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Corfe Castle
Corfe Castle, Dorset, United Kingdom
Corfe Castle, Dorset.jpg
Ruins of Corfe Castle from the outer bailey
Type Castle
Site information
Owner National Trust
Open to
the public
Condition Ruined
Site history
Demolished 1645 (partially)
Battles/wars English Civil War

Corfe Castle is a fortification standing above the village of the same name on the Isle of Purbeck in the English county of Dorset. Built by William the Conqueror, the castle dates back to the 11th century and commands a gap in the Purbeck Hills on the route between Wareham and Swanage. The first phase was one of the earliest castles in England to be built at least partly using stone when the majority were built with earth and timber. Corfe Castle underwent major structural changes in the 12th and 13th centuries. Owned by the National Trust, the castle is open to the public and in 2010 received around 190,000 visitors. It is protected as a Grade I listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.


Corfe Castle 1856 OS map
Ordnance Survey map of Corfe Castle in 1856, showing the castle and village in the gap of the Purbeck Hills

Royal castle

Corfe Castle was built on a steep hill in a gap in a long line of chalk hills, created by two streams eroding the rock on either side. The name Corfe derives from the Old English ceorfan, meaning 'a cutting', referring to the gap. The construction of the medieval castle means that little is known about previous activity on the hill. However, there are postholes belonging to a Saxon hall on the site. The hall may be where Edward the Martyr was assassinated in 978.

A castle was founded at Corfe on England's south coast soon after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The royal forest of Purbeck, where William the Conqueror enjoyed hunting, was established in the area. Between 1066 and 1087, William established 36 such castles in England. Sitting as it does on a hill top, Corfe Castle is one of the classic images of a medieval castle. However, despite popular imagination, occupying the highest point in the landscape was not the typical position of a medieval castle. In England, a minority are located on hilltops, but most are in valleys; many were near important transport routes such as river crossings.

Corfe Castke 57
Corfe's keep (left) dates from the early 12th century

In the early 12th century, Henry I began the construction of a stone keep at Corfe. Progressing at a rate of 3 to 4 metres (10 to 13 ft) per year for the best part of a decade, the work was complete by 1105. The chalk of the hill Corfe Castle was built on was an unsuitable building material, and instead Purbeck limestone quarried a few miles away was used. By the reign of King Stephen (1135–1154) Corfe Castle was already a strong fortress with a keep and inner enclosure, both built in stone.

In December 1460, during the Wars of the Roses Edmund Beaufort and his army marched from the castle destined for the Battle of Wakefield. During the march the army split at Exeter so the cavalry could reach the north quicker, and on 16 December 1460 some of his men became embroiled in the Battle of Worksop, Nottinghamshire. Beaufort and the Lancastrians won the skirmish.


The castle remained a royal fortress until sold by Elizabeth I in 1572 to her Lord Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton. Ralph Treswell, Hatton's steward, drafted a series of plans of the castle; the documents are the oldest surviving survey of the castle.

Mary Bankes-Hawtry by Henry Pierce Bone, after John Hoskins
Lady Mary Bankes defended the castle during two sieges in the English Civil War
Corfe Castle Ruins, Dorset - - 1492352
In the 17th century Corfe Castle was demolished by order of parliament

The Parliamentarians were in the ascendency so that by 1645 Corfe Castle was one of a few remaining strongholds in southern England that remained under royal control. Consequently, it was besieged by a force under the command of a Colonel Bingham. In March that year, Parliament voted to slight (demolish) the castle, giving it its present appearance. Corfe Castle provided a ready supply of building material, and its stones were reused by the villagers.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Bankes family regained their properties. Rather than rebuild or replace the ruined castle they chose to build a new house at Kingston Lacy on their other Dorset estate near Wimborne Minster.

The first archaeological excavations were carried out in 1883. No further archaeological work was carried out on the site until the 1950s. Between 1986 and 1997 excavations were carried out, jointly funded by the National Trust and English Heritage. Corfe Castle is considered to be the inspiration for Enid Blyton's Kirrin Island, which had its own similar castle. It was used as a shooting location for the 1957 film Five on a Treasure Island (film) and the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Corfe Castle is on a hill overlooking the village which bears its name

Current status

Corfe Castle, Entrance - - 1722689
Corfe Castle's outer gatehouse
Corfe Castle - - 1005257
Corfe Castle in 1980 before the bequethment of the castle, and subsequent restoration.

In the 1980s, Ralph Bankes bequeathed the entire Bankes estate to the National Trust, including Corfe Castle, much of the village of Corfe, the family home at Kingston Lacy, and substantial property and land holdings elsewhere in the area. In the summer 2006, the dangerous condition of the keep caused it to be closed to visitors, who could only visit the walls and inner bailey. The National Trust undertook an extensive conservation project on the castle, and the keep was re-opened to visitors in 2008, and the work completed the following year.

During the restoration work, an "appearance" door was found in the keep, designed for Henry I. The National Trust claims that this indicates that the castle would have been one of the most important in England at the time.

Corfe Castle panorama

The castle is a Grade I listed building, and recognised as an internationally important structure. It is also a Scheduled Monument, a "nationally important" historic building and archaeological site which has been given protection against unauthorised change. The earthworks known as "The Rings", thought to be the remains of a 12th-century motte-and-bailey castle built during a siege of Corfe are also scheduled. In 2006, Corfe Castle was the National Trust's tenth most-visited historic house with 173,829 visitors. According to figures released by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, the number of visitors in 2010 had risen to nearly 190,000.

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