A medieval skyscraper which still dominates the surrounding area, Corfe Castle never fails to impress. It occupies a strong defensive position which enabled it to resist sieges during the Anarchy and the seventeenth century Civil War. The castle also served as a prison with Edward II being briefly confined here after he was overthrown.
Corfe Castle is located on the southern part of the Isle of Purbeck, a peninsula on the southern Dorset coast that was regarded as an island due to the River Frome cutting across the connection with the mainland. The castle stands upon a steeply sided chalk hill carved by the River Wicken and the Byle Brook.
Little is known about the early history of the site for any evidence of an earlier settlement has been destroyed or concealed by the construction of the later castle. However, the presence of Bronze Age barrows and Iron Age agricultural activity suggests the presence of a settlement and, given the strong defensive qualities of the site, it is possible it could have hosted a hillfort.
Notwithstanding the high likelihood of an earlier settlement, the first known high-status residence on the site was a Saxon hall. Archaeological evidence has placed this within the west bailey of the later castle and it had been established no later than the tenth century AD. With nearby Wareham, a Saxon burh (fortified town), providing the defensive facility against the Danes, the prime purpose of Corfe was to serve as a hunting lodge as by this time the Isle of Purbeck had been designated a Royal forest. Although the surviving narrative within the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is unspecific, it is likely that it was at this hall where King Edward the Martyr was brutally murdered on 18 March 978. The King had been hunting within his forest and had called upon his half-brother Ethelred and his step-mother, Queen Elfrida. She allegedly ordered the King to be stabbed and, although Edward escaped on horse, he died of his injuries. Ethelred became King (known as Ethelred the Unready) but, given the circumstances around his accession, he struggled to unite his country against the Danes.
The Normans invaded England in 1066 and, after the success at the Battle of Hastings, established castles across the country to secure control of important nodal points and existing Saxon settlements. Corfe Castle itself was founded by William I who procured the land from the nunnery at Shaftsbury. When initially raised it consisted of east and west wards. The former occupied the summit of the chalk hill ,which doubled as a natural motte, and was surrounded by a stone wall constructed from Purbeck limestone. The western ward was the bailey and was enclosed by a timber stockade hosting what is now known as the Old Hall - a two storey building consisting of a large chamber on the first floor and storage below. The distinctive herring-bone masonry of this structure suggests Saxon labour was utilised.
The Great Keep
Henry I started work on the Great Keep no later than 1105. This structure stood 22 metres tall whilst its position on the summit of the hill elevated it a further 55 metres above sea level. At the time of its construction it was one of the largest buildings in England and incorporated a Great Hall, King’s Chambers and a Chapel.
Henry I died in 1135 without leaving a male heir. Prior to his death he made key magnates swear loyalty to his daughter, Matilda, but when the King passed away almost all switched their allegiance to her cousin, Stephen of Blois. However, when Matilda's half-brother - Robert, Earl of Gloucester - supported her claim England descended into civil war which would become known as the Anarchy. One of the earliest actions in the war occurred in 1138 when Baldwin de Redvers (later Earl of Devon) landed at Wareham and seized control of Corfe Castle. Stephen immediately marched to besiege the castle but, appreciating that a direct assault on such a strong position would be pointless, he built a ring and bailey fortification to contain the garrison. Corfe Castle had been well provisioned and ultimately Stephen gave up the siege as more important military events occurred elsewhere.
The Anarchy was settled with Stephen remaining King for life but his heir was to be Matilda's son, Henry Plantagenet. He came to the throne in 1154 as Henry II but neither he nor his eldest son, Richard I, showed much interest in Corfe Castle. However, when Richard died in 1199 he was followed by King John and Corfe became one of his favourite castles. He instigated significant building work including a wholesale upgrade of the accommodation facilities with construction of a palace known as the Gloritete. He also rebuilt the western bailey curtain wall in stone. Regrettably King John's actions also made the castle infamous for it was probably where he imprisoned and then starved to death Matilda de Braose and her eldest son (some records suggest this may have happened at Windsor Castle). This despicable act was done on the grounds that Matilda's husband, William de Braose, had an unpaid debt to the Crown but it is likely the real motivation was comments made by her suggesting the King had murdered Arthur of Brittany, a rival for the throne. The King's cruel treatment of the wife of a powerful magnate did much to galvanise opposition which would unite against John during the First Barons' War. However, the King's cruelty was not limited to high status individuals as can be seen in the case of Peter of Pomfret who was also imprisoned at Corfe Castle. Known as the 'wise man of England', this individual defied that title when he publicly predicted that the King would die in 1213. When John heard of this he was outraged and the unfortunate Peter was imprisoned in Corfe to see if the predictions would become true. When the King was still alive and well in early 1214, Peter was dragged by horses from Corfe to Wareham and back before being hanged alongside his son.
