Corfe Castle in Dorset

   Posted by: Babs Creamer   in Ricardian Places

Our thanks go to  Babs Creamer of the Dorset Group of the Richard III Society, who has for a long time been a good friend of our branch, who contributed this fascinating article.

 Corfe Castle in Dorset

The name of Corfe Castle in Dorset goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, where the word Corfe meant a cutting, pass or gap. When the River Wicken and the Byle Brook eroded the rock a steep-sided chalk hill was left suitable to be a good defensive site “Corfe’s Gate or Corvesgate” a name which was resurrected by Thomas Hardy for his 19th century novels.  Little is known about the earliest buildings there but we do know there was a timber-built Saxon hall as post-holes were found in the West Bailey during excavations. Queen Elfreda was very probably residing at the hall in AD978 when her stepson the teenaged Saxon King Edward called on her and his half-brother Ethelred whilst he was out hunting.  Legend has it that Elfreda ordered Edward’s death by stabbing so that her own son Ethelred (the unready) would become king.  I say legend as this story may be just as true as the one about King Richard III killing the Princes in the Tower!  In 1001 Edward was recognised as a saint due to miracles at his tomb. “Edward the Martyr”.

Following the Norman Conquest of 1066 William I “The Conqueror” ordered a castle to be built described in Domesday Book  as “Castellum Wareham: Kings Land”.  The steep hilltop at Corfe was a ready made motte with the advantage of being near the coast for easy communication with Normandy and as William loved hunting the surrounding Forest of Purbeck was ideal. The Saxon hall in the West Bailey was replaced by what is now the oldest part of the castle “The Old Hall”. The herringbone stonework is Saxon in style presumably because the conquering Normans commandeered the local Saxons to build for them.

Corfe’s advantage as a castle site was also the local Purbeck limestone quarried nearby, carted across Corfe Common to a stonemasons yard, to the village which was forming around the site.  The great Keep that still dominates the castle was one of the earliest built by the Norman kings of England and was built by the Conqueror’s son Henry I.  The Keep was the heart of a Norman Castle – a symbol of royal power it was a fortress, a palace, a treasury and a prison.  For security a Keep had only one or two entrances.

 Corfe Castle in  Dorset

Corfe Castle, the Keep as it is today (© Copyright Nigel Chadwick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)


The 12th century saw violent disputes about the royal succession and Henry I’s eldest brother Robert, Duke of Normandy, was imprisoned for several years at Corfe.  Henry I named his daughter Matilda his heir but on his death in 1135 his nephew Stephen claimed the throne as his nearest male kinsman.  This resulted in civil war. When Matilda’s followers captured Corfe in 1139 Stephen attempted to retake the castle.  He built a huge earth fort known today as “The Rings”. Legend has it that the Rings were originally a sacred place to the Celts.  Corfe Castle could withstand a long siege as long as it was well provisioned and there was no treachery from within.  On the steep side the Keep was protected by a stone curtain wall.  Stephen gave up and the war ended with the agreement that Stephen would remain King for life to be succeeded by Matilda’s son as Henry II which he did in 1154.

Little building happened at Corfe during Henry II and his successor Richard I’s reigns.  More building took place in the 13th century during the reign of King John who favoured Corfe as he enjoyed hunting in the Royal forest and warren of Purbeck.  Castle building was the largest single item of royal expenditure during his reign.  John made many improvements to the castle’s defences but did not neglect its other role as Royal palace and hunting lodge.  By the start of John’s reign in 1199 the Norman keep was rather old fashioned, draughty and cramped so John added the new Gloriette.  Its name means “highly decorated chamber”.  The best masons and craftsmen worked on this project creating a prestigious, luxurious royal residence whose rooms were bright with tapestries and wall paintings.  When the king was in residence there were banquets for his court and the local nobility with venison, rabbit, hare, wildfowl and fish.  This was accompanied by music and dancing.  However, during John’s time twenty-two French knights were also brought to Corfe and starved to death among other atrocities.

 Corfe Castle in  Dorset

Corfe Castle, what it would have looked like before it was destroyed (© Copyright Andrew Hackney and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

By 1247 the construction camp that was the beginning of Corfe Castle Village had become a small town and Henry III (John’s son) granted a market and fair to his “men of Corfe”.  Because it was a royal manor attached to the castle Corfe Castle was recognised as a borough and had a mayor, coroner and bailiff. By the time of Henry III’s son Edward I (1272-1307) Corfe Castle in Dorset was further strengthened with defences around the Outer Bailey which included the Outer Gatehouse.  Also work was completed on four towers.  By 1285 any attackers would have to penetrate three gatehouses:  the Outer Gatehouse, the South-West Gatehouse guarding the West Bailey and a third gatehouse as they climbed towards the Keep.  The castle also had five small back-door gates known as sallyports which were easily closed and defended.  In 1326 Edward II (Edward I’s son) was captured and imprisoned at Corfe before being taken to Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire where he was murdered in 1327.

