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Corfe Castle

Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;

In the civil parish of Corfe Castle.
In the historic county of Dorset.
Modern Authority of Dorset.
1974 county of Dorset.
Medieval County of Dorset.

OS Map Grid Reference: SY958823
Latitude 50.64036° Longitude -2.05924°

Corfe Castle has been described as a certain Masonry Castle, and also as a certain Palace.

There are major building remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.
This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law*.


Corfe Castle, of strategic and military importance was built on a large natural mound overlooking the gap in the Purbeck Hills (RCHME). The foundations of a possible pre-Conquest building were revealed during excavations in the west bailey, 1950-52, and possibly represent either a 'hospitium' belonging to Shaftesbury Abbey or a royal residence associated with King Edward, who was murdered at 'Corfegeat' in 978 AD. (Penn). The earliest visible features of the castle, however, comprise late 11th century fragments of a hall in the west bailey and the wall surrounding the inner ward. The ashlar-built keep is dated to circa 1105 AD and the 'Gloriette' is an early 13th century courtyard mansion with 15th century addition, which was built to supplement or replace accomodation in the keep. The enciente (outer bailey) retains a defensive system of walls and mural towers mainly of the early and late 13th century. During the Civil War the castle was besieged and slighted. (RCHME). (PastScape)
Corfe Castle. Ruins of former royal castle, built on a natural hilltop in a gap in the main Purbeck range. Late C11 origin - possibly on an earlier pre-Conquest site, altered and enlarged in C12, C13 and C14. The Keep refurbished as a house in mid-C16 and the whole structure slighted and largely demolished after the Civil War. The fortified enclosure roughly triangular in plan. The curtain walls survive in part, with the bases of semi-circular towers. Surviving walls part ashlar, part rough ashlar, part rubble. Outer Gatehouse, at south end, approached by a 4-arch stone bridge over the now dry moat. Gatehouse consists of a segmental archway flanked by bases of 2 circular towers, linked to curtain wall. Inner, south-west Gatehouse, south of the surviving structures, consists of 2 circular towers flanking a pointed segmental archway. On the left, this has dropped several feet following undermining after the Civil War. At north-west of the site, the remains of the Old Hall, late C11. Lower walls of this survive, with some herringbone masonry and part blocked round arched openings. At west end, remains of the Butavant Tower, early C13. Near the centre, the Keep, C12, square on plan, originally 3-storeyed - an extra storey inserted in C13. Altered in mid-C16 by Sir Christopher Hatton, - remains of Tudor windows and fireplaces survive. North of the Keep, large blocks of fallen masonry. West of the Keep, the Gloriette, a C13 first-floor hall house, with Hall and Solar over an originally vaulted undercroft. Several lancet windows survive, with deep roll mouldings. In spite of much destruction, still an impressive structure, dominating the village (listing description). Corfe was a major royal castle, not necessarily for its strategic value, but more for its convenience as a stronghold for the safe custody of political prisoners, important hostages and royal treasure (HKW). (PastScape)

