May 30, 2024


A scratched wooden door found by chance at the top of a medieval tower has been revealed as an “amazing” graffiti-covered relic from the French Revolutionary Wars, including a carving that could be a fantasy of Napoleon Bonaparte be hanged.

More than 50 individual graffiti carvings were chiseled into the door in the 1790s by bored English soldiers stationed at Dover Castle in Kent, when Britain was at war with France in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

These include a detailed carving of a sailing ship, an elaborate stylized cross and nine individual scenes of hanging figures – one of whom wears a two-cornered hat.

The simple plank door was first discovered several years ago at the top of St. John’s Tower, which for more than a century was impossible to access without climbing a ladder to the base of a spiral staircase. At the time, however, it was covered in thick layers of paint that obscured many of its markings.

Many of the carvings in the door indicate the preoccupation of the soldiers with public executions, which were common at the time. Photo: Jim Holden/English Heritage

Only when it was recently removed for preservation, which required careful removal of the paint, did the full details of the door’s carvings come to light.

“We had a glimpse of what might be on it, but when it was stripped back the entirety of it was quite incredible,” said Paul Pattison, senior property historian at English Heritage, who manage the castle.

The nine slopes are clearly through different hands, said Paul Pattison, senior property historian at English Heritage. Photo: Jim Holden/English Heritage

Describing the door as a “very significant” find, he said Dover would have been “a hive of activity at the time, with ships filling the harbor and colored military uniforms a constant presence in the castle and town.”

“What makes this door such an extraordinary object is that it is a rare and precious example of the ordinary person making their mark; whether it is simply for the purpose of killing time, or to be remembered.”

The medieval chamber, at the top of one of the most exposed defenses of the castle, was re-used as a watchtower during the 18th-century conflict.

Members of the militia stationed at the castle would have been posted there for hours at a time, and turned to artistic endeavors to pass the time.

The nine hangings are clearly by different hands, Pattison said, pointing to a preoccupation of the soldiers with public executions, which would have been common at the time. The detail of one, showing the figure wearing a two-cornered hat, has led to intriguing speculation that it may depict a fantasy of a defeated Napoleon being hanged. (In reality, the emperor would die in exile in 1821, reportedly of stomach cancer.)

“It’s obviously a man in uniform — so this is a military man,” Pattison said, adding that only officers wore the distinctive hat.

While Pattison is still convinced without doubt that it is meant to be the French military leader, “it almost certainly depicts a specific individual being hanged – and they were, of course, an officer, which is quite unusual”.

Also depicted is a detailed, accurate carving of a single-masted sailing ship, most likely an eight-gun cutter used by the Royal Navy as well as by smugglers and privateers. Another symbol depicts a chalice and decorated cross, possibly representing Christian holy communion.

The St John’s Tower door will be on display at Dover Castle in July as part of Dover under siegean exhibition about medieval and Georgian conflicts at the castle.



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