Twelfth century turmoil and Corfe’s other castle
Did you know there are two castles in Corfe? Look south west from the castle we all know and you can pick out the second, known as The Rings.
There’s not much to see today, just some low mounds in a field, but they are a reminder of a terrible period of civil strife in the 12th century when law and order broke down so completely it was said Christ and his saints were asleep.
The story begins in 1120 when William Adelin, the only legitimate son of King Henry I, died in a shipwreck.
Lacking a male heir, a heartbroken Henry tried to force the barons to accept his daughter Matilda as his successor.
Though she lived in a male-dominated age, Matilda was used to wielding power. She was the widow of a Holy Roman Emperor who had been her husband’s viceroy in Italy and still held the title of Empress.
But many in the macho Anglo-Norman court baulked at the thought of a female ruler, and when Henry died in 1135 his nephew Stephen of Blois stepped in to seize the throne.
Stephen was backed by powerful elements in the church and the nobility, but faced constant rebellion from the outset.
Among the rebels was Baldwin de Redvers, who captured Exeter Castle in 1136 before being defeated by Stephen.
Baldwin fled to France where he joined Matilda at Anjou, but in 1139 he returned with an army and landed at Wareham.
He failed to capture the town but the royal garrison at nearby Corfe Castle were sympathetic to Matilda’s cause and let him in without a fight.
Corfe Castle was too strong to be taken by storm so Stephen laid siege.
The Rings are the remains of his siege castle, an enclosure of earthworks topped by a wooden palisade where Stephen’s army sheltered just out of bowshot from the castle.
The siege lasted only a few months as Matilda herself landed in Sussex later that year and Stephen rushed off to confront her.
It was the start of 16 years of brutal civil war which came to be known as The Anarchy.
The advantage swung first one way then another before the conflict became locked in stalemate.
Matilda never quite managed to gain the throne but Stephen was eventually forced to accept her son, the future Henry II, as his heir.
The Rings were abandoned until the 17th century when they were used as a battery by Parliamentarian artillery bombarding the castle during the English Civil War.