During the middle ages the supervision of the castle was the responsibility of a Constable, appointed by the King, who would act as chief administrator in charge of the garrison and armoury, guarding prisoners, keeping the castle in good repair and well-stocked and also hiring servants and the militia when required.  During the reigns of Henrys’ IV, V, and VI the constableship was held by the Beaufort family until 1461 when Edward IV the Yorkist king granted the post to his ten year old brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III).  As it is very unlikely that Richard ever came to Dorset at this time his post would have been delegated.  The Constable was usually also Lord of the Manor of Corfe Castle and Lord Lieutenant of the Island of Purbeck.  He would have acted as judge in local disputes.  Impressions of the seals of all the constables are in a glass fronted case on the wall of the tower of St Edward’s Church.

There is a possibility that Richard III visited Corfe Castle in 1483 when he was king following Buckingham’s rebellion and Henry Tudor’s abortive attempt to land on the Dorset coast.

Following Richard III’s defeat in 1485 the castle belonged to the Tudor king Henry VII.  Over the centuries the castle had gradually evolved from a fortress to a grand country house.  When Henry VII visited Corfe in 1496 he decided to grant the castle and manor to his mother Margaret Beaufort whose parents had owned Kingston Lacy Manor.  There are Tudor fireplaces high in the walls of the Keep.

Throughout Henry VIII’s reign the castle stayed in royal hands where it remained until 1572  when his daughter Elizabeth I sold the castle with its lordship and lands to Sir Christopher Hatton for £4761.18.7 1/2d.  On his death it passed to his nephew Sir William Hatton and then to Sir William’s widow Elizabeth née Cecil daughter of Lord Burghley.  Elizabeth Hatton married next Sir Edward Coke, Attorney General, in 1598 whom James I made Chief Justice of the Kings Bench.  Their daughter Frances married Sir John Villiers, Viscount Purbeck, and in 1635 on Edward Coke’s death Elizabeth and Frances sold the castle and estate which included the Manor of Studland to Sir John Bankes and with it the titles of Lieutenant of the Isle of Purbeck (actually a peninsula), Constable of Corfe Castle and Squire of Studland.

In 1634 Sir John Bankes had risen to the post of Attorney General.  He was descended from a Cumberland family, had married Mary Hawtrey of Ruislip in 1618 and would have a family of six sons and eight daughters.  By 1641 he had been appointed Chief Justice of the Common Pleas.  The family would probably have divided their time between London and Corfe until the commencement of the English Civil War in 1642 when Lady Mary moved to the castle for herself and children to be as secure as possible.  At the outbreak of civil war in 1642 Sir John joined King Charles 1st and the Privy Council at York. Following the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642 the Court moved to Christ Chuch Oxford.  Whilst Sir John was at Oxford, in the Dorset countryside Parliamentary forces under the command of Sir Walter Erle had taken possession of Dorchester, Lyme, Melcome, Weymouth, Wareham and Poole.

Whilst the local gentry and townsmen were enjoying their annual Mayday stag hunt in 1643 Lady Mary received a warning of approaching Roundhead soldiers just in time for the hunt to be dispersed and the castle gates bolted and the drawbridge raised.  When the Parliamentary troops arrived for the 1st siege there were only five men to defend the castle so maidservants helped them to fire the cannon and disperse the attackers.  When Lady Mary’s tenants were threatened with the burning of their houses Mary adopted a conciliatory approach which resulted in the cannons being given to the Parliamentary troops who now relaxed their guard.  Lady Mary seized this opportunity to restock the castle with food and gunpowder and to recruit a local officer, Captain Robert Lawrence of Creech Grange, to command the defence with his armed force.  Shortage of water would not be a problem as the castle had two wells one by the Gloriette in the Inner Bailey and one in the Outer Bailey.  Her sons were sent to live with their eldest daughter and her husband in Oxford.

August 1643 saw the second attack by Parliamentarian.  They had re-used the medieval siege “Rings” as a base for their ammunition.  With two bullet-proof engines known as the Sow and the Boar providing cover for the men whilst they tunnelled and planted explosives, they approached the castle walls.  Once these were within range the Royalist defenders opened fire and the men dispersed.  The attackers then decided to use scaling ladders – one party attacking the West Bailey defended by Captain Lawrence’s men, the other party attacking the Inner Bailey where Lady Mary, her daughters and maidservants heaved over stones and hot embers from the battlements.  It is said there were between five and six thousand men against Mary’s eighty and the attackers lost over a hundred men compared with Mary’s two.  In revenge Sir Walter Erle, the Parliamentary commander, ordered Captain Lawrence’s home Creech Grange to be burnt.

