On the Isle of Purbeck, overlooking a village of the same name, perched on a hilltop, are the ruins of Corfe Castle. It is an early Norman castle built in the time of William the Conqueror.
Looking at the ruins of Corfe Castle from one of the surrounding hills or from below is an inspiring and spectacular sight. The pictures you see don’t do it justice. The castle ruins seem perfectly placed, with a beautiful backdrop whichever way you look at them.
And of course it becomes a special place for sunrises and sunsets with hilltops directly to the west and east.
Of course, Corfe Castle isn’t all about views and sunsets, there’s intrigue and history too. Let’s see.
History of the Castle of Corfe
The Purbeck Hills run horizontally through the center of Purbeck, rising west to east above the landscape.
The hill on which Corfe Castle sits is a smaller isolated hill in a gorge of the Purbeck Hills. This is where the name comes from: Old English for ‘cutting’ or ‘gap’ is ceorfan.
We know that even before the Normans came, there was a special Saxon-era fortress or noble residence on this hill. An example is that it was the home of AElfrida, wife of King Edgar. It is believed that it was here in Corfe Castle that she murdered her stepson Edward The Martyr so that the younger son, Aethelraed the Unready, could take the throne.
William the Conqueror
After the Norman Conquest of 1066, William the Conqueror had the stone castle built. Purbeck Wood was one of his favorite hunting grounds.
It must have been a special castle as many of its late 11th century castles were mainly built with wood, but this one was built with stone. Efforts were also made to transport stone from elsewhere, as the surrounding chalk hills were not usable.
Over the following centuries, it was expanded by future kings. Henry I had a rectangular keep built. King John added more splendor and size with a great hall and chapel. It was here that King John imprisoned his niece Eleanor, a threat to the throne. He brought her here from Brough Castle in Westmorland. He also starved 22 of her knights in Corfe Castle.
After John, Henry III spent a fortune on Corfe Castle: £1000, which was a lot of money in the 13th century.
Elizabeth I sold the castle away from the monarchy and in 1635 it was bought by Sir John Bankes, Charles I’s Attorney General. Then, of course, civil war broke out in 1642.
While Sir John was busy in London during the war, his wife, Lady Bankes, held her own when she was besieged twice by Parliamentary troops over the course of three years. She was a force to be reckoned with in her time. She only had 80 people helping her. The besieging army had over 500! It is said that she stayed hidden in her chambers and threw hot coals at the attackers.
She lost only 2 casualties, while the parliamentarians lost more than 100. Of course, as history tells us, the Royals eventually surrendered. However, instead of retaliating, the Parliamentarians were so impressed with Lady Bankes that they let her leave with a set of Corfe Castle keys. These are now on display in the new house she has set up in Kingston Lacy.
Become a ruin
After the Civil War, like many other castles, it was neglected and eventually rendered useless for future use. This created the ruined view we see today. It would have been too much work to completely destroy it. Much of the stone was also used by the locals to use in buildings.
The castle, estate and much of the village of Corfe Castle remained in the hands of the Bankes family until it fell into the hands of Ralph Bankes, who bequeathed it all to the National Trust in his will.
View Corfe Castle
The iconic view that everyone usually comes to see is the view from West Hill. This is the hilltop where you go for a sunrise photo. During the day it’s great too. For just a short sharp climb, you can gaze at the scene in wonder.
If you look at the photo above, taken from the top of West Hill, you can see the Purbeck Hills go on and on. A top tip is to head that way for a nice sunset while looking the other way.
I was staying not far away at Burnbake Forest Lodges, walking distance from Corfe Castle. Right from the door of the lodge I could step outside and walk up these hills and enjoy the view of the castle and the surrounding area.
Great for the dogs too I might add.
The village of Castle Corfe
Down next to the hill on which Corfe Castle is situated is the village of the same name. A little postcard like place that looks beautiful in the Dorset countryside.
As you enter the village it is a bustling little tourist hot spot with National Trust features throughout.
Just outside the village and castle is a large National Trust car park to help ease congestion in the village. If you are a National Trust Member you can of course park for free and enter the castle for free. If you are not a member, you pay for both. Parking is £5 and entrance to the castle is £12 per adult (peak). Another pleasure to walk around the area from the property instead of taking the car.
Another thing to look for at Corfe Castle is the steam train. This heritage line runs from Swanage to Norden and stops at Corfe Castle. Rebuilt and now takes passengers on the 9.5 mile route with large steam engines.
When I walked through the hills here, I saw them regularly.
When people think of Dorset and Purbeck Island, they usually think of cliffs and coast. Just a few miles inland you have this great area with a great history.
If you are ever in Purbeck or looking for a new area to walk and explore, take a walk in the hills around Corfe Castle. You will have no regrets.
You may also like:
- Penrith Castle – The residence of a future king
- Appleby Castle – Great history, strange hotel