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- Last updated: 13/06/2023
During the English Civil War, the Royalists and Parliamentarians forcefully took possession of castles around the country. When the besieging force captured the castle, it was ‘slighted’ with gunpowder to render it unusable for military purposes. The finest example of this is Corfe Castle in Dorset. Dating back to the 11th century, the site lies some 4.5 miles south of Wareham in Dorset and has been in the care of the National Trust since 1982.
The building of Corfe Castle was ordered by King William (The Conqueror) and was one of the earliest fortifications to be built from masonry, using the finest quality limestone from the very beginning of its construction. It was sited to command a gap in the Purbeck Hills, covering the route any attacker landing on the coast at Swanage would have to take in order to move inland. Over the centuries, the defences and layout of the castle were changed to keep pace with military developments. For example, King Henry I added a rectangular keep, followed by King John who had curtain walls added to the defences. It was not until the reign of Edward I, some 200 years after work was first started, that the castle was thought to be complete. Monarchs used the castle as a secure place to imprison those who posed a threat to them. On occasion, even monarchs would find themselves incarcerated here, such as the ill-fated King Edward II, who was locked up at Corfe Castle before being sent to Berkley Castle where he was murdered. In 1635, the castle was purchased by Sir John Bankes. A staunch Royalist, he would loyally serve King Charles I during the Civil War. It was during this period that the castle was used as a military stronghold. In 1643 the castle was besieged by Parliamentarian forces, during which its defences withstood artillery bombardment and the defending garrison fought off attacks by superior forces.
Today, the events of that fateful time are demonstrated by reenactment groups who depict the period of the Civil War. These special displays include encampments, demonstrations of weapons and drills, along with aspects of everyday life in the 17th century. The remnants of the castle, which surround the site, add to the drama of visiting one of these re-enactment weekends because the ruins date from when the castle was slighted. It was in 1643 that the castle was first besieged, when Sir John was absent with the King in Oxford, leaving his wife, Lady Mary, with their children and a small retinue of only five. The first attempt to take the castle happened in May when a small group of Parliamentarians tried to slip past the sentry by joining a returning party of Lady Mary’s forces. The subterfuge failed when they were recognised as not being of the household. Now placed on the alert, the besieging force of 600, complete with artillery, surrounded the castle and isolated it to prevent supplies of provisions from being sent from the nearby village. Despite this move, supporters managed to smuggle food to Lady Mary and her garrison, which increased to 80 defenders. The situation lasted until June when a force of Royalist troops managed to fight their way through and break the siege.
For the next two years, Lady Mary stubbornly held on to the castle, making it one of the last bastions to hold out for the king. In the end, it would not be an attack which captured the castle but an act of betrayal by one of her trusted garrison. By 1645, Parliament controlled the county of Dorset and was able to keep a tight watch on the castle. The officer commanding the forces in Corfe was Colonel Bingham, who was in secret correspondence with Colonel Pitman inside the castle. They hatched a plan whereby Pitman would volunteer to leave the castle to fetch reinforcements and bring in supplies. The first part of the plan worked and Pitman left and headed towards Somerset. Presently, he was seen approaching the castle with a group of about 100 men. As the party entered the castle, Bingham’s men launched an attack, at which point the reinforcements revealed themselves to be Parliamentarian troops. Under attack from within and outside, the garrison was overwhelmed. Lady Mary had no other option and, on 27 February 1646, she surrendered. It was agreed that, together with her children, she and her garrison be allowed to leave the castle. She had to forfeit all her possessions and that, together with the fact her husband, Sir John had died in December 1644, rendered her totally dispossessed. The castle was slighted and the masonry was taken away over the years to leave what we see today. The Bankes family did reacquire Corfe Castle but when Henry Bankes died in 1981, the National Trust acquired the site. These are not just ruins of an old castle, taken together with the immediate surrounding area, this is also a battlefield. The walls rise dramatically to tower above the heads of visitors and are the result of the explosions of the slighting, which tore them apart to reveal their incredible thickness. They also lean at impossible angles which seem to defy gravity. This shows there is still a great deal of strength left in them.
Wandering around the site, it is possible to trace the development of the castle as it changed to accommodate different types of weapons, beginning with the shape of the openings for archers with longbows. Then, it evolved to accept gunpowder weapons, such as muskets and artillery. In between, there are other features to discover, such as ‘murder holes’, so called because defenders could drop heated sand or boiling water onto attackers below. Visitors will be surprised to see how much is left and be amazed at the engineering skills which went into building the castle and its massive walls. There is ample parking close by and a shop which sells books and other items. Access for wheelchair users is limited and dogs on leads are allowed across the site. For full details of facilities, opening times and any special events planned, visit the National Trust website (www.nationaltrust.org.uk) or just type in Corfe Castle and results will come up.