Rounding the corner on a quiet country road in Dorset, among the Purbeck Hills, you’ll see the ruins of one of the most picturesque historic monuments in the south of England, Corfe Castle.
Since its first foundations were laid overlooking the Dorset countryside, Corfe Castle has stood apart. Built by William the Conqueror, the castle sits on a hilltop overlooking Corfe Castle village on the Isle of Purbeck peninsula in Dorset. The castle dates back to the 11th century, and to this day strikes visitors as the quintessential medieval castle.
Before William the Conqueror arrived, the site Corfe Castle is built on had been home to Anglo-Saxon nobles. Because of the medieval building work, not much of any building or structure of that time survived.
However, it is known that Corfe was home to Queen Ælfthryth, the first king’s wife to be crowned and anointed in England. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Corfe was also the place where Ælfthryth’s stepson King Edward the Martyr was murdered. Legend has it that St Edward attained martyrdom following his brutal murder at the hands of his mother.
The circumstances of his remain unclear, but they did help Ælfthryth’s son Æthelred ascend to the throne. Today Edward is recognised as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, and the Anglican Communion.
The original Norman tower was built by William the Conqueror following his invasion of Britain in 1066, and is in the perfect position for control of the main route between Swanage and Wareham and for defence against any attack from the sea.
Records show that the inhabitants of the area were pressed into service to build the castle, which was constructed of local Purbeck stone. A quid pro quo arrangement guaranteed that they retained their land and accommodation as well as having the right to protection within the bounds of the castle in times of war or attack.
Despite its classic medieval looks, Corfe Castle is unique amongst its peers and has been since its foundations were laid. Contrary to popular belief, few castles of the time were built on hilltops. Instead, they often nestled into valleys or were strategically located near transport routes like river crossings.
Corfe Castle takes its name from the Old English term ‘ceorfan’, which describes a ‘cutting’. The castle is indeed located in a gap between a long line of chalk hills. This gap was known as Corfe Gate during the Saxon era.
Another unique feature of Corfe Castle is its original stone wall. Some of the first stones of the walls visitors can see today were laid over 1,000 years ago. Stone was rarely used for building during the 11th century, and the wall denotes the castle’s high rank as a royal castle at the time.
Most fortifications were constructed from earth and timber then. Corfe Castle’s keep, on the other hand, was built from Purbeck limestone. Naturally grey, this limestone is still considered the finest limestone in England. To make Corfe Castle’s keep even more visible, it was whitewashed. By the 12th century, stone had become a more common building material in England.
At Corfe and beyond, kings continued to use it to make their fortresses impregnable. The next few centuries saw Corfe Castle withstanding a siege, functioning as a prison for enemies of the crown, and serving as a storage facility for arms. King John added a chapel, a hall, and domestic buildings. He also kept his crown jewels here.
At the same time, building work and fortification continued, improving Corfe Castle’s defences. Historians found that building work generally coincided with times of political unrest. Following King John’s example, Henry III added further walls, gatehouses, and towers.
Some of the castle’s defences are still on show today. The original arrow slits remain, as well as so-called murder holes. Murder holes were common in medieval castles, and often located in the ceiling of a gateway or passageway. They allowed defenders to fire through them or pour scalding water or hot sand on potential attackers.
In Private Hands
The castle’s fortunes changed during the 16th century when Elizabeth I sold it to Sir Christopher Hatton, her Lord Chancellor. It was then bought by King Charles I’s attorney general, Sir John Bankes. Bankes was with his king in Oxford when the castle faced trouble once again.
English Civil War
During the English Civil War of the 17th century, Corfe Castle became the site of two more sieges. The first one, in 1643, was unsuccessful. The castle and its inhabitants, among them Lady Mary Bankes, survived the siege, and Corfe remained one of the last royal strongholds against Oliver Cromwell in southern England. The second siege in 1645 changed the castle’s fate. After a betrayal by one of Lady
Mary’s own soldiers, it was finally captured by Parliamentarians.
