One of the top 5 Norman castles in the country

Usually when we visit a glorious ruin, I write about the challenge a visitor can face when he needs to imagine how this place used to be when it was at its peak period. This is not an easy challenge when you visit places like Raglan or Chepstow Castles, but at least in these places, the exterior is almost complete. In the case of Corfe Castle, the challenge has doubled. The damage this castle suffered in the English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century and the centuries of neglect that followed that is so great, that it is hard to even imagine its impressive exterior, and this is such a shame because this castle has an amazing story to tell, being a royal residence to the medieval kings and queens of England.

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Corfe Castle is located on the Isle of Purbeck, which is actually a peninsula, near the city of Poole in Dorset. If you’re a fan of Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” series,  you will be interested to know that Purbeck island was actually the inspiration of Kirin Island where many of the adventures of the five occured, in fact the ruins of Corfe Castle are also mentioned in her book under the name Kirin Castle.

Corfe is one of the earliest Norman castles in Britain, and it was considered as one of the top 5 Norman castles in England. It was built by the order of William the Conqueror. The invading King was keeping himself very busy building 36 castles after he invaded Britain.

For the next 400 and something years, Corfe was a royal castle, and each generation contributed to its glory, making it one of the most impressive castles in the country.

The first stone castle was probably built in 1100 by Henry I. He built the keep of the castle which was one of the tallest secular structures in the country.

Corfe continued to play a significant role during the reign of the Plantagenets. It was a royal prison, and a royal safe for the crown jewels during the reign of the notorious King John. This infamous king held in the castle more than just jewels; he also used the castle to imprison his niece, the Pearl of Brittany and you can read more about her sad story in my Corfe Castle stories.

But the Pearl of Brittany was not the most senior prisoner in the castle. According to some documents, this title could belong to Edward II, another terrible King. The fate of King Edward II is one of those topics historians like to debate. Most Historians think that he had been murdered in Berkeley Castle in 1327. But according to some documents from that period, there is an alternative story that suggests that Edward was actually imprisoned in Corfe Castle in 1330. Is it another case like Elvis Presley,where perhaps he kept popping out in different places after faking his own death?

The royal history of Corfe came to an end in the 16th century, when Elizabeth I sold the castle to her dancing instructor. The new owner did not have too much time to dance, because a new threat emerged to the south of England – The Spanish Armada. This meant he had to spend a fortune upgrading the castle defences.

With its new defences, Corfe Castle was now facing its final episode, the English Civil War. By the 17th century, the castle was owned by the Bankes Family. Sir John Bankes was one of the most important ministers of Charles I so it’s not a real surprise that he sided with the Royalists. He spent the war beside his king and left the job of defending the castle to his wife Mary. Twice the Parliament army tried to besiege the castle, and finally, and only because of a betrayal of one of her man, the castle surrendered. Thanks to the role, she played in protecting the castle, Mary Banks became known as the Brave Dame Mary. It was said the commander of the Parliamentarian force was so impressed with her courage, that not only did he let her leave the castle with no harm, he also gave her the keys for the castle, which are still on display in the “new house” the Banks family have moved into. But this story is probably a legend (you can read about it more in my Corfe Castle stories section).

After the war, the Parliament ordered Corfe Castle to be slighted, and in this case the soldiers did a good job (in some castles, like Caernarfon in Wales, they didn’t really follow the order properly). The next few hundred years of neglect did not help much with the state of Corfe, and today there is very little of it that still stands (and it is still looking very impressive). For more information: Corfe Castle official website

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So much history, so little visiting experience…

Chasing Castles Review

We visited Corfe Castle during a cold Sunday in January. By now we knew that most of the glorious ruins in the country are being managed by English Heritage and not by the National Trust. We had only visited one more castle they managed (Bodiam Castle) so it was interesting to see how they dealt with managing Corfe, and I must say that the answer is not so good…

In my opening paragraph I mentioned how hard it is to understand both the glory and the heritage of a ruin without help. So far I never managed to join a guided tour in any ruin we visited around the country, but at least English Heritage provides audio guides (and now they sometimes provide audio video guides) which help you learn more about the castle and its history. The Trust is mostly known for having plenty of volunteers that help you unlock the past of its properties, but in Corfe you don’t get the guides or the volunteers, and although this is not a cheap place to visit (if you are not a member) you will end up spending a very short time in it, which is really frustrating.

The only nice thing I could say about our visit at Corfe was the fact that the entrance to the castle is based in the middle of Corfe village, so at least we could end up in one of the village pubs for lunch…

To some things up, although Corfe Castle is one of the most important castles in England, it is not a great place to visit. I think that the National Trust excel in managing many of its state homes but it is not doing a good job in Corfe Castle. If you live nearby and you are a member of the trust you should definitely visit (but do some research first), but if this is not the case for you (either the distance or being a member of the trust) perhaps Corfe Castle is not for you…

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