CORFE CASTLE
Corfe Castle Village, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset, England
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Corfe Castle, Dorset, England         OS Map Grid Ref: SY959822
 The County of Dorset
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The Norman castle dominates the village to its south and secured the gap in the Purbeck Hills here. The name of the place was once 'Corvesgate' signifying 'cutting'.

part of the keep Three small streams draining the Purbecks, one from Tyneham, another from Langton and a third from the side of Brenscombe Hill meet at Corfe and have carved the stone here to make the steep mound which supports the Norman keep. The streams surround the castle and flow away over the heathland to Poole Harbour as the Corfe River. Wyche, on the shores of the harbour, was a port for castle and village alike but now stands only as peaceful dwelling-houses.

The precise date of the building of the castle is unknown but it finds no mention in the Domesday Book of 1086 but successfully resisted an attack by Stephen and was one of the royal residences of King John. So impressed was he with the strength of the place that he chose to deposit his royal regalia there for safe-keeping during his struggle with the barons of the realm.


The Abbey of Cerne retained its rights over Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and these included the right to wreakage - to keep any cargo which might be washed up on its shores. This caused a fierce dispute in 1275 after the Constable of Corfe Castle removed casks of wine from the island's shore. The Abbot of cerne took his complaint to the monarch, Edward I, and the errant Constable was ordered to surrender over the casks.

The site was a possession of Shaftesbury Abbey in Saxon times.


The castle from the west

The castle dungeons have also seen much service. Twenty-two French noblemen were incarcerated there and starved to death. It also held two Plantagenet kings of England; Edward II and Richard II (both of whom perished after their time here, Edward at Berkeley Castle and Richard at Pontefract).

Having disposed of Arthur of Brittany, King John sent 24 French knights who had assisted Arthur to the dungeons of Corfe where 22 of their number were slowly starved to death. Eleanor, Arthur's sister, also spent many years incarcerated here and died at another prison having known no freedom in her last fourty years. Among other prisoners kept at Corfe by King John were Isabel and Margery, the daughters of the King of Scotland.

Revd. Robert NK Watton, rector of the Purbeck Hills Parishes, is convinced that the most unusual 12th century St Aldhelm's Chapel at St Aldelm's Head "was built not only to meet the spiritual needs of a small Christian community or cell that had been in existence here for long before the 12th century, but also to provide an important defensive capability for Corfe Castle on what was the vulnerable "blind" southern side of the Castle channel approach."  

Henry VII granted Corfe castle to his mother but it reverted to Henry VIII.

Hatton promoted Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the world.

Queen Elizabeth I sold Corfe Castle to her favourite to one of her favourites,
Sir Christopher Hatton, a member of Parliament and Lord Chancellor (1587-91). Hatton strengthened the castle in preparation for a possible invasion mounted by the Spanish Armada. The queen also granted Hatton Brownsea Castle in Poole Harbour in 1576.

During the Civil War, the castle was defended by Lady Mary Bankes who held it for the Royalists with only the help of the household retainers of the castle and possibly the men from the surrounding estates as practically the only Royalist stronghold in Dorset at the time. It only fell to the Parliamentarians as the result of treachery. The castle was the seat of Sir John Bankes, a London lawyer originaly of a merchant family hailing from the Lake District but what has become in recent times known as 'upwardly mobile'. Lady Bankes was born in Ruislip, then a village outside London. She married Sir John and bore him 14 children. She would have spent most of her time in London and would live at Corfe Castle for some three months of the year.

August 1642 saw the rift between King and Parliament fall into civil war and in 1643 Sir John Bankes was named as a traitor by parliament. He remained in London and Lady Bankes was at Corfe CAstle with her retainers. It was a tradition that the population of the village and the Bankes' estates would gather at the castle for a deer hunt on Mayday and the local parliamentary commander, Sir Walter Earl, saw this as an opportunity to over-run the castle. Earl's plans were foiled as Lady Bankes cancelled the hunt that year and the gates of the castle remained firmly shut to the parliamentary soldiers.

