The history of Corfe Castle
Corfe Castle was built shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066. Since then, it has seen its fair share of battles, murders and miracles, and been home to kings, knights and a princess. Find out who lived in luxurious surroundings, who became imprisoned until death, and how the castle was built and ultimately destroyed.
The assassination of King Edward
In March 978, the teenage King Edward visited his half-brother Ethelred at the Saxon stronghold that predated the Norman castle we see at Corfe today. During his visit, the young monarch was stabbed to death, and while the incident remains shrouded in mystery to this day, many believe that Edward was murdered on the orders of his stepmother, who wanted to put her own son on the throne.
Edward was quickly buried in nearby Wareham. However, within a year his remains were disinterred and were said to be miraculously preserved – a sign of sainthood to contemporary Christians.
The building of Corfe Castle
Corfe Castle’s position, dominating a gap in the Purbeck Hills, means it was probably a fortified site long before the Norman conquest of 1066. 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.
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. It’s 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, as 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.
Constructed for a King
The keep at Corfe Castle 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 21 metres tall, and positioned atop a 55-metre-high hill, this gleaming tower of Purbeck limestone could be seen from miles around. Quarried just a few miles away, Purbeck limestone was prized for being easy to shape yet tough enough to resist weathering.
At one time, there were two castles at Corfe. If you look south-west from Corfe Castle, you can just pick out the second, known as The Rings. This medieval fort was built by a besieging army during the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda in the 12th century.
Low mounds in a field are all that's left of the fort today, but they’re a reminder of a period of civil strife when law and order broke down.
King John at Corfe Castle
King John, who reigned from 1199 to 1216, had a soft spot for Corfe Castle and wanted more luxury during his frequent visits. He therefore built the gloriette in the shadow of the old Norman keep – a pocket palace in the latest architectural style featuring the work of England’s finest craftsmen. It had interior decorations and even an indoor toilet for the King’s use. John lavished more than £1,400 on improvements to the castle during his time on the throne.
A troubled reign
The time of King John’s reign 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.
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. Arthur was murdered shortly afterwards, but Arthur’s sister Eleanor and about 25 knights were imprisoned in Corfe Castle.
Unlike her brother, Eleanor was treated well by John. She had two Scottish princesses as companions, and the royal ladies lived in some style. Eleanor received presents of saddles and reins, a sign that she must've been allowed some freedom, even as a prisoner.
The knights imprisoned with her weren't so lucky, however. After an attempted breakout, they were thrown into a dungeon known as an oubliette – literally, a place where prisoners are forgotten – whereupon 22 of them starved to death.
The Magna Carta
In 1215, the barons forced King John to sign the 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 Castle. When he died, few mourned his passing, but his legacy lives on in the building works he carried out here, especially the magnificent gloriette.
Sir Christopher Hatton
Jump forward to 1572 and Sir Christopher Hatton became the first private owner of Corfe Castle. Hatton was the son of Northamptonshire gentry who caught the eye of Queen Elizabeth I and quickly established himself as a court favourite.
With the Queen’s patronage, he rose to become Lord Chancellor, the most senior judge in England, despite having left Oxford University without a degree and apparently never having qualified as a lawyer. Among his titles was Admiral of the Purbeck Fleet, which gave him the right to fit out warships both to defend England against invaders and to capture enemy vessels as prizes – a sort of licensed piracy.
Hatton remained close to Elizabeth I until his death in 1591, when he was given a state funeral and buried at St Paul’s Cathedral. A magnificent monument to him stood there until it was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Hatton never married, so his estates, including Corfe Castle, passed to his nephew William Newport, who changed his name to Hatton in order to take up his inheritance.
The Bankes family
In the succeeding generations, the castle passed into the hands of the Bankes family, prominent members of the Dorset gentry, who turned the former stronghold into their country seat.
Corfe Castle during the civil war
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 Bankes family supported King Charles I (the Cavaliers) against Oliver Cromwell (the Roundheads). Lady Mary Bankes led the defence of Corfe Castle during not just one but two sieges while her husband was away serving the King. Corfe’s tiny garrison was outnumbered; Mary, along with her daughters and maids, defended the battlements until she was betrayed by one of her own soldiers.
The Parliamentarians had used The Rings as their base to bombard the castle.
After six centuries of keeping enemies at bay, an Act of Parliament was passed at Wareham to destroy Corfe 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.
Mary's defiance didn’t end with the fall of the castle. The victorious Parliamentarians eventually presented her with the keys to Corfe Castle as a tribute to her courage. After years of petitioning Parliament, she lived to see her family estates returned and the restoration of King Charles II.
Rebirth of Corfe Castle
After a brief period of confiscation, the castle was handed back to the Bankes family, and it remained in their ownership for three and a half centuries.
In 1982, Ralph Bankes gave the castle 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 National Trust's history.
Corfe Castle offers plenty to see and do, including walks around the ruins, a story trail and wildlife spotting in the surrounding hills. Find out more.
Situated in an 18th century former cottage, the Tea-room at Corfe Castle serves a delicious menu of hot and cold food, drinks, cakes and bakes. Afterwards, stop off at the Shop to discover beautiful collections of homewares, gifts and locally made ranges to take home with you. The second-hand book shop located in Castle View is also filled with literary treasures.
Find out everything you need to know about booking a group visit to Corfe Castle, from admission prices to information about school visits.
The National Trust carries out vital conservation work in and around Corfe Castle, helping to protect this historic site for the enjoyment of visitors both now and in the future.