Corfe now had a brief period of tranquillity and Sir John was able to get leave to return to his wife and daughters in the Autumn of 1643.  The castle was replenished with livestock, provisions and munitions.  The church of St Edward the Martyr opposite the castle had been desecrated by the Parliamentarians with lead from the roof used as musket bullets, a medieval reredos smashed, the lid of the 14th Century font on the floor where the font had been used as an extra horse trough and the doors missing as they had been used as cover by the troops.  Sir John returned to Oxford in 1644 before his last son William was born.  He died in Oxford and his memorial can be seen in the Lucy Chapel at Christ Church Cathedral.

By the spring of 1645 Corfe Castle was the only place in Dorset and among one of the few Royalist strongholds left in the South of England.  In June 140 cattle and 20 horses were seized with their attendants whilst gazing outside the castle.  A further drawback was that Captain Lawrence was persuaded to desert.  By October 1645 Corfe was the only Royal garrison between Exeter and London.  Four days after the Battle of Naseby in June 1645 plans were made by the Parliamentarians for the defeat of Corfe which by now was in a state of blockade.  Colonel Bingham, the Governor of Poole, awaited his orders with two regiments at his disposal.  At the end of the year these came and after a 48 day siege when the castle seemed impenetrable it was finally taken by treachery from within.

An officer of Lady Mary’s garrison, Lt-Col Pitman agreed a deal with the enemy in return for £200 and future protection.  He was to say that he was bringing in Royalist reinforcements from the West Country when in fact he brought in disguised roundheads from Weymouth.  Once inside the castle they took possession of the principle buildings and 140 prisoners.  Mary no had no option but to agree a truce.  On 27th February 1646 the long ordeal was at last over.  Before the castle was looted legend has it that the family silver was thrown down one of the wells – to this day it has not been recovered!

Following Lady Mary’s surrender the castle was looted and numerous artifacts dispersed among manor houses in Dorset under the supervision of Sir Walter Erle whose own family home of Charborough had been burnt by the Royalists.  The Bankes family were not permitted to retain their possessions as a Parliamentary Act of 1643 obliged Parliamentary leaders to confiscate the property of those who had opposed them.  As a mark of her courage however the castle seals and the keys were given to Lady Mary by Colonal Bingham.  These keys are on display in the library at Kingston Lacy House which was built as the new family home by Sir John and Lady Mary’s son Sir Ralph Bankes in 1663.

In March 1646 a vote was passed in the Commons to demolish Corfe Castle by mining and explosives.  Captain Hughes the governor of Lulworth Castle was appointed to undertake the work.  The walls and towers were thrown down or blown up and so great was the force of the explosion beneath the inner gateway that it rent in two.  Stone and timber were used for Dorset manors of Parliamentarian supporters and the lead sold to a Poole plumber.  The work of six centuries was ruined.  With the restoration of Charles II in 1660 the castle returned to the ownership of the Bankes family

By the 19th century the ruins were considered romantic with ivy covering the stonework and one of Turner’s paintings depicts the castle circa 1810.  Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent (later George IV), visited Corfe Castle on 29th October 1814 on the day of the annual village fair.  George Bankes, son of the then owner, received the Princess to conduct her and her ladies-in-waiting over the ruins.  This was the first time that a carriage had passed over the bridge since Lady Mary and her family had crossed it for the last time in 1646.  The heir to the Bankes estates at this time was William John Bankes who hoped to recreate the medieval splendour of Corfe Castle and made several sketches of his plans but be the time he inherited in 1835 the scheme was abandoned.

In 1860 the Butavant tower, where King John had kept the French knights, fell down.  The villagers said it sounded “like the world was ending”.

The castle often appears in Thomas Hardy’s novels of Wessex by the name of “Corvesgate” and “Coombe Castle” most especially in “The Hand of Ethelberta” published in 1876.

Throughout Victorian times tourists came to admire the ruins arriving be carriage and after 1885 by steam train on the new railway bringing prosperity to the village.

 Corfe Castle in  Dorset

Corfe Castle today (© Copyright Shaun Ferguson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

During the early years of the 20th century Queen Mary visited Corfe Castle whilst a guest at Kingston Lacy when she was still Princess of Wales.  At this time the young Bankes children often had picnics among the ruins during their summer holidays at Studland.

In the 1950’s an excavation revealed several human skeletons as well as the post holes of the Saxon Hall.  When Enid Blyton, the children’s authoress, wrote her “Famous Five” books Corfe Castle was her inspiration for “Kirrin Castle”.

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