Brave Dame Mary and a castle under siege

A portrait miniature showing Lady Mary Bankes

In the 1640s, England was in the grip of civil war and Corfe Castle found itself on the front line of conflict between Parliament and King Charles I.

The castle had recently been acquired by staunch Royalists, the Bankes family. When war broke out in 1642, the formidable Lady Mary Bankes made it her home while her husband Sir John was away serving the King.

The last bastion

Within a year, almost all of Dorset came under the control of Parliament but Corfe stood firm.
In 1643, Lady Mary and a garrison of just 80 soldiers saw off a six-week siege. When Sir John died in December 1644, Corfe Castle was the last remaining Royalist stronghold between London and Exeter.
Pressure increased during 1645 and by October the castle was again under siege – this time by a larger and more determined enemy force.

Brave Dame Mary

By now the reputation of ‘Brave Dame Mary’ was growing and February 1646 saw a daring attempt to rescue her.
A young Royalist officer - ironically named Cromwell - slipped through enemy lines with a small force and offered her the chance to escape. Typically, she refused to leave her home – but her days of defiance were numbered.


Downfall and destruction

Later that month, an officer of her garrison sealed the castle’s fate with an act of treachery when he allowed enemy troops disguised as reinforcements to enter. Lady Mary was forced to surrender after 48 days under siege, but was allowed to keep the seals and keys of the castle in recognition of her courage.

The castle's tumble-down appearance is a result of destruction during the English Civil War
Tumble-down walls at Corfe Castle, Dorset
The castle's tumble-down appearance is a result of destruction during the English Civil War
Parliamentarian sappers set to work with gunpowder to reduce the castle to the ruin we see today and the Bankes’ estate was seized. However, Lady Mary had the last laugh. She lived to see her estate returned and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.