Corfe Castle and The National Trust

Leonard Lea Frazer
English children in the village of Corfe.
English children in the village of Corfe.
Leonard Lea Frazer photos

On England’s southeast coast in Dorset stands the ruins of the Medieval Corfe Castle that once imprisoned a princess, was the site of the assassination of the short-lived “Edward the Martyr,” was the backdrop for the 1971 film, Bed knobs and Broomsticks, and, today, is explored by over 190,000 visitors annually.


Owned by the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, or simply, The National Trust, Corfe Castle is one of 15 sites in Dorset that is protected by this organization. The National Trust describes itself as “a charity that works to preserve and protect historic places and spaces - forever, for everyone.” The trust was founded in 1895 and given statutory powers, starting with the National Trust Act of 1907. Historically the trust focused on English country houses, which still make up the largest part of its holdings, but now owns over 350 heritage properties. As one of the largest landowners in the United Kingdom the trust also protects roughly one fifth of the coastline in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (775 miles).

Corfe Castle History:
From the beginning Corfe Castle was owned and operated by the English monarchy. On the site of the castle once stood an earth and timber fortress, and in 978 King Edward was reputedly murdered here by his stepmother so that her son “Ethelred the Unready” could become King of England. Between 1066 and 1087 William the Conqueror established 36 castles, including Corfe Castle. In 1100 Henry I began construction of a stone keep at Corfe and work was completed in 1105. During the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154) Corfe Castle was already a strong fortress with keep and inner enclosure. Extensive construction of towers, halls and walls occurred during the reigns of John and Henry III. Both kept the maiden Eleanor, the rightful heir to the throne and who posed potential threat to their crowns, in confinement at Corfe from 1202 until 1222. She was moved to other prisons during her life, and after 39 years of confinement she became the longest imprisoned member of the English Royal Family. Eleanor, also known as the Duchess of Brittany, died as a nun in 1241 at the age of 59.
More work was done on the castle between 1201-1204. It was recorded that King John spent 1400 pounds at Corfe Castle. One of the secondary roles of castles during Medieval times (400-1500 AD), was to act as a storage facility, as demonstrated by Corfe Castle; in 1224 Henry III sent to Corfe for 15,000 crossbow bolts to be used in the siege of Bedford Castle. In 1244 King Henry commanded that Corfe’s keep be whitewashed (painted). Four years previously, he also ordered that the keep of London should be whitewashed and it therefore became known as the “White Tower.”
During the War of the Roses (1455-1487) Edmund Beaufort and his army marched from Corfe Castle to where he won the skirmish in the Battle of Worksop, Nottinghamshire. In 1572, Corfe Castle left the Crown’s control when Queen Elizabeth I sold it to Sir Christopher Hatton. In 1635 Sir John Bankes bought the castle and was the owner just prior to the English Civil Wars (1642-1651).  After his death in 1645, the castle was overtaken by Parliamentary forces. The next year the castle was systematically demolished by order of Parliament.
After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Bankes family regained the Castle and their other properties. Instead of rebuilding the ruined castle they chose to construct a new house on their other Dorset estate. Corfe Castle remained in the Bankes family until modern times.
The first archaeological excavations were carried out in 1883. No further work was done until the 1950s. Between 1986 and 1997 excavations were done at Corfe Castle, jointly funded by the National Trust and English Heritage. In the 1980s Henry John Ralph Bankes bequeathed the entire Bankes estate to the National Trust, including Corfe Castle and much of the Village of Corfe. In 2006 Corfe Castle was the National Trust’s tenth most visited historic house with 173,829 visitors.

My stop at Corfe Castle:
I visited Corfe Castle and village in September of 1992 while spending two days and nights at the nearby Swanage Youth Hostel. After taking a local bus to Corfe, I enjoyed a pleasant walk around the lower walls and eventually to the keep up on top of a hill. I was joined by a local troupe of Boy Scouts who were also exploring the ruins. I learned that after the castle walls had been partially demolished during the English Civil Wars, lots of rock from the walls and keep were salvaged by locals to build houses in the village. As with most castles, I seldom lose interest in exploring them, and Corfe Castle was no exception.

Corfe Castle, in Dorset, England.
Corfe Castle, in Dorset, England.
Leonard Lea Frazer photos

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The “Keep” was recently reinforced and partially restored, mostly for the safety of visitors.
The “Keep” was recently reinforced and partially restored, mostly for the safety of visitors.
Leonard Lea Frazer photos
 Two English girls explore the ruins of Corfe Castle.
Two English girls explore the ruins of Corfe Castle.
Leonard Lea Frazer photos