Updated: Dec 26, 2020
Dominating the skyline for miles around, Corfe Castle was designed to impress and intimidate.
Situated in a gap in the chalk ridge, the Purbeck limestone castle rises 21m on top of its 55m naturally-formed hill. What we see today are the remains of fortifications built and improved upon by a succession of Norman and Plantagenet kings.
But the Norman castle wasn’t the first to be built on this site. We know of at least a Saxon hall here - and it is quite possible (and indeed entirely probable) that there was a fortification or some sort of settlement here at least a thousand years before that.
The first record comes in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which details the death (and probably murder) of King Edward (The Martyr) on 18 March 978. He was visiting his stepmother and half brother Ethelred, perhaps to try and smooth the waters following the power struggle which had ensued following the death of their father King Edgar.
His stepmother has gone down in history as a ‘Lady Macbeth’ type character, willing to do anything for power and it is thought most likely that she had the king murdered to smooth the way for her son - who went on to reign as Ethelred (the Unready) - not one of our most distinguished monarchs.
Edward was hastily buried at Wareham and when his remains were disinterred the following year they were found to be remarkably preserved, considered a sign of sainthood. He was reburied at Shaftesbury Abbey where he was revered as a saint and acquired a cult following, with his relics becoming a focus of pilgrimage.
When William the Conquerer (great-great-nephew of King Edgar) arrived on these shores, Corfe was seen as a key part of his fortifications of the south coast. Its strategic position, guarding the approach to Poole harbour and access to Normandy meant that it was one of the first castles to be built. Not only that, but it was built of stone from the outset, at a time when most Norman castles were built of timber.
His son Henry I built the stone keep in 1105 and it became a highly visible sign of Norman supremacy.
When Henry’s only (legitimate) son and heir died in a shipwreck, it precipitated a civil war on Henry’s death which became known as The Anarchy - a 20 year battle between Henry’s daughter (and chosen heir) Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois.
If you look carefully, you can still see the earthwork remains of ‘Corfe’s other castle’. This was a siege castle built by Stephen to try and gain control of Corfe. Known as The Rings, it was later used for the same purpose during the Civil War of the 17th century.
(For those keen to know the end of the story - Stephen won the war and remained king but agreed to disinherit his own son in favour of Matilda’s becoming king on his death - Henry II.)
Corfe was a favourite haunt of King John - possibly due to the good hunting to be found in the area. He built an impressive palace within the castle as well as increasing its defences. However, that pales compared to his son Henry III who spent £10,000 on it!
Extreme castle builder Edward I finished the job: he completed the defences, increased the height of the keep and built the main gatehouse. The castle remained in this impressive form until the Civil War when it was eventually won by Cromwell. He ordered the castle to be slighted, rendering it uninhabitable.
By this time it was no longer royal property. Elizabeth I had sold it to a favourite courtier, Sir Christopher Hatton for just over £4000. His good looks and dancing skills, to say nothing of his financial acuity led to him rising to the esteemed post of Lord Chancellor, the most senior judge in England. The fact that he had left Oxford University without a degree and was unqualified as a lawyer didn’t appear to stand in his way....
By the 17th century the castle had become the property of the Bankes family and Lady Bankes successfully defended the castle against the Parliamentarians on two occasions. Finally betrayed by someone inside, she and the garrison were allowed to leave. Corfe was eventually given back to the family and it remained in their possession until 1982 when Ralph Bankes gave it to the National Trust along with their home at Kingston Lacy and substantial areas of land.
Now it is one of the most popular visitor sites in the Purbeck area with a station on the steam railway line between Wareham and Swanage.