The spectacular remains of shattered Corfe Castle rise starkly from its hillside still dominating all around it, although contrasting uncomfortably with the picturesque mellowed stone and brick cottages of Corfe village scattered randomly beneath it. Many castles enjoy a proud history related to brave deeds well done and the associated chivalry and valour favourably recalled in later times. Regrettably, these castle ruins recall only centuries of cruelty and remain a monument to ancient villainies that haunt its cursed stones to this day.
Corfe Castle stands at a cleft in the Purbeck Hills, the only narrow pass in the centre of this sweeping range wherein a natural mound arises.
The obvious advantages to fortifying this hill would have been appreciated by the Saxons, for there was a castle of some sort sited there in the 10th century. The ruins left to us belong to a later castle solidly built for despite being ‘slighted' much still remains vertical. The castle site presents one of the most dramatic images in Dorset with the natural beauty of the Purbeck Hills framing this lifeless brooding ruin in spectacular fashion - its darker side only remembered in the telling.
There is no existing evidence for the founding date of the original castle, but there was certainly a fortified lodge of some description on the site by 978AD, when the young king Edward came to visit his step-mother Elfrida and step-brother Ethelred after a days hunting. The young king, perhaps 17 years old, was no stranger to the castle and had no reason for fear, but his step-mother had scant regard for morals and arranged for Edward's murder so enabling her son Ethelred to seize the crown. Met by servants, Edward stopped to drink, was stabbed in the back, his horse bolted and dragged his body some distance; his assassins hid the body in a nearby cottage and buried it in an unmarked grave near Wareham several days later. Following the murder St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, crowned Ethelred king, remarking that his reign was fated as it was tarnished with blood from its inception. Prophetic words, for history remembers Ethelred for being ‘Unready' as Danes plundered his kingdom. Edward's death was badly received everywhere; his mother, in true Lady Macbeth style, overcome with grief and unable to wash the stain of blood from her hands, took holy vows and retired to the Priory at Wherwell. As the years passed and Edward's kind nature and goodness were often referred to along with the universal acceptance of his murder, he eventually became Edward the Martyr; his corpse now recovered, he lies in state in a marble coffin at nearby St Mary's Church, Wareham.
The Corfe Castle that confronts us today is not that mute witness to Edward's premature demise, but a Norman fortress constructed after the Conquest of 1066. With walls 4ft thick in places and built around a towering keep, this imposing edifice became a formidable obstacle to all who may assail it, and to those who would escape it. The castle was employed both as a prison and as a royal residence, with a number of notable ‘guests' being entertained there, some more willing than others. Eleanor of Brittany and King Edward II were both held prisoner here, and 22 French knights from Poitou were imprisoned by the notorious King John (1199-1216) and left to starve. John greatly improved the strength and defences of the castle and increasingly employed it as a royal prison. Here he interred the wife and son of William de Braose, a Marcher lord infamous for treachery with the Welsh. De Braose fled the king's wrath to France, his family being held against his surrender - he was to return or they to starve. De Braose did not return, John did not relent, the wife and son did not survive. Other's who fell foul of John's inhumanity included his niece and two Scottish princesses, who also served time in the dank dungeon. Set deep in the western extremities of the castle site, the dungeon was only accessed by a trap door in the ceiling, those who survived the fall had to abandon all hope of escape. Lying in the silent darkness amid their own rising filth, breathing rank fetid air, if the trap did not open no amount of shouting would arouse the castle guard, and only one fate awaited.
Since the castle had its own well it was virtually impregnable, standing as it did on high ground and massively built. Even in the early days of canon this held true, for Corfe Castle managed to hold out as a Royalist stronghold against a Parliamentarian siege for almost two years toward the end of the Civil War (1642-49). The Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Bankes, purchased the castle in 1635, and it was his wife together with her household, who successfully defended the cause, only to fall foul of Parliamentarian treachery in 1646. Cromwell's generals decided the castle should never again be a threat and ordered it to be slighted, that is, the walls undermined and blown-up. Such was the strength of the walls however, that much of it refused to fall, the broken remains standing in dismal resentment, roofless, exposed and uninhabitable.
Corfe village grew around its castle and took its name. A charming place with delightful old world cottages built from grey Purbeck stone, many benefited from the demise of the castle as stonework found its way down the hill and contributed uniformity to the village demeanour. Located in West Street is the lovely town museum and a scale model of Corfe village built from the same Purbeck stone. There is a charming square just below the castle with a church dedicated, understandably, to St Edward; the church tower is 15th cent and the remainder 19th cent. Purbeck marble, employed to good effect within the church, was mined extensively during the Middle Ages in the Purbeck Hills; it was used most brilliantly inside Westminster Abbey and in Salisbury Cathedral.