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Castle of the Week 13 - Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle stands on top of a natural steep hill, and for many centuries it guarded the principal route through the central gap in the Purbeck Hills in Dorset, England. Nothing could pass through the area without going past the castle. This dramatic location provided the perfect setting for King John’s favourite castle.

The location is so strategic that it may have been a defensive site even in Roman times. The first castle buildings would have been built of wood. The Saxon King Alfred built a castle at Corffe's Gate to halt attacks by Danes.

It was at Corfe Castle in 978 AD that the Saxon King Edward (later to be known as Edward the Martyr) was reputedly stabbed to death on the orders of his step-mother Queen Elfrida so that her own son, Ethelred The Unready, could become King of England.

In the latter half of the 11th Century the Castle was rebuilt in stone by William The Conqueror and consisted of a small hall and a curtain wall, which was later to become the inner bailey. Even as early as 1106 the site was a great fortress and state prison, said to have 'massively thick walls and steep approaches from all sides - one of the most impregnable in the Kingdom'.

A rectangular great tower was constructed adjacent to the southern wall of the inner bailey during the reign of King Henry I, in the early twelfth century.

The 13th century was the time of the castle's greatest history. King John liked staying at Corfe Castle and hunting for pleasure in Purbeck. By 1212 the Castle, because of its relative inaccessibility, had become a fortified depot for holding the Kings treasures and political prisoners, and it was here that he stored 50000 marks prior to his French military campaign. He also kept his niece Eleanor here for most of her life.

King John spent a great deal improving the royal accommodation and defences. To the east of the Henry I keep he built a fine hall and chapel together with domestic buildings, known as the Gloriette. This comprised residential quarters built for himself, as well as the curtain wall around the west bailey with an octagonal tower to the west point, the ditch to separate the south-east outer bailey from the rest of the castle, and the curtain wall and towers of the outer bailey.

King Henry III constructed additional walls to complete the curtain wall and towers including two gatehouses, the south-east gatehouse and the inner gatehouse. In addition, he had the exterior walls whitewashed (as he also did at the Tower of London). In 1635 the Castle passed into private ownership as an occasional private residence.

During the English Civil War the Parliamentarians occupied most of Dorset and on Mayday 1643 a troop of republican horsemen were repelled by the castle occupants. After a series of poorly organised blockades, late in 1645 Parliamentary forces started a prolonged siege, and infiltrated the garrison with apparently friendly troops. They later treacherously admitted the Parliamentary force into the castle on the 27th February 1646, and the castle fell into the hands of the Parlimentary troops who finally captured and evicted the Royalists

In March 1646 an Act of Parliament ordered the Castle’s total destruction; the castle keep was to be blown up and "tilted" so it could not be refortified. Having thoroughly plundered the building, the castle was systematically reduced to a ruin by gunpowder and mines.

The 13th century octagonal Butavant Tower suffered severely from the demolition, as did the North Tower, although it still exhibits a number of interesting architectural features. The Plukenet Tower, situated on the east curtain wall near to the castle ditch, still bears the shield-of-arms of Alan de Plukenet who was the constable of Corfe Castle during the 13th century.

Located in the south-east corner of the outer bailey, the Horseshoe Tower survives almost to its original height, and was constructed around the same time as the Outer Gatehouse, which stands to its lower levels only.

The demolition took several months, which bears witness to the castle’s incredible strength.

The village, named after the castle, has a lovely model that faithfully replicates how the Castle looked before it was blown up by the Parliamentarians.

Pictures by the author, Granite Q*

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