King John and Corfe Castle

The gloriette at Corfe Castle

The reign of King John from 1199 to 1216 was a troubled one, and Corfe Castle became a refuge for an insecure monarch, as well as a convenient place to lock up political prisoners.

But it was also a favourite residence. John lavished more than £1,400 on improvements during his time on the throne, and licked his wounds here after the humiliation of Magna Carta.

John was said to love the finer things in life and was fastidious about personal cleanliness - records show he had a bath eight times between January and June in 1209.

Among his works was the gloriette, a pocket palace in the inner ward. The gloriette was much more luxurious than the old Norman keep, boasting magnificent interior decorations and even an indoor toilet for the King’s use.

Rival

In his early years as king, John faced a rival in the form of his nephew Prince Arthur of Brittany, grandson of Henry II.

John besieged him at Mirabeau in Poitou, France and Arthur was captured, along with his sister Eleanor and many of his knights.

Arthur was murdered shortly afterwards, probably by John himself, but Eleanor and about 25 knights were imprisoned in Corfe Castle.

Style

Unlike her brother, Eleanor was treated well by John. She had two Scottish princesses as companions and the royal ladies lived in some style.

They had a generous allowance from the King’s own purse and gifts of fine clothing are recorded. Eleanor even received presents of saddles and reins, a sign that she must have been allowed some freedom, even as a prisoner.

The knights imprisoned with her were not so lucky, however. After an attempted break-out they were thrown into a dungeon known as an oubliette – literally, a place where prisoners are forgotten – and 22 of them starved to death.

At Corfe, the oubliette is thought to have been beneath the Butavant tower in the west bailey.

Prisoners

Other high profile prisoners during John’s reign included the queen herself for a time, as well as Maud de Braose, the wife of a disgraced nobleman, and her son William, who were also starved to death, either at Corfe or Windsor Castle.

Behaviour like this, along with military defeats in France and constant demands for taxes, made John an unpopular king and conflict with the barons overshadowed his later years.

Magna Carta

In 1215 the barons forced him to sign Magna Carta, limiting his power. The document has come to be seen as an important step towards civil liberties and the rule of law, but John himself quickly went back on it.

In 1216, the last year of his reign, John spent even more time at Corfe, perhaps finding refuge in its remote location.

When he died, few mourned his passing, but his legacy lives on in the building works he carried out here, especially the magnificent gloriette.