A Norman masterpiece – building Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle seen from West Hill

Corfe Castle’s position dominating a gap in the Purbeck Hills means it was probably a fortified place long before the Saxon hall which predated it.

But it was William the Conqueror who founded the castle we know today when he made Corfe a key element in a network of fortifications built to cement his power over the defeated English.

A slightly confused account in the Domesday Book describes how William acquired land from the Abbot of Shaftesbury and began construction.

Most of the castles the Normans built in the early years following the conquest were wooden palisades, hastily constructed on top of an artificial mound called a motte.

Importance

It is a mark of Corfe’s importance that the natural motte of the castle mound was one of the first to be topped with stone walls.

Beside them, in what is now the west bailey, William built a stone hall, the remains of which are the oldest surviving part of the castle. We think he employed local masons because the herringbone construction style is distinctively Saxon.

Corfe was strategically important to William and his successors because it defended their links with the Norman heartlands across the Channel.

Purbeck stone

It was made of Purbeck limestone, quarried just a few miles away and prized for being easy to shape yet tough enough to resist weathering.

William’s son, Henry I, built the great stone keep over a period of eight to nine years, completing it in 1105. 
At 21m high on top of its 55m mound, it was a potent symbol of Norman power and visible for miles around, especially after it was whitewashed in 1244.

Though imposing, the keep was built for defence and offered comparatively little in the way of creature comforts.

Luxury

King John, who reigned from 1199 to 1216, had a soft spot for Corfe and wanted more luxury during his frequent visits.

He built the gloriette in the shadow of the keep – a pocket palace in the latest architectural style featuring the work of England’s finest craftsmen.

John also built a new curtain wall and towers in the West Bailey, dug a great ditch between the outer bailey and the castle mound and made improvements to the outer defences.
In total he spent £1,400 on Corfe Castle during a turbulent reign, but his son, Henry III, lavished £10,000 on it.

Henry completed the stone walls of the west bailey and built the south west gatehouse, along with a wall dividing the outer bailey which has long since disappeared.

Masterpiece

Henry’s son Edward I was England’s greatest builder of castles, and it was he who finished the work of his ancestors.

By the end of the 13th century Edward had completed the stone defences of the outer bailey and built the huge main gatehouse, as well as increasing the height of the keep.

Corfe Castle had now reached its zenith, a form that stayed largely unchanged until Cromwell’s sappers and their gunpowder turned a medieval masterpiece into the romantic ruin we know today.