One of Britain’s most majestic ruins and once a controlling gateway through the Purbeck Hills, the castle boasts breathtaking views and several waymarked walks. Steeped in history, an interactive exhibition uncovers many stories of treachery and treason. Defended during the Civil War by the prudent and virtuous Lady Bankes, the castle fell, due to betrayal from within, and was subsequently partially destroyed by the Parliamentarians. Many fine Norman and early English features remain.
Winner of Sandford Award 1998, 2003.
When Lord Chief Justice Bankes was summoned to attend King Charles I. at York in 1642, his wife and her children retired to Corfe, and lived there in peace till May 1, 1643, when, under the pretence of attending an annual stag hunt on that day in the Isle of Purbeck, the Parliamentarians from Poole attempted to surprise and capture the castle, but Lady Bankes had the gate shut, and the force, thwarted in their design, retired. They then demanded the delivery of four small 3-pounder cannon that were in the castle, but the lady, with the help of her five men and her maids, brought one of these guns to bear on the party, who decamped at its discharge. With great difficulty Lady Bankes then introduced some stores and powder into the castle and summoned aid from Prince Maurice who was at Blandford, and who sent Captain Lawrence to take command. On June 23, the enemy, 500 to 600 strong, under Sir Walter Erle, came against the place, with “a demi-cannon, a culverin, and two sakers”, and commenced the attack of the fortress, assisted by two engines of shelter, called a Boar and a Sow, which were used for approaching the walls. They were assisted by a party of sailors, sent by the Earl of Warwick, well armed and having scaling ladders, and with this force the storm was commenced, the men being incited by promises and excited by strong drink. They made a simultaneous assault on the middle ward defended by Captain Lawrence, and the upper ward where the lady of the castle and her brave men and women kept off the attacks by throwing down stones, and hot cinders and “wild fire”. The Roundhead attempt failed, with a loss of 100 men, and then, learning the approach of the Earl of Carnarvon in force, Erle broke up and retired to Poole on August 4.
Another attempt was made to take the castle in June 1645, at the time when the Parliamentary forces were very active in the western counties, but this, too, was beaten off for a time by Lady Bankes and her friends. At the close of that year, however, when scarcely any other garrison but this hoisted the Royal flag between Exeter and London, Corfe was beset anew by Colonel Bingham, the Governor of Poole, with three regiments, in addition to which Fairfax reinforced him in December with other two. Still with even this strong force they might have failed again, such was the strength of the fortress, but for the treachery of an officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Pitman, who by deception introduced .100 men of the enemy in place of a like body of friendly troops, and these men admitted the besiegers, Feb. 20, 1646. Then the garrison had to surrender at discretion, their lives being spared, the siege having lasted, according to Sprigg’s Table, forty-eight days, and after an heroic defence by the lady of the castle of three years. A vote was then passed in the Commons to “slight” the fortress—that is, to ruin its defences and the structure, and as an order of the House at that period met with strict obedience, the destruction of Corfe was thorough. After the place had been plundered, the towers and walls were blown up, or shattered by being undermined and propped up with wood, which was then set on fire, as was done at the keep of Raglan. The lead and timbers were stolen or sold, and thus this venerable fortress was reduced to a state of utter ruin. Fortunately the presence of building stone in abundance in the vicinity has saved Corfe from the common fate of being converted into a quarry.
The castle, which has a triangular trace enclosing nearly four acres, stands on an isolated chalk hill, which partly fills a gap in a higher range of hills running E. and W., on the S. side of the castle, and through which two streams, the Wicken and the Dyle, flowing on either side of the fortress, unite and pass under St. Edward’s Bridge, and then form the Corfe river, falling into Poole Harbour on the N. On the S., between the two brooks, there was a deep ditch, cutting off the castle from the town of Corfe. The hill has a natural scarp all round, and along the crest runs the line of the outer walls, flanked by thirteen strong mural towers and bastions. The entrance is by a grand bridge of four lofty arches over the ditch at the town end, and leads at once under the great outer gatehouse, with a large circular tower on each side of the gateway, the upper storeys of both having disappeared. Here is the entrance to the first of the three wards into which the castle is divided, and in which are six of the neural towers besides those of the gatehouse. This is all later work, but across this ward, or bailey, stretched a curved ditch, 20 feet deep, attributed to King John, having on its S. side a breastwork mounting artillery, which commanded the ward; and at the W. end of the ditch access is obtained to a second or middle gatehouse, which was like the outer one and had a drawbridge over a fosse of 50 feet breadth. Passing this and its portcullis the second ward is reached, which extends to the N.W. angle of the fortress where the salient is formed by the huge octagonal Buttavant tower. Between the second gate and this tower exists some very ancient masonry, which appears to be due to Saxon times, and where may have been the dwelling of Elfrida, the murderous Queen-mother; it is at any rate older than the Norman keep. (Clark.) All through this ward the ground rises rapidly to the inner ward, which occupies the summit of the hill, and contains the keep and dwellings. This part also forms an irregular triangle, of which the S.E. angle is of solid masonry, whence to its W. point at the great bastion—where five guns were mounted at the siege—runs an immensely strong wall, 12 feet thick, and without any towers, the natural strength of the ground not requiring any. Here are two gateways, the keep, the Queen’s tower, and the apartments and offices.
The keep is quadrangular, 60 feet square and 80 high, all pure Norman work, having flat pilasters and originally an outside staircase (as at Castle Rising, Norfolk). The basement is covered, and the first floor contained a single large dreary chamber; on the second floor was the hall, the floors being of wood; the battlements are gone, but this upper part has the appearance of an addition. A large garderobe tower is attached on the S. side. The Queen’s hall, or tower, on the E. side of the keep is Early English with pointed windows (Henry III.). In carrying out the slighting order an unnecessary amount of powder seems to have been expended, for the vast masses of masonry are riven and shattered and displaced in the wildest confusion. The towers of the outer gatehouse are blown forwards, and the vault is split, the E. curtain wall is broken down in parts, and on the W. not only is the wall down, but the mural towers are rent, and one is dislodged bodily. The middle gatehouse was overthrown by undermining, and two-thirds of the Buttavant lower are gone, but happily the great wall between the middle gatehouse and keep remains intact: “It is one of the finest in Britain, and almost equal to Cardiff”. (Clark.) Of the great keep the whole N. wall and two-thirds of the W. lie about in enormous fragments, crushing the inner gateway and adjacent walls. A piece of the Norman E. wall remains unhurt to its summit; “a marvel of Norman masonry, and shrouded in ivy”. The outside staircase is gone, and the Queen’s tower is quite destroyed, with the offices and chapel. The destruction apparently exceeds anything known elsewhere in England. (Castles Of England, Sir James D. Mackenzie, 1896)
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