Almost a thousand years old, Corfe Castle, on the Isle of Purbeck in the south of England, is one of the oldest castles still in existence. Built in the “motte and bailey” style by William the Conqueror on the site of a Saxon stronghold, it withstood several sieges before finally being captured and deliberately destroyed by the forces of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. It is now part of the British National Trust, and is a popular tourist destination.
Corfe Castle is located on a strategic site in the Purbeck Hills, which were an important site for quarrying marble. After invading Brittania in 43 AD, the Romans are believed to have established a fortress atop one of the hills here.
By the 5th century AD, the Saxons had built a wooden Great Hall at Corfe. This was rebuilt and expanded over the centuries, and by the 10th century AD, King Edgar the Peaceful had established his residence here. He lived at Corfe until his death in 975. Edgar had two sons, but the elder son was illegitimate, and Edgar may have been poisoned by his wife to put her own son, the youngest, on the throne. After Edgar’s death, the elder son Edward “the Martyr” was murdered at Corfe in 978, and Edgar’s younger son Ethelred “the Unready” became King.
By this time, the first “castles” were being constructed in France, in the Normandy region. Most people today understand castles to be the home of a king or other nobility, but they were much more than that. Castles were fortified strongholds with both an offensive and defensive military purpose. The castle’s defensive capacity allowed garrisons to hold out against much larger forces. In addition, no invading army could remain in the field if a hostile castle remained nearby, since forces from the defending castle could continually harass the enemy troops and cut off their supply lines. The castle also provided an impregnable offensive base from which forces could ride outwards and dominate the surrounding countryside, to a radius of ten miles or so. In addition to their military uses, castles were viewed as imposing symbols of authority, and were often built to awe the locals and to impress them with the wealth and power of the king and his feudal lords.
The first castles would have been made of wood, and built in a style known as “motte and bailey”. In this style, an area was completely enclosed by a wide ditch and ramparts about 20 feet high, with a palisade fence along the ridge, usually with just one gate for entrance. This enclosed area was known as a “bailey”. The gate was approached by a single bridge over the ditch, and this approach was also defended by two flanking wooden towers where archers could be placed.
The castle was enormously strengthened, however, by a second defensive position inside the bailey. This consisted of an artificial hill about 30 feet high, known as a “motte”, that was made by piling up layer after layer of rammed earth. (In later centuries, the ditch from which the dirt had been removed was filled with water, and became known as the “moat”.) Atop the motte, a multi-story defensive building was placed, which towered over the surrounding palisades and allowed archers within to help defend the outer walls. This defensive structure was known as the “keep” (in French it was the “donjon”, from which we get our word “dungeon”). The keep was often surrounded by another ditch/rampart, with its own bridge and guard towers. Now, the task of any attacker was made much more difficult. Not only did attackers have to penetrate the outer defensive ramparts (all the while under fire from the dominating keep), but even if they managed to get inside the bailey, they still had to contend with the keep itself, where the defenders could retreat and continue their defense.
The motte and bailey castles also had the advantage of being cheap and easy to construct in a short time. A wooden motte and bailey caste could be quickly put into place by either an attacker (to hold on to recently conquered territory) or a defender (to help fortify territory that was under threat). Indeed, when Billy the Bastard (more popularly known as William the Conqueror) invaded England from Normandy in 1066, he brought prefabricated wooden structures with him, and put up a fully functional motte and bailey castle at Pevensey in just eight days. After defeating King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror built wooden motte and bailey castles all over England in order to dominate his newly-won territory and discourage rebellion.
The wooden keeps and palisade fences were, however, vulnerable to attack by fire. Castle designers first tried to correct this vulnerability by covering the walls and fences with plaster, but soon simply replaced the wooden structures with stone. One of the first stone castles built by William was constructed at Corfe in 1067. A stone wall completely enclosed the bailey; it is unclear whether the keep constructed atop the motte was wood or stone. But it is known that King Henry 1 finished a stone keep at Corfe Castle in 1105, built from local Purbeck limestone–the ruins of which still stand today. In 1139, Corfe Castle, under the control of a rebellious underling, successfully withstood a siege by