The huge interior of the keep at Dover Castle has undergone a major transformation by English Heritage to re-create the splendour of a royal court in the late 12th century.
This has been prompted by new research that highlights that King Henry II (1154 - 1189) built the keep or The Great Tower for PR reasons rather than for defence: as a magnificent palace so that all foreign pilgrims on their way to the popular shrine to Thomas Becket would be greeted with an unequivocal symbol of his own wealth and power before they reached Canterbury.
The result of the sumptuous re-creation will be unveiled to the public on 1 August 2009, when the Tower will be spectacularly lit up at night.
New research by Professor John Gillingham has shown that the spectre of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in 1170 by four of the King's knights, was the main reason for the king to build something impressive at Dover. The need to erect a symbol of royal power visible from afar to exploit and counter the growing cult around the saint was top on his mind, so was the need to have a suitably grand place to entertain dignitaries who were passing through Dover to visit Becket's shrine in Canterbury.
Professor Gillingham said: "The re-created medieval interior of the Great Tower will show how Henry was eager to impress his audience amid the rise of a religious, some say anti-monarchical cult, around Becket. Improving the king's castle at Canterbury was an uncomfortable option because in this place royal power would always be overshadowed by the power of the saint, not the message Henry wished to send."
Dr Edward Impey, director of the project at English Heritage, said: "The Great Tower is superbly preserved and still gives an instant impression of the power and ambition of its builder, but up to now to understand how it might have functioned, looked and felt in the period of its creation requires a huge leap of the imagination.
"The newly presented rooms will enable visitors to gain a startling and fresh view onto the world of 12th century life, power and politics in the building in which they were played out."
The project is one of the most significant heritage experiences to open in the UK, the fruits of over two years of research by English Heritage, with a team of historians working closely with some 140 artists and craftspeople who spent thousands of hours designing and making 80 pieces of furniture, 21 oak doors, 140 metres of wall hangings, dozens of embroidered textiles, 47 cushions and over 1,000 objects – all in a convincing 12th-century artistic style. These are used to furnish the interiors of the King's Hall, the King's Chamber, the Guest Hall, the Guest Chamber, the privy kitchen and the armoury to evoke their original appearance.
Pepper's Ghosts (light projections of moving figures), costumed re-enactors and audio-visual presentation will add atmosphere and drama about gossip and rumour of Henry's complex family and court life, transporting visitors back to one of the most turbulent periods of European history.
Like the kings of England since his great-grandfather, William the Conqueror, Henry was not English. He built the largest European empire of his age, stretching from Scotland to the Pyrenees – the Angevin Empire. A new exhibition will highlight how he inherited and expanded it, and how his son, King John, lost half if it.
The project, which costs £2.45 million, is core funded by the Government's Sea Change Programme which aims to drive regeneration and economic growth in seaside towns, and is supplemented by English Heritage grant-in-aid.