Lady Mary Bankes’ courage and tenacity in defending her castle earned her the respect of the commander of the Parliamentary forces. Not only did he allow her and her garrison to leave the castle after she surrendered. Lady Mary also kept the keys to the castle, which are still preserved by the Bankes family today.
Six centuries after the first stones of Corfe’s walls were laid, parliament voted to slight or demolish the castle, which gave Corfe its present-day appearance as a castle ruin. Soldiers dug holes around towers and ramparts and packed them with gunpowder. The explosions that followed brought some of the heavily fortified walls crashing down, resulting in the gaps visitors can still see today. It was this demolition that gave Corfe its present-day appearance as a castle ruin.
Corfe Castle Village
The stone that had once helped fortify the castle walls was used for building once again, only this time by Corfe villagers for their own houses. Despite the parliament’s order to demolish the castle, some of its walls remained standing: solidly built, they had resisted the soldiers’ demolition efforts. Further attempts were deemed impractical.
1660 saw the restoration of the Stuart monarchy when Charles II returned from exile and was proclaimed lawful monarch. Numerous royalist exiles followed in his wake, and many were rewarded for their service to crown and country.
Corfe Castle was returned to the Bankes family as part of the restoration proceedings. However, rather than rebuilding the ruined castle as a family home, they chose to build a house on their other estate in Dorset. Still, the family retained ownership of Corfe for over 300 years. It was gifted by Ralph Bankes to the National Trust in 1982.
A Strong Connection
Throughout the centuries, Corfe Castle, its inhabitants, and the villagers of Corfe have retained a strong connection. Just like the towering castle, the village is steeped in history.
Corfe village can trace civilisation in the area back to 6,000 BC. There is also evidence of a Celtic settlement here around 1300 as well as Roman influences dating back to around AD 50. Legend has it that a whole Roman legion disappeared in this Dorset village, leaving nothing behind but its ghost.
Historians concluded that rather than supernatural activity, the legion’s demise is likely due to a battle between Celts and Romans. Early in the fifth century, Vikings and Saxons settled here until the Norman Conquest.
Just like some of the remaining ruins of Corfe Castle, much of the village has been constructed from grey Purbeck limestone.
The Castle Today
To this day, the castle ruins tower over the main route through the Purbeck hills, guarding the entrance to Dorset.
They have been the site of archaeological excavations on several occasions during the 19th and 20th centuries. History continues to be made here. In addition,
Corfe Castle has inspired Enid Blyton’s Kirrin Island, one of the settings for the author’s Famous Five books. Author Keith Roberts also referred to the castle in his science fiction novel ‘Pavane’.
In 1957, the ruins of the castle became a shooting location for the series ‘Five on a Treasure Island’, based on Enid Blyton’s books. Several years later, the Disney film ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ was also filmed here.
Today, a 1/20 Corfe Castle model village and gardens keep the memory of medieval glory alive. The model allows visitors to see what Corfe would have looked like in 1646 – before the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s troops destroyed it. Set within an acre of landscaped gardens, the model village gives visitors a chance to time travel to the 17th century for a few hours.
Corfe Castle itself is now cared for by the National Trust. When Ralph Bankes made his gift in 1982,
he also included the family’s lands in Purbeck and their mansion at Kingston Lacy. The latter was built by the Bankes family as a new home after the Stuart restoration of 1660. It was one of the most generous gifts made in the history of the National Trust.
Even in the 21st century, historians continue to unveil the castle’s secrets. Extensive restoration work in the castle keep from 2006 to 2008 revealed an ‘appearance door’ made for Henry I. The door was hidden when the castle was extended.
Experts believe that the king used this door to show himself to his subjects.
It is proof of the high rank Corfe Castle held in its heyday and makes it one of the six most important castles in England. It is also one of the National Trust’s most popular visitor attractions, boasting over 250,000 visitors in 2019.
For visitor information including opening times and ticket prices visit National Trust’s Corfe Castle pages.