Corfe Castle is a striking and well-known example of an enclosure castle. Although ruinous, much of the castle survives as upstanding masonry including the keep and curtain wall, while partial excavation of the interior has demonstrated that buried archaeological remains survive relating to the castle's occupation and fortunes of its inhabitants. The history of Corfe Castle, including details ot its architectural development, is well documented with plans and written sources surviving from the 11th century through to at least the 17th century. Documentary records also indicate the important strategic role played by Corfe Castle in the civil wars of the 12th and 17th centuries. The Rings, an associated siegework, reputedly used by King Stephen when he unsuccessfully besieged the castle in 1139, is located a short distance to the west of Corfe Castle and is scheduled as a separate monument. This was later used as the site of a Civil War battery in the 17th century.
The monument includes a large enclosure castle built on a natural mound overlooking a gap in the Purbeck Hills and situated immediately north of the town of Corfe. The castle is separated from the town by a deep ditch cut across a narrow natural tongue of land. The castle is built of Purbeck stone, ashlar and rubble, generally with flint in the core. It has an inner ward, west bailey and outer bailey. The inner ward, on the summit of the hill, belongs to the original phase of the castle and is defined by a late 11th century curtain wall. This encloses a pear shaped area containing the remains of the keep, a range of buildings known as the 'Gloriette' with traces of an intervening kitchen range, and other buildings. The ashlar built keep is dated to c.1105. The 'Gloriette' is an early 13th century courtyard mansion with 15th century additions, which was built to supplement or replace accommodation in the keep. The west bailey occupies a relatively level, triangular spur of the hill, below and to the west of the inner ward. The curtain wall, along the north and south sides of the west bailey, and the three towers which comprise its defences, were part of the defensive works of King John in the early years of the 13th century. Within the west bailey are late 11th century fragments of a hall. These, together with the wall surrounding the inner ward are the earliest visible features of the castle. The outer bailey, to the south east of the west bailey, lies on land which is nearly flat from west to east but rising to the north. This area retains a defensive system of walls and mural towers mainly of early and late 13th century date. There are four towers on the eastern curtain wall and two on the west. Within the outer bailey is the south west gatehouse, the great ditch and the outer gatehouse. The south west gatehouse guards the narrow approach to the west bailey. The great ditch, quarried in 1207, removed the south wall of the presumed south west bailey. The outer gatehouse gives access from the outer bailey to the bridge which spans the ditch between castle and town. The bridge has four spans of uneven width with plain semi-circular arches, the oldest part of which dates to the 12th or early 13th century. The foundations of a suggested pre-Conquest building were revealed during excavations in the west bailey in 1950-52. These are thought to represent either a 'hospitium' belonging to Shaftesbury Abbey, a royal residence associated with King Edward, who was murdered at 'Corfegeat' in AD978 or the 'domus' of Queen Elfrida. During excavation a single sherd of Romano-British pottery was found near to the spot where a sherd of the same period was previously discovered. Documentary sources provide additional evidence for the construction and development of Corfe Castle. For example, in the Domesday record there is a reference to the building of a castle at Wareham, although it is generally accepted that this was an error, and that the castle was, in fact, Corfe. The enclosure wall of the inner ward and the 'Old Hall' in the west bailey can be attributed to the reign of William I. In the reign of Henry I Corfe is mentioned as being the place of imprisonment of Robert Duke of Normandy, by which time the keep had been built as a secure place of imprisonment. During the civil wars between Stephen and Matilda there was military activity at Corfe in 1138 and 1139. The siegeworks known as 'the Rings', to the west of the castle were built by Stephen's forces as part of this attack. The reigns of Henry II and Richard I were periods of minimal activity and repair, while King John's reign ushered in intensive building operations and the castle saw a great deal of use as a treasury, prison and royal residence. Work during Edward I's reign included the completion of the outer bailey defences. The castle then fell into disrepair until Edward III commissioned a survey, and extensive repairs were carried out between 1356 and 1377. Following that no further major works were undertaken until 1496 when Henry VII prepared the castle as a residence for his mother Margaret, Countess of Richmond. In 1572 Corfe Castle passed out of the hands of the Crown and the following steward Ralph Treswell carried out surveys, the plans of which survive. Eventually the estate was sold in 1635 to Sir John Bankes. Corfe Castle again saw military activity during the English Civil War. In May 1643 Parliamentary forces failed to take the castle by suprise, and by June the castle was under siege. This first siege lasted for 6 weeks. By October 1645 Corfe was under siege once again until finally, in February 1646, the castle was taken by treachery and subterfuge. In March 1646 a vote was passed by the Commons for its demolition. This delibarate slighting was caused by explosions which scattered fabric to the slopes around the castle and into the valley bottom. Following this, the castle was retained by the Bankes Estate as a romantic ruin, a state which has been maintained in recent years by the National Trust. Immediately at the western end of the hill on which Corfe Castle is situated, is the 18th century Vineyard Bridge. This is a single arched stone structure of coursed Purbeck stone rubble with ashlar dressings. The close proximity of this to a castle deliberately slighted at the time of the Civil War, makes it likely that the bridge will incorporate earlier medieval fabric in its construction. (Scheduling Report)

Corfe has some tactical strength and some limited strategic value, although fairly easily bypassed. It real value lay in its hunting, the Purbeck marble quarries in controlled and gained income from, and in its symbolic value as an ancient Saxon high status residence and site of the death of King Edmund the martyr. The castle itself became a high value site worth besieging and an important royal residence at various times.
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This record last updated 15/08/2017 15:56:47

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