common practice for people to be buried in the foundations of buildings to ward off evil spirits.)
The Stick that Grew
A soldier from Dover Castle killed another man with a stick. The soldier, Donald, was convinced he had escaped justice as there was no one else around to witness his action. The soldier made a bizarre bargain with himself, Pushing a stick into the ground close to the road, he told himself he would be safe so long as the stick did not take root. Later, his regiment was sent abroad. When it returned in around twenty years and Donald arrived in Dover, he found, to his amazement, that the stick had grown into a fine young elm tree.
Overcome with guilt for what he had done, he confessed to his crime. He was tried, found guilty and hanged in chains next to the elm tree.
The Drummer Boy of Dover Castle
A drummer boy lost his life in Dover Castle. It's claimed he is the source of the headless ghost that walks the battlements. The young man was carrying out an errand for his captain involving a large sum of money, but he was set upon by thugs. Courageously, the boy fought back and tried to hold onto the money he was guarding. He was outnumbered by the ruffians and beheaded.
A medium, David Acorah, conducted an investigation of the site, and claimed the attack came from men from the boy's regiment. He believed that the boy's headless body was recovered in 1802, although, mysteriously, the head was never discovered. Mr. Acorah was convinced the boy came from Cork in Ireland, and that his mother's name was Mary. He added he would try to set the boy's spirit free.
Odo, Bishop of Bayeux
Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, was half-brother to King William the Conqueror. Odo was jealous and wanted to take William's place someday as King. His pursuit of power and the inevitable reign of terror he instigated and which spread across the whole county of Kent, made the Bishop a much hated figure.
Odo was ambitious and he wanted gold and treasure for the day when he took his brother's place on the throne. His plan was to destroy the Saxon landlowners and take their estates for himself. As he added to his personal treasury, he set up his friends and family in the properties he stole. In his arrogance, he even confiscated the Guildhall from the King.
Many ships were wrecked due to Odo's negligence. In the mid-eleventh century, Dover was a busy port with packet ships leaving regularly for France. This didn't worry Odo, who allowed a tenant of his to construct a mill at the entrance to Dover Harbour. This structure caused such a disturbance to the sea that shipping was badly disrupted and many vessels came to grief.
If that wasn't enough, Odo asked the English knights to help him in deposing the Pope, so he could secure the Papacy for himself. An army gathered to go to Italy, but Odo was arrested, tried and condemned under his secular title of the Earl of Kent. He was imprisoned in Normandy until 1087, and released by William, who, rather generously, gave him back his earldom.
Odo wasn't the only privileged noble to take advantage and twist the laws of the land to suit himself. When men were fined for adultery, the King pocketed the cash. The King also received half the property of those condemned to death. Also, an ironic justice - adulterous women had their fines paid to the archbishop.
"When it's dark in Dover / It's dark the whole world over." - Old Dover saying.
Adapted from Murder & Crime, Dover, Janet Cameron, Tempus Publishing, 2006.
'Past Times,' Dover Telegaph, 9 March, 1844.
This Sceptred Isle, Christopher Lee, Penguin Books, 1997.