It may have been a defensive site even in Roman times and Corfe Castle certainly has had a colourful history. The first castle buildings would have been built of wood. In 979 King Edward was reputedly murdered by his step-mother so that her own son Ethelred the Unready could become King of England. In the latter half of the 11th Century the Castle was rebuilt in stone by William the Conqueror and for the next six hundred years was a royal fortress used by the monarchs of England and latterly their constables.
The story is this : Edward, after hunting in the neighbour hood of Wareham, thought he would turn in here and visit his stepmother and his brother Ethelred ; so, riding to her door, he was kissed by Eifrida, and given some wine ; but while drinking it, he was, by Elfrida’s order, stabbed in the back by one of her people. Edward, feeling the wound, started away, and soon after fell out of the saddle in a swoon when, his foot catching in the stirrup, he was dragged face downward for a long distance, and was at last picked up dead and greatly disfigured.
“The castles of England, their story and structure, Vol. I”, James D. Mackenzie, 1897, p. 241
The keep was built in the early 12th century for King Henry I, William the Conqueror’s son. It was designed to be impressive – and it certainly was. Standing 21m tall and on the top of a 55m high hill, this gleaming tower of Purbeck limestone could be seen from miles around. In the 17th century, as the Civil War raged around it, the castle stood firm. The Bankes family supported King Charles I (Cavaliers) against Oliver Cromwell (Roundheads). Lady Bankes defended it bravely during not just one, but two sieges, until finally she was betrayed by one of her own soldiers. After six centuries of keeping enemies at bay, an Act of Parliament was passed at Wareham to destroy the castle. Captain Hughes of Lulworth was given the job of demolishing it. His sappers dug deep holes packed with gunpowder to bring the towers and ramparts crashing down, resulting in the yawning gaps and crazy angles we see today.
Notwithstanding the high likelihood of an earlier settlement, the first known high-status residence on the site was a Saxon hall. Archaeological evidence has placed this within the west bailey of the later castle and it had been established no later than the tenth century AD. With nearby Wareham, a Saxon burh (fortified town), providing the defensive facility against the Danes, the prime purpose of Corfe was to serve as a hunting lodge as by this time the Isle of Purbeck had been designated a Royal forest. . . . Corfe Castle itself was founded by William I who procured the land from the nunnery at Shaftsbury. When initially raised it consisted of east and west wards. The former occupied the summit of the chalk hill ,which doubled as a natural motte, and was surrounded by a stone wall constructed from Purbeck limestone. The western ward was the bailey and was enclosed by a timber stockade hosting what is now known as the Old Hall – a two storey building consisting of a large chamber on the first floor and storage below. The distinctive herring-bone masonry of this structure suggests Saxon labour was utilised. Henry I started work on the Great Keep no later than 1105. This structure stood 22 metres tall whilst its position on the summit of the hill elevated it a further 55 metres above sea level. At the time of its construction it was one of the largest buildings in England and incorporated a Great Hall, King’s Chambers and a Chapel.
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At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Corfe Castle was owned by Sir John Bankes, Lord Chief Justice. The castle was garrisoned for the King but most of Dorset supported Parliament and by early 1643 Corfe was an isolated outpost under the control of Lady Mary Banks. It was besieged on 23 June 1643 by a 600 strong Parliamentary army drawn from the Poole garrison and under the command of Sir Walter Erle. A determined resistance meant that after six weeks no progress had been made and, faced with the approach of a Royalist relief force, Erle withdrew on 4 August 1643. By late 1645 Royalist fortunes were in decline after destruction of the King’s armies at Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645). With Parliament now having a free hand, Corfe Castle was under siege again by October 1645. Lady Banks put up a determined resistance but one of her officers, Colonel Pitman, was less enthusiastic. In February 1646 he made a deal with the Parliamentarians and helped their troops to penetrate the defences. The Royalist garrison was overwhelmed. Corfe Castle had proven a formidable challenge for the Parliamentarian forces and accordingly was one of the first fortifications to be ordered to be destroyed to prevent any further military use. Parliament passed the decree in March 1646 and Captain Hughs was tasked with the work. He brought a team of sappers to undermine the walls and towers leaving the structure in ruins. When the Bankes family were allowed to recover the site, they found a structure beyond economical repair and the family built a new manor at Kingston Lacey to serve as their home. Corfe Castle was gifted to the National Trust in 1982.
Castles Forts Battles
Plan of Corfe Castle, 1586 (from Wikimedia Commons
The entrance is by a grand bridge of four lofty arches over the ditch at the town end, and leads at once under the great outer gatehouse, with a large circular tower on each side of the gateway, the upper storeys of both having disappeared. Here is the entrance to the first of the three wards into which the castle is divided, and in which are six of the mural towers besides those of the gate- house. This is all later work, but across this ward, or bailey, stretched a curved ditch, 20 feet deep, attributed to King John, having on its S. side a breastwork mounting artillery, which commanded the ward ; and at the W. end of the ditch access is obtained to a second or middle gatehouse, which was like the outer one and had a drawbridge over a fosse of 50 feet breadth. Passing this and its portcullis the second ward is reached, which extends to the N.W. angle of the fortress where the salient is formed by the huge octagonal Buttavant tower. Between the second gate and this tower exists some very ancient masonry, which appears to be due to Saxon times, and where may have been the dwelling of Elfrida, the murderous Queen-mother ; it is at any rate older than the Norman keep.
All through this ward the ground rises rapidly to the inner ward, which occupies the summit of the hill, and contains the keep and dwellings. This part also forms an irregular triangle, of which the S.E. angle is of solid masonry, whence to its W. point at the great bastion — where five guns were mounted at the siege — runs an immensely strong wall, 12 feet thick, and without any towers, the natural strength of the ground not requiring ainy. Here are two gateways, the keep, the Queen’s tower, and the apartments and offices. The keep is quadrangular, 60 feet square and 80 high, all pure Norman work, having flat pilasters and originally an outside staircase (as at Castle Rising, Norfolk). The basement is covered, and the first floor contained a single large dreary chamber ; on the second floor was the hall, the floors being of wood ; the battlements are gone, but this upper part has the appearance of an addition. A large garderobe tower is attached on the S. side. The Queen’s hall, or tower, on the E. side of the keep is Early English with pointed windows (Henry III.).
In carrying out the slighting order an unnecessary amount of powder seems to have been expended, for the vast masses of masonry are riven and shattered and displaced in the wildest confusion. The towers of the outer gatehouse are blown forwards, and the vault is split, the E. curtain wall is broken down in parts, and on the W. not only is the wall down, but the mural towers are rent, and one is dislodged bodily.
“The castles of England, their story and structure, Vol. I”, James D. Mackenzie, 1897, p. 244-5