History

Castle timeline: royalty and ruin

  • Foundations

    The first stone of Corfe Castle was laid more than 1,000 years ago. Since then it’s seen its fair share of battles, mysteries and plots. It’s been a treasury, military garrison, royal residence and family home.

  • The Norman keep © Sky Cell

    Stronghold

    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.

  • Siege

    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.

  • Signs of Civil War destruction at Corfe Castle, Dorset © NTPL/David Levenson

    Destruction

    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.

  • A family exploring Corfe Castle, Dorset © David Levenson

    Rebirth

    After a brief period of confiscation, the castle was handed back to the Bankes family and remained in their ownership for three and a half centuries.
    In 1982 Ralph Bankes gave it to the National Trust along with the family's extensive holdings in Purbeck, their mansion at Kingston Lacy near Wimborne and its adjoining land. The Bankes estate was one of the most generous gifts in the Trust's history.

The pelican in her piety

 A modern copy of the Corfe Castle pelican

A modern copy of the Corfe Castle pelican

One sign of just how important Corfe Castle was to its Norman builders is the quality of the stone carving. It includes the only example of a ‘pelican in her piety’ found in a Norman castle.

A powerful religious symbol more often seen in cathedrals, the image of the pelican attacking her own breast may here be associated with the King’s chamber or chapel in the keep.

High on the keep, the pelican went unnoticed for centuries until its discovery in 2008. Since then the Burngate Stone Centre has worked with volunteers to produce copies (above) which can be seen in the castle today.

Rare bird

The pelican can be seen high on the east wall of the keep - it's easy to see why it was missed for so long.

To medieval Christians, the pelican symbolised Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

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