John's successors, Henry III and Edward I, both made upgrades at Corfe Castle. In 1250 the South-West Gatehouse was built whilst the Outer Gatehouse and Southern bailey towers were added in the 1280s. Henry III also granted the adjacent town a market and annual fair.
The reign of Edward II was marred by political strife between the King and his senior magnates. In 1326 he became the first King since the Norman Conquest to be deposed when he was forced to abdicate by Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. He was initially imprisoned at Corfe Castle and placed in the charge of Sir John Maltravers. However, there was widespread local sympathy for the King within the local community and it was deemed prudent to secretly move him to Berkeley Castle where he may have been murdered.
After he imprisonment of Edward II, Corfe Castle had a relatively uneventful history for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries although it continued to be maintained. However, in 1496 Henry VII granted Corfe Castle to his mother, Margaret Beaufort, and significant upgrades were made at this time to modernise the residential quarters. It remained a Crown property until 1572 when Elizabeth I sold it to Sir Christopher Hatton. Around 1588 he added a bastion to the Inner Ward, overlooking the southern bailey, probably to serve as a viewing platform.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Corfe Castle was owned by Sir John Bankes, Lord Chief Justice. The castle was garrisoned for the King but most of Dorset supported Parliament and by early 1643 Corfe was an isolated outpost under the control of Lady Mary Banks. It was besieged on 23 June 1643 by a 600 strong Parliamentary army drawn from the Poole garrison and under the command of Sir Walter Erle. A determined resistance meant that after six weeks no progress had been made and, faced with the approach of a Royalist relief force, Erle withdrew on 4 August 1643.
By late 1645 Royalist fortunes were in decline after destruction of the King's armies at Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645). With Parliament now having a free hand, Corfe Castle was under siege again by October 1645. Lady Banks put up a determined resistance but one of her officers, Colonel Pitman, was less enthusiastic. In February 1646 he made a deal with the Parliamentarians and helped their troops to penetrate the defences. The Royalist garrison was overwhelmed.
Corfe Castle had proven a formidable challenge for the Parliamentarian forces and accordingly was one of the first fortifications to be ordered to be destroyed to prevent any further military use. Parliament passed the decree in March 1646 and Captain Hughs was tasked with the work. He brought a team of sappers to undermine the walls and towers leaving the structure in ruins. When the Bankes family were allowed to recover the site, they found a structure beyond economical repair and the family built a new manor at Kingston Lacey to serve as their home. Corfe Castle was gifted to the National Trust in 1982.
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Corfe Castle is a spectacular medieval ruin, perhaps the finest in England. The remains are dominated by the Great Keep which, even though heavily damaged, towers above the surrounding area. The earthwork remains of a siege-castle, now known as 'the Rings', can be found nearby. Large tracts of the surrounding land are also owned by the National Trust and offer some spectacular hillside walks with amazing views.
Corfe Castle Layout. The Inner Ward and West Bailey were the original parts of the castle with the Great Hall (Old Hall) being located in the latter. The Keep was built circa-1105 and the South Bailey was added by King John in the early thirteenth century.
Corfe Castle. Even in their ruined state the castle still impresses. Henry III ordered the Keep to be white-washed to give it an even more striking appearance. The fortification was built on top of a steep sided chalk hill with the top of the Keep standing over 75 metres above sea level.
Outer Bailey Gatehouse. The gatehouse was reached via a bridge over a deep ditch. First Tower can be seen to the left. Horseshoe Tower is to the right.
Keep. The Keep was built by Henry I around 1105. It incorporated a Great Hall, Royal residential quarters and a Chapel. It was extensively damaged during the bombardment during the 1643 and 1645 sieges.
South-West Gatehouse. The South-West Gatehouse provided access into the West Bailey.
Southern Bailey Curtain Wall. View of the Southern Bailey curtain wall. The round towers were added by Edward I.
The Rings. The earthworks of a siege castle can be found just to the south-west of Corfe Castle. This fortification was a ring and bailey built during the 1138 siege to provide a secure base for the troops blockading the castle.
Corfe Castle is found off the A351 in the village of the same name. It is a major tourist attraction and is well sign-posted. The National Trust own a large car park directly off the A351.
A351, DT6 3NN
The Rings (Siege Castle)