Corfe Castle is a fortification standing above the village of Corfe Castle. Built by William the Conqueror, the castle dates 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 built at the time were made of earth and timber. Corfe Castle underwent major structural changes in the 12th and 13th centuries.
In 1572, Corfe Castle left the Crown’s control when Elizabeth I sold it to Sir Christopher Hatton. Sir John Bankes bought the castle in 1635, and was the owner during the English Civil War. His wife, Lady Mary Bankes, led the defence of the castle when it was twice besieged by Parliamentarian forces. The first siege, in 1643, was unsuccessful, but by 1645 Corfe was one of the last remaining royalist strongholds in southern England and fell to a siege ending in an assault. In March that year Corfe Castle was slighted (destroyed) on Parliament’s orders.
Now owned by the National Trust, the castle is open to the public daily (excluding Christmas). It is protected as a Grade I listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Bit of History
Corfe Castle is built on a steep hill in a natural 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. It’s know from contemporary writing that Anglo-Saxon nobility treated it as a residence, such as Queen Ælfthryth, wife of Edgar, and there are postholes belonging to a Saxon hall on the site. This hall may be where the boy-king Edward the Martyr was assassinated in 978; contemporaries tell us that he went to the castle at Corfe to visit Ælfthryth and his brother.
Edward the Martyr
Edward the Martyr (Old English: Eadweard) lived from 962 to 18 March 978. He was King of England from 975 until he was murdered in 978. Edward was the eldest son of King Edgar the Peaceful but was not his father’s acknowledged heir.
Edward’s date of birth is unknown, but he was the eldest of Edgar’s three children. He was probably in his teens when he succeeded his father, who died at age 32 in 975. Edward was known to be King Edgar’s son, but he was not the son of Queen Ælfthryth, the third wife of Edgar.
Edward’s short reign was brought to an end by his murder at Corfe Castle in 978 in circumstances that are not altogether clear. His body was reburied with great ceremony at Shaftesbury Abbey early in 979. In 1001 Edward’s remains were moved to a more prominent place in the abbey, probably with the blessing of his half-brother King Æthelred. Edward was already reckoned a saint by this time.
A number of lives of Edward were written in the centuries following his death in which he was portrayed as a martyr, generally seen as a victim of the Queen Dowager Ælfthryth, mother of Æthelred. He is today recognized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, and the Anglican Communion.