Unsuccessful in his first attempt, Earl sent a party of sailors from Poole to commandeer four cannon from the castle in an attempt to weaken the stronghold. Lady Bankes ordered that one of the cannon be fired as a warning to the party who dispersed. Earl retliated by proclaiming it an offence for any of the inhabitants of nearby Wareham to sell supplies to the castle. The castle was short on both arms and provisions if it was to withstand a seige of any length and Lady Bankes relented by allowing the parliamentarians to remove the cannon and thus bought time to prepare for the inevitable. The huge castle was impossible to lay seige to without a considerable force and Lady Bankes used the period which followed the surrender of the cannons to provision and arm the castle.

In June 1643, Sir Walter Earl attempted unsuccessfully to storm the castle with artillery and a force of five hundred men. He retired to lay seige to the castle making the parish church opposite the castle gates his headquarters from whence his elusive target must have seemed tantalisingly close. In July, his forces were bolstered by 150 men from Portsmouth who arrived with seige ladders for scaling the walls. Even though Sir Walter announced a prize of £ 20 to the first man to scale the walls (some £ 2,000 in modern terms), his soldiers proved most reluctant and he resorted to getting them drunk before the assault. The drunken army lost 100 men in the attack as they attempted to climb over the walls amist the shower of rocks and cinders thrown by the defenders of whom only two were lost. By now, several towns in Dorset had fallen to the Royalists, including nearby Dorchester and Sir Walter's army, fearing the arrival of Royalist reinforcements fled the castle leaving behind their provisions and arms to be captured by the inmates.

Sir John Bankes died in London of the plague in 1644 and parliament effectively won the civil war at the Battle of Naseby in 1645 except for pockets of Royalist resistance throughout the country as at Corfe Castle. A Royalist officer, by strange co-incidence named Cromwell, arrived at Corfe Castle with 120 men to rescue Lady Bankes and help evacuate the castle. Lady Bankes refused the offer and Cromwell and his men were ambushed by parliamentary forces as they marched northwards.

In February 1646 the castle fell to parliament not by force but by treachery; fearing that it would, sooner rather than later, be overwhelmed and all within it killed, Colonel Pitman arranged for his own freedom by arranging the downfall of the castle's defence with Colonel Bingham who had replaced Sir Walter Earl as the Parliamentary commander. He arranged with the commander of the castle to open the gates to admit a contingent of Royalist reinforcements. The soldiers duly arrived in the dead of night and some fifty gained entry to the castle disguised as Royalists in the dead of night before the ruse was uncovered - too late, as it turned out, for sufficient men had gained entry to ensure the capture of the fortress.

Although it was usual for the wives of the Royalist Cavaliers to be allowed to keep their lands and property, as a combatant, such was not to be the fate of Lady Bankes who was stripped of all her property and lands and returned to the home of her family in Ruislip. As a final gesture of defiance, she is said to have dropped her jewellry down the well of the castle and the treasure has never been recovered.


Corfe Castle as it would have looked before its 'slighting' by Parliamentary forces.
A week after its capture by the Parliamentary forces, Corfe Castle was, like many castles at the time, 'slighted' - rendered useless as a fortification, in this case by the use of huge amounts of gunpowder.

After two years, Oliver Cromwell relented for reasons which are unknown to us and reinstated the Bakes' property and lands to Lady Bankes. 'Brave Dame Mary', as she had become known, is buried in the church of St Martin at Ruislip where a monument to her was erected by her sons. The castle remained in the Bankes family until taken over by the National Trust in the late 20th century.


The approach to the castle is made by means of a stone bridge spanning four arches which cross what is now a dry ditch but was formerly a deep moat. Entry is gained by means of the gate tower which was bolstered by a round tower to either side (both now ruined) which leads onto the lawn of the first ward or tilting court.

At the top of the slope is the gateway to the inner ward with a drawbridge over a moat cut into the solid rock. The groves in which they worked indicate the presence of two portcullises and the machicolations (holes) in the roof between the gate and porticullis would have been used to attack the enemy from above had they succeeded in reaching thus far.

A peculiarity of the building is the occurence of herringbone masonry; this is more usually a feature of pre-conquest Saxon architecture. The citidel makes and appearance in Thomas Hardy's The Hand of Ethelberta, it's name but thinly disguised as Corvesgate Castle.

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WAREHAM
The picturesque and ancient market town of Wareham, in medieval times the principal port of Poole Harbour, and the 'Gateway to the Isle of Purbeck' lies to the north - much of it was destroyed by a great fire and rebuilt in the Georgian style.

 

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