My next tour of a historical site is stunning Corfe Castle in Dorset, which has a fantastic setting in the Purbeck Hills. I often visited the place as a child, and it shaped my perception of the ideal castle. The thing I love most about Corfe is the strange shape of the ruins, with walls and towers leaning at bizarre twisted angles. This gives it an unusual almost fantastical appearance. It also adheres to the classical image of a mighty impregnable castle situated on the top of an imposing hill.
Corfe was founded by order of William the Conqueror in the late eleventh century, on the site of a high-status Anglo-Saxon residence, most probably where King Edward the Martyr was murdered in 978. The castle was later besieged during the civil war known as the Anarchy (1135-53) between the supporters of King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. Stephen laid siege to Corfe with his army in 1139, but instead of mounting a direct assault, he attempted to starve the defenders into surrender by blockading it. During this time a counter-castle, whose remains are now known as ‘The Rings’, was constructed. However, the royalists were eventually forced to lift the siege (to read more about the siege check out my book, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales).
Later during the reign of King John large sums of money were spent on building operations at Corfe, including the construction of the Gloriette. This interest in Corfe was shared by his son Henry III, who spent the large sum of £10,000 throughout his reign on completing and improving the castle. Despite this, following the death of Henry, the castle was relatively neglected until the reign of Edward III, when a survey was carried out of the castle and extensive repairs were undertaken. To read more about the role of Corfe in the Hundred Years’ War see here.
Corfe remained in royal hands but was rarely visited by royalty, until it was sold by Queen Elizabeth I to Christopher Hatton, later Lord Chancellor of England, in 1572. The castle was held for the king during the First English Civil War, by a small garrison led by Mary, Lady Bankes, with the castle only taken due to the treachery of one of its defenders. Subsequently, Corfe was slighted by the victorious Parliamentarians and fell into ruin.
Our tour will begin by looking at the castle from the nearby town of Corfe, which is separated from it by a deep ditch. To gain access we need to cross a bridge to reach the outer gatehouse. This building once stood twice as high as the present-day structure and would have presented an impressive façade to visitors.
Walking through the outer gatehouse we move into the outer bailey. From here we can get a good idea of just how large the castle is, with the ruins of the great tower, otherwise known as a keep, further up the hill ahead of us. At the opposite end of the outer bailey you can also see the bastion. The latter was a small artillery fortification constructed in the late sixteenth century during the reign of Elizabeth I, when there was the threat of a Spanish invasion. Walking past the ruins of the four towers on the west side of the outer bailey we approach the south-west gatehouse.
The south-west gatehouse comprises two rounded towers that were originally three storeys high on either side of a central passageway, with machicolation and two portcullises. Yet a deliberate attempt to destroy the gatehouse, following the decision by the Parliamentarians to slight the castle after the First English Civil War, has meant that the southern tower has slide dramatically downhill. Its strange appearance has made it one of the most iconic parts of the castle.
We have now passed from the south-west gatehouse into the west bailey. This contains the oldest part of the castle, the ruins of the so-called old hall. It was described in early thirteenth century financial accounts as the ‘Old Hall in the bailey’, and was the residence of the constables of the castle. As we turn back on ourselves towards the inner ward, we approach the keep.
The great tower, otherwise known as a keep, is the most imposing structure at the castle. This dates from the early twelfth century and is built out of ashlar stone. It originally was three storeys high, with an extra floor added in the thirteenth century. Despite being ruinous, you can explore it across two floors due to the addition of modern stairs.
Having moved on from the keep, we are standing in the inner ward of the castle, a particular part known as the Gloriette which was constructed in the reign of King John. It is now a jumble of ruined structures, but was once a complex of very fine buildings intended to provide accommodation for the king. This included a great hall, chambers and a kitchen.
Before you go, be sure to investigate the remains of the counter-castle constructed during the twelfth century siege, known as ‘The Rings’, which is located a short distance away to the south-west of the castle. It takes the form of a ringwork and bailey fortification, surrounded by a ditch and which once contained wooden buildings. If you want to read more about it check out, Creighton and Wright, eds., Castles, Siegeworks and Settlements: Surveying the Archaeology of the Twelfth Century (Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology, 2017).
This concludes my tour of Corfe Castle. If you have any further suggestions or feedback then do feel free to leave them in the comments section below.
Corfe Castle is run by The National Trust, for details about how to get there and opening times see their website. Note that the castle is a popular attraction so it can get very busy at weekends, particularly in the summer, so parking is sometimes a problem.
National Trust, Corfe Castle (London: The National Trust, 2003)
Dan Spencer, The Castle at War in Medieval England and Wales (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2018)
All photographs taken by Dan Spencer ©