History and fun at Corfe Castle

England has more than its share of castles, to be sure, but few have a more colourful and dramatic history than the ancient and battle-scarred ruin of Corfe Castle on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset County.

Overlooking the village of Corfe and open to public tours, the ruins are said to be haunted. If they are it’s not surprising, considering the castle’s long and eventful life.

Construction on the site began as early as the 9th century with a wooden palisade that may have been built by the Romans, but the real fortress was erected by William the Conqueror as a stronghold on the main road from Swanage and Wareham through the hills of Purbeck. The ruins contain remains of one of the most notable Norman strongholds in the British Isles, but the ghosts may be (comparatively) more recent.

According to the National Trust, which now owns the castle, the Keep was built for William the Conqueror’s son King Henry 1, to stand 21 metres tall on the top of a 55-metre hill; a landmark for miles around. A dark tapestry of murder, intrigue and treason has been woven around the castle and keep for centuries, one that includes the murder of one royal son to make way for a younger heir, back in the 10th century.

Along the way different rulers added to the castle’s defenses and its capacity; it served as warehouse, treasury, prison and barracks at different times and circumstances but remained a formidable fortress that could be defended indefinitely. The site and its defenders weathered siege after siege, some that lasted for years. In the early 1600’s the castle was bought by the Lord Chief Justice of England, Sir John Bankes, and its history took another strange turn.

Sir John’s wife Mary was left in charge of what became the family’s second residence rather than a fortress, but it turned back into its former mode when the Civil War broke out in 1642 and the Parliamentarians controlled most of the area. Corfe Castle was one of the few strongholds left in southern England that was still loyal to the king, and it was attacked and besieged for an amazing length of time until Lady Mary was finally betrayed and forced to abandon the castle.

When the monarchy was restored years later, the Bankes got their property back, but they built a new home at Kingston Lacy and the castle continued to lie in ruin. Finally in the 1980s, Richard Bankes handed the entire family holdings over to the National Trust, including the town of Corfe and the estate at Kingston Lacy. Corfe Castle is now a Grade 1 listed building, and one of the most visited historic buildings in the country.