While time diminishes humanity’s lesser achievements, it enhances the few that are genuinely great. Corfe Castle, perched atop a windy knoll overlooking the Purbeck Hills near Wareham, Dorset, is just such a place. Since its destruction in the 17th century, the castle’s weathered stones have taken on an air of melancholic grandeur.
Corfe began quietly as a Roman settlement at nearby Bucknowle, not far from some of the first marble quarries in Britain. Later, under the leadership of Alfred the Great, Corfe served as a centre of West Saxon resistance to Viking invaders. Although the site reveals traces of a pre-Conquest structure, the castle itself can only be reliably traced to the reign of William I.
Corfe, however, carries a much earlier, much more violent, royal association. In 978, King Edward set out to visit his notoriously inadequate half-brother Ethelred, who lived at Corfe. Blind to her son’s limitations, Ethelred’s mother Elfreda had but one burning desire–to see her son on the throne of England. Elfreda cared little about the means by which this lofty goal might be achieved. Tired from his long journey, an unsuspecting Edward rode into the Market Square. Looking forward to a warm reception and a mug of mulled wine, the young king instead found Elfreda’s assassins, who stabbed him in the back and then threw his body down a well.
In the century following Edward’s death, William the Conqueror built the castle that soon became a favourite of succeeding kings–in particular John, brother of Richard the Lionheart, who made it his home, treasury, and prison. Wishing to consolidate his power in the third year of his reign, John used Corfe to imprison his politically suspect niece Eleanor, the sister of John’s rival, Prince Arthur of Brittany, whom he openly despised and secretly feared.
Along with Eleanor, John also incarcerated 25 French knights loyal to their lady. After an attempted escape, 22 of the knights had the misfortune to be captured. John, living up to his reputation for vindictiveness, had the miscreants locked into the dungeon and starved to a slow, sadistic death.
Despite his cruel behaviour, John undertook the most ambitious building programme in the history of Corfe Castle. In the early years of his reign, between 1201 and 1204, he added an expensive new royal residence called the Gloriette. The vault beneath the Long Chamber survives, but suggests little of the rich tapestries, ornamented cabinets and Persian carpets that once filled the royal quarters. The gilded leather and blue silk damask have long since rotted, leaving only portions of the grey stone walls to testify to days of pageantry past.
By the end of the 16th century, Corfe’s once-prosperous marble industry was in irreversible decline, and the seat of royal power shifted to London. In 1572, Elizabeth I, having no further need for the castle, sold it to Sir Christopher Hatten, dancing master and paramour of the ‘Virgin Queen’. After Sir Christopher’s death in 1592, the fortress passed through numerous hands until, in 1635, Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Bankes, bought it. Sir John, an ardent royalist, spent most of his time at court in London. His wife, Lady Mary Bankes, one of the great unsung heroines of British history, ran the castle in Sir John’s absence.
As the flames of civil war spread across England, King Charles’ base of power rapidly eroded. The nobles, quick to exploit the King’s misfortunes, soon sided with Cromwell. As always, Corfe remained loyal, this time at the cost of its own destruction. Soon, heavily armed Parliamentary troops marched on the castle, expecting little more than token resistance from Lady Bankes. Fighting as if oblivious to the overwhelming odds against her, Lady Bankes defended the castle for six weeks by pitting a handful of untrained villagers against a battalion of battle-hardened soldiers. Much to Parliament’s horror, she triumphed. The attackers lifted the siege after more than 100 Parliamentary soldiers forfeited their lives. Remarkably, Lady Bankes’ garrison of cobblers and merchants lost only two men.
In the year that followed, London fell and Sir John accompanied the retreating King Charles to Oxford, where the Lord Chief Justice died after a short illness. Seizing the opportunity to attack a ‘defenceless widow’, Colonel Bingham, the Governor of Poole, embarked on another siege of the recalcitrant castle. Lady Bankes continued to fight on valiantly through two months of relentless bombardment, until Colonel Bingham disguised his men as royalist reinforcements and entered the castle by subterfuge. An indignant but determined Lady Bankes locked herself in her chambers and threw red hot embers on enemy soldiers as they climbed the ladder to her window.
In the end, she surrendered. Moved by her courage, however, Colonel Bingham allowed her to leave with her garrison and to keep the soon-to-be-useless keys to the castle. Later, in 1646, Parliament voted that the castle, once one of England’s most impenetrable fortresses, should be demolished. Kegs of explosives, placed strategically around the walls and towers, reduced much of the castle to rubble.
Today, Corfe Castle is one of Britain’s most haunting ancient sites. Although partially destroyed, portions of the once-spectacular fortress remain visible. Originally fitted with a drawbridge, the Outer Gatehouse still stands proudly, although reduced by war to half of its original height. Next to it stands the Horseshoe Tower, dating from the last days of the 13th century. Virtually undamaged, it remains the most complete structure in the castle and hints of its former glory. Up a steep incline lie the remains of Plukenet Tower, named after Constable Alan de Plukenet, whose coat-of-arms still graces the outer wall. The nearby western defences and the remains of the Outer Ward’s four towers still keep watch over the tranquil village below.
At the northern extreme stands the most impressive and historic part of the castle, the Keep, dating from the turn of the 12th century. The southern walls of the Keep survived the Parliamentary destruction, and it takes only a slight sweep of the imagination to reconstruct its once-majestic white-washed appearance.
Following the final siege, with the castle in ruins, vandals began to pilfer its few remaining treasures. The fruits of their less-than-noble efforts can be seen throughout the modern village. The Greyhound Hotel dominates the Market Square, a stone’s throw from where King Edward met his death. Originally two separate cottages, the buildings were joined using masonry from the castle to create one of the most charming and rustic inns in southern England. The grand home of John Uvedale, once Corfe’s leading smuggler, also consists of stones purloined from the castle, while the bakery on nearby West Street obtained its magnificent 15th century fireplace at Lady Bankes’ expense.
Both the castle and its historic village have aged gracefully, undiminished by time and travail. The castle walls have been blasted with gunpowder, its stones pilfered, its treasures looted; yet its dignity remains unmarred.
For many villagers and visitors, Corfe Castle symbolizes the dichotomy of the human psyche, incorporating both the very best and the very worst manifestations of human nature. It has witnessed both treachery and valour, providing a home to both the sadistic and cowardly King John as well as the brave and noble Lady Bankes. Corfe Castle serves as a reminder that there are a few things that, like the human spirit, can be battered but will forever stand unbroken.