History of Corfe and itS Castle
There is evidence of human settlement in the area of Corfe from as early as 6000 BC. This was followed by Celtic habitation around 1300 BC and Roman around 50 AD. The Saxons occupied the area until the Norman Conquest of 1066 when the castle we know today was built.
Corfe Castle has dominated the skyline of Purbeck for the past thousand years. Its ideal position, at a gap in the Purbeck Hills, means it was probably a fortified site long before the Norman conquest. Both the Romans and Saxons most likely had military fortifications at Corfe. This natural gap in the Chalk ridge, was carved out over time by two streams, leaving a central knoll that was a perfect place a castle. The older Roman and Saxon fortifications were probably made of wood. By the Saxon period this fortification had been elevated to a Royal residence.
Why is it called Corfe?
Once of the earlies references to ‘Corf’ was in 955 in the Saxon Chronicles, with later references as Corffe in 1217, Corffe Castle 1302, Corfecastle 1545.
The word means a cutting or pass form the Old English ‘Corf’ describing the gap in the central ridge of the Purbeck hills at this place. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle state it was sometimes called ‘Corfesgeate’ meaning gap.
Assassination of a Saxon King
In March 978, the young King Edward (great-grandson of Alfred the Great) visited his half-brother Ethelred at the Royal Residence in Corfe. During his visit, the teenage monarch was stabbed to death, most liklely on the orders of his mother-in-law, who wanted to put her own 7 year old son on the throne instead! Edward was hurredly buried in the neighbouring town of Wareham. However, within a year his remains were disinterred after reports of local miracles related to him were reported. His body was said to be miraculously preserved – a sure sign of sainthood to contemporary Christians and hence he became St Edward the Martyr. His body was taken to Shaftesbury Abbey, where pilgrims from all over England came to venerate him.
You will find a commemorative sign for Edward the Martyr on the main square towards the church. This is a replica of an original sign painted by a local artist in 1927. Unfortunately the original sign was cut down and thrown into the village millpond. Hence the original is kept safely by the Town Hall. Underneath the sign is written “Edward the Martyr King of Wessex treacherously stabbed at Corves gate in A.D. 978 by his stepmother Elfrida.
The building of Corfe Castle
William the Conqueror founded the castle that we see today after the Norman Conquest. Corfe was just one in a series of major fortifications that King William ordered to built to cement his power over the defeated English. Most of these fortifications built following the conquest hastily constructed wooden structures on top of an artificial mound called a motte. The fact that Corfe was one of the first to be topped with stone walls shows Corfe’s strategic importance to the Normans.
In the West Bailey, William also built a stone hall, the remains of which are the oldest surviving part of the Castle. The keep at Corfe Castle was built in the early 12th century for King Henry I, William the Conqueror’s son. Standing at 21 metres tall, and positioned atop a 55-metre-high hill this impressive, gleaming tower of Purbeck limestone could be seen from miles around.
Quarried just a few miles away, Purbeck limestone was prized for being easy to shape yet tough enough to resist weathering and was therefore a great local resource for such a major buiding project.
King John’s Palace
King John, who reigned from 1199 to 1216, was a regular visitor to Corfe Castle and decided to create a more luxurious places to stay. He ordered the building of a gloriette to be located near the old Norman keep. Built by England’s finest craftsmen the gloriette was like a small palace, designed using the most fashionable architectural styles and interior decorations of the period.
However, the time of King John’s reign was also a troubled one, and Corfe Castle became his refuge as well as a convenient place to lock up political prisoners! One of King John’s rivals was his nephew Prince Arthur of Brittany, grandson of Henry II. When Arthur was killed, King John imprisoned Arthur’s sister Eleanor and about 25 knights at Corfe Castle. Eleanor was treated well by John but the knights weren’t so lucky and after an attempted breakout, they were thrown into a dungeon where 22 of them starved to death.
In 1215, the barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, limiting his power. In 1216 – the last year of his reign – King John spent even more time at Corfe Castle although when he died few mourned his passing. However at Corfe his legacy lives on in the building works he carried out, especially the magnificent gloriette.
The story of Corfe Castle has always loomed over the history of the village. It is believed that the settlment of the village probably developed as a work camp for the building works for the castle during the Reign of King John. These first houses would have been made of cob, or wattle and daub, and probably surrounded the village square, with a bustling hub of workshops.
In the 1200’s the village of Corfe was granted a weekly market by Henry III.
Corfe's Second Castle
At one time, there were two castles at Corfe! If you look south-west from Corfe Castle, you can just still pick out the site of the second Castle, looking towards toe road to Church Knowle.
This fortification was orignally a ring and bailey castle, built by the Normans. The higher inner ring was a stronghold and the bailey was the storage and working area, surrounded by fences. The rings are believed to be the site of a siege castle built by King Stephen in 1139 AD, during the Anarchy War Civil War between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. King Stephen made an unsuccessful attempt to regain control of Corfe Castle. During the English Civil War Parliamentarians used The Rings as their base to bombard the castle. Today all that is left are low mounds in a field.
From Royalty to Private Ownership.
In 1572 the Castle passed into the hands of Sir Christopher Hatton. Sir Christopher was Lord Chancellor under Queen Elizabeth I. Hatton never married so Corfe Castle passed to his nephew William Newport. In the succeeding generations, the castle passed into the hands of the Bankes family, prominent members of the Dorset gentry.
English Civil War
The Castle is Ruined!
The ruined Corfe Castle that we know today was brought about due to the English Civil War. The Bankes family supported King Charles I (the Cavaliers) against Oliver Cromwell (the Roundheads). Lady Mary Bankes led the defence of Corfe Castle during two major sieges while her husband was away serving the King. The Castle seemed to be impregnable but an act of betrayal from one of Mary’s own officers led to its demise.
After taking the Castle, Oliver Cromwell’s parliament issued an order to destroy it! Captain Hughes of Lulworth was given the task, using gunpowder to bring the towers and ramparts crashing down, resulting in the ruins we see today.
Mary Bankes bravery did not go unnoticed. The victorious Parliamentarians eventually presented her with the keys to Corfe Castle as a tribute to her courage. The Bankes family preserved the keys at their family home of Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne.
Many of the present buildings were built using Purbeck Stone from the castle after its destruction by parliementary forces in 1646. Most of the older village houses date from the 16th to the 19th century.
The quarrying of the local Purbeck Stone would have been an important industry for the village. Corfe was home to many of the Quarry owners and marblers, who would also have had their yards for dressing and finnishing the stone.
A National Treasure!
After a brief period of confiscation, the castle was eventually handed back to the Bankes family, and it remained in their ownership for three and a half centuries. In 1982, Ralph Bankes gave the castle to the National Trust along with the family’s extensive holdings in Purbeck, including their mansion at Kingston Lacy near Wimborne and its adjoining land. The Bankes estate was one of the most generous gifts in the National Trust’s history.
Today the romantic ruins of Corfe Castle is one of the most popular visitor attractions in Dorset. Corfe Castle will also be familiar to many who have enjoyed reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five Books, with Corfe Castle being the inspirationg behind Kirren Castle in the children’s series.
The castle was also featured in the Disney movie classic Bedknobs and Broomstricks (1971) and was certainly the inspiration for the village of Pepperinge Eye.
The National Trust visitor’s centre has more information about the Castle and the general area, as well as a shop and tearoom in the village. Find out more about Visiting Corfe Castle.