For almost 1,000 years, Corfe Castle has stood sentinel over a natural gap in Dorset’s rolling Purbeck Hills. Built by William the Conqueror and destroyed in the aftermath of the English Civil War, its dramatic ruins provide a chance for visitors to travel back in time through some of the most famous periods of British history.
Corfe Castle’s geographic location is so strategic that it was pre-dated by a Saxon stronghold, and probably by several other fortifications before that. However, the ruins that we see today date back to the Norman Conquest of 1066, when William the Conqueror capitalized on his defeat of the British by building a network of fortresses across the country. Corfe Castle was especially important for it’s location, which allowed William the Conqueror access to southern coast and to his homeland. The castle’s importance is proven by the fact that its walls were built of stone, rather than from wooden palisades like many other Norman castles.
William the Conqueror’s son, Henry I, was the first in a long line of kings to expand and enhance Corfe Castle. He was responsible for the construction of the stone keep, which would have stood nearly 70 feet tall atop a 180-foot natural hill and been visible to everyone for miles around. The castle’s curtain wall, towers, and gloriette (a castle within a castle) were added by King John in the 13th century who used Corfe Castle as a political prison. It was finally completed by Edward I and remained largely unchanged from the end of the 13th century onwards.
From Castle to Private Home
In 1572, Corfe Castle became a private residence when it was sold by Elizabeth I to one of her favorite courtiers, Sir Christopher Hatton. In 1635, the castle changed hands again, becoming the home of Sir John Bankes, Attorney General to Charles I, who was called to the king’s side when the English Civil War broke out in 1642.
A year later, most of Dorset was under Parliamentarian control. However, Lady Mary Bankes successfully defended the castle in her husband’s absence, holding out through two sieges until she was betrayed by one of her own officers, Colonel Pitman. While the castle was lost, Lady Bankes and her family were allowed to leave the castle unharmed out of respect for her bravery. The Parliamentarians ultimately won the Civil War and voted to demolish Corfe Castle. This was attempted with gunpowder but was only partially successful.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Corfe Castle was returned to the Bankes family. However, instead of rebuilding the ruined castle, the Bankeses chose to build a new stately home at nearby Kingston Lacy. In 1982, Ralph Bankes bequeathed Corfe Castle, Kingston Lacy, and the rest of the extensive Bankes Estate to the National Trust in his will.
Attractions at Corfe Castle
Today, there is more than enough left of Corfe Castle to make for an impressive visit. Wander through picturesque archways, see the damage wrought by Parliamentarian gunpowder, and gaze out through the arrow slits where medieval archers would once have taken aim across majestic views of the Purbeck countryside. Don’t forget to look upwards, too—where the ceilings survive you will spot murder holes; openings through which the castle’s defenders poured scalding water, oil, and tar on their attackers.
Of particular interest is the West Bailey. Here stands the Norman Old Hall, the oldest surviving section of the castle and the site of the Saxon hall that came before it. Legend has it that Edward the Martyr was murdered there in 978 by his stepmother so that his half-brother Ethelred could be crowned King of England.
The castle also boasts a National Trust shop, and an 18th-century tea room and gardens. If you feel the need for some exercise after one too many scones, embark on a 30-minute National Trust walking trail that takes you across Corfe Common for beautiful views of the castle and a chance to admire some 4,000-year-old Bronze Age burial mounds. Lastly, be sure to check the National Trust website before booking your visit. Corfe Castle often hosts fun-filled events including historic reenactments, medieval festivals, and falconry displays.
To get an idea of what the castle would have looked like in its heyday, combine your visit to the ruins with an afternoon at the Corfe Castle Model Village. The one-twentieth scale model shows the castle and village as they would have looked in 1646.
Other places of interest in the local area include the Bankes family’s later estate at Kingston Lacy (built in the lavish Venetian style); scenic Lulworth Cove and the iconic rock arch known as Durdle Door; and Brownsea Island, famous for its protected wildlife including over 200 rare red squirrels.
If you plan on renting a car, you will find the village on the A351 road from Wareham to Swanage, and you can park in the National Trust car park located opposite the castle hill. The car park has 90 spaces and operates on a pay-and-display basis. It’s also possible to reach the castle using public transport. The Wilts & Dorset Number 40 bus from Poole to Swanage stops at the village, as does the heritage steam train operated by Swanage Railway.
The two top-rated hotels are Mortons Manor Hotel (a Grade II-listed Elizabethan manor house once patroned by Elizabeth I) and The Bankes Arms Hotel (a traditional British pub with rooms overlooking the castle or steam railway). Alternatively, the village offers a wealth of excellent B&Bs. Our favorites are Challow Farm House, with four luxury rooms in a tranquil garden setting; and 19th-century guesthouse Olivers.
Mortons Manor Hotel and The Bankes Arms Hotel both have popular restaurants, while the tea rooms at Corfe Castle and Corfe Castle Model Village are great for a light bite or afternoon tea. For local farm-to-table cuisine, try The Pink Goat (open for breakfast and lunch daily, and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays). For classic British pub fare, including Sunday roast and fish and chips washed down with a pint or two of ale by the fireside, The Castle Inn is our top pick.