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Corfe Castle

Always a favourite that I’ve visited many times over the years. It dominates the Isle of Purbeck as you approach. Even on Geography fieldtrips along the wonderful Jurassic Coast, a nod to Corfe as I was driving a minibus of Sixth Formers around.

It’s importance dates back before the Norman Conquest. When the Saxon King, Edgar, died in 975AD, his son Edward became King. His stepmother is thought to have been responsible for his ambush and murder when he arrived at Corfe, gaining the throne for her son, Aethelred (the Unready). The Church of St Edward, King and Martyr, is opposite the entrance to the Castle and well worth a look. His body was later translated to Shaftesbury Abbey where it was associated with many miracles.

When the Normans arrived they built their Castle on the site of the Saxon buildings that occupied the top of the hill. The stone Keep, which still dominates the site, was probably built around 1105. It formed an impregnable defensive structure, a treasury and an excellent base for Royalty hunting in the area. It was also, briefly, a prison for Robert Curthose (Duke of Normandy and eldest son of William the Conqueror) when he was locked away by his brother Henry I.

The Castle saw military action during The Anarchy in the early 12th century, and was a favourite of King John at the end of the century. He made use of it as a convenient prison for his many enemies, but also built himself a luxurious Gloriette, a small palace. It is possible that John imprisoned Maud de Braose and her eldest son in the dungeons here, leaving them to starve to death as an act of vengeance.

His son, Henry III, and grandson, Edward I, both spent a lot on the defences but very little military action took place. It was used as a prison for Edward II when Mortimer and Isabella imprisoned her husband the King. In order to foil any plans to release the prisoner, he was moved backwards and forwards between Corfe and Berkeley Castle over the period of his incarceration.

The Beaufort family were constables of the Castle for much of the 15th Century, until 1461. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III, was briefly constable. Certainly the most exalted constable to live at Corfe.

After Bosworth, Henry VII gave it to his mother, Margaret Beaufort, although there is no evidence that she ever lived there. On her death it reverted to the Crown until Elizabeth I sold it to Sir Christopher Hatton in 1572. During his ownership, and that of his nephew William, the living areas were updated and it is believed that there were elaborate gardens in the Outer Bailey.

The Castle and Estate were bought by Sir John Bankes in 1635. Bankes was Attorney General to Charles I and was knighted in 1634. He and his wife lived comfortably at Corfe until the Civil War broke out. Sir John was summoned to the King in Oxford, leaving his wife Mary in charge of the Castle. Parliament declared Sir John a traitor and ordered that his Estates be confiscated. Lady Mary was able to hold the Castle against the Parliamentarians during a six week siege. The Roundhead army was forced to retreat.

Sir John was able to return, briefly, in 1643, before he died suddenly in Oxford in December 1644. This left Lady Mary to deal with the demands of Parliament and the Castle was besieged again in February 1646. She was betrayed by a member of the garrison and the Castle was occupied. In March, the orders were given to slight the Castle. The Castle remained in the hands of the Bankes family, with her son, Ralph, building a new home at nearby Kingston Lacy. Both properties passed to the National Trust in 1982.

No hesitation in recommending a visit, but be aware it’s a steep climb.

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