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Castles of the British Isles

Photo Focus: Corfe Castle

by Peter Kessler, 4 November 2023

 

Corfe Castle in Dorset, by Guy Fogwill
Photo © Guy Fogwill

In March 978, the teenage King Edward visited his half-brother, Ethelred, at the Anglo-Saxon stronghold which predated today's surviving Norman castle remains.

During his visit the young monarch was stabbed to death, an incident which remains shrouded in mystery. It has frequently been stated that Edward was murdered on the orders of his stepmother, who wanted to place her own son on the throne.

Edward was quickly buried in nearby Wareham.

Corfe Castle in Dorset, by Guy Fogwill
Photo © Guy Fogwill

Corfe Castle's position allows it to dominate a gap in the Purbeck Hills. The location probably means that a fortified site had been established here long before the Norman conquest.

However, it was William 'the Conqueror' who founded the castle which survives in part today when he made Corfe a key element in a network of fortifications which he built to cement his power over the defeated Anglo-Saxons.

Most early Norman castles were wooden motte-and-bailey types, with a stronghold built on top of a mound (the 'motte') which was itself surrounded by a palisade (the 'bailey').

It's a mark of Corfe's importance that the natural motte of the castle mound was one of the first to be topped with stone walls.

Corfe Castle in Dorset, by Guy Fogwill
Photo © Guy Fogwill

Beside those walls, in what is now the west bailey, King William built a stone hall, the remains of which are the oldest surviving part of the castle.

He probably employed local masons for the work as the herringbone construction style is distinctively Saxon.

Corfe was strategically important to William and his successors because it defended their links with the Norman heartlands across the English Channel. The keep was rebuilt in stone in the early twelfth century for Henry I.

It was designed to be impressive - and it certainly was. Standing twenty-one metres tall, and positioned atop a fifty-five metre-high hill, this gleaming tower of Purbeck limestone could be seen many kilometres away.

Quarried just a few kilometres from this location, Purbeck limestone was prized for being easy to shape and yet tough enough to resist weathering.

Further rebuilding and extension work took place in the thirteenth century, effectively finalising the castle which survives today.

Corfe Castle in Dorset, by Guy Fogwill
Photo © Guy Fogwill

At one time, there were two castles at Corfe. A second, known as 'The Rings', used to sit a short way to the south-west. This was a temporary fort which was built during the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in the later twelfth century.

Corfe Castle left the monarch's control in 1572 when Elizabeth I sold it to Sir Christopher Hatton. Then Sir John Bankes bought it in 1635, remaining its owner during the English Civil War.

His wife, Lady Mary Bankes, led the defence of the castle when it was twice besieged by Parliamentarian forces. The first siege, in 1643, was unsuccessful but, by 1645, Corfe was one of the last remaining royalist strongholds in southern England. It fell to a siege which ended in an assault.

In March 1645 the castle was 'slighted' (destroyed) on Parliament's orders.

 

All photos on this page kindly contributed by Guy Fogwill via the 'History Files: Castles of the British Isles' Flickr group.

Main Sources

National Trust

The World of Castles

Corfe Castle

 

Images and text copyright © Guy Fogwill and P L Kessler except where stated. An original feature for the History Files.