UK Travel Guide


Corfe Castle

Description: Corfe began as a Roman settlement at nearby Bucknowle, a short way from some of the first marble quarries in Britain. In the time of Alfred the Great, Corfe served as a centre of West Saxon resistance to Viking invaders. Although there are traces of a pre-Conquest structure, the castle itself can only be reliably traced to the reign of William I. On 15 April 978, King Edward set out to visit his notoriously inadequate half-brother Ethelred, who lived at Corfe. Ethelred's mother Elfreda wanted to see her son on the throne of England and she did not care how this might be achieved. Tired from his journey and looking forward to a warm reception and a mug of mulled wine, the young King instead found Elfreda's assassins in the Market Square, who stabbed him in the back and then threw his body down a well. He later became known as Edward the Martyr. William the Conqueror built Corfe Castle in the 100 years following Edward's death. Because of its relative inaccessibility, the Castle became a popular place to store treasure, regalia and political prisoners. Even as early as 1106 the castle was well defended and was one of the most secure locations in the Kingdom. Its reputation as a fortress made it popular with succeeding Kings, most notably John, bother of Richard the Lionheart. He had made it his home, treasury and prison by 1212. By the third year of his reign, John had used Corfe to imprison his niece Eleanor along with 25 French Knights who were loyal to her. She was the sister of Prince Arthur of Brittany, the rival of John and someone he despised and probably feared. The knights managed to escape, but 22 of them were recaptured. John locked them in the dungeon and allowed them to starve to death. This is an example of how John achieved his reputation for vindictiveness. However, despite his cruelty, he carried out extensive building works between 1201 and 1204, adding an expensive new royal residence called the Gloriette. In the late 14th century, Edward II was kept here until he was moved to Berkeley Castle, where he was murdered. By the end of the 16th century, Corfe's once-prosperous marble industry had declined, and the base of royal power moved to London. In 1572, Elizabeth I sold the Castle to Sir Christopher Hatten. After he had died in 1592, there were many owners until Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Bankes, bought it in 1635. Sir John was a royalist and spent the majority of his time at Court in London. He left his wife, Lady Mary Bankes, to run the Castle while he was away. As the Civil War spread, most nobles sided with Cromwell, but Corfe remained loyal to the King and this loyalty was to eventually cause the destruction of the Castle. On Mayday 1643, a troop of republican horsemen entered Corfe to find the Castle barred. They did not expect the resistance they encountered from Lady Bankes and a handful of untrained villagers. They successfully defended the Castle for six weeks against a battalion of trained soldiers. More than 100 Parliamentary soldiers died but Lady Bankes only lost two men. The Parliamentarians were forced to withdraw. When London fell the following year, Sir John accompanied King Charles to Oxford. However, Sir John died there after a short illness. The Parliamentarians thought it would be easy to attack Corfe, now that Lady Bankes was a defenceless widow and another siege was mounted. After two months they had still not broken through the defences and had to resort to disguising some men as Royalist reinforcements to gain entry to the Castle. At the end, Lady Bankes was forced to surrender, although she was allowed to take her garrison and the keys to the Castle with her. By now it was 27 February 1646. In March 1646 Parliament ordered the total destruction of the Castle to prevent it being used again. The demolition, using kegs of explosives were placed strageically around the walls and towers, but even then, it took some three months to render the Castle unusable. The village is separated from the castle by a large moat which is largely natural.
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Notes: Corfe Castle is open daily from March through October, from 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. (last admission 4.30); and daily from November through February, from noon to 3.30 p.m. (closed Christmas day and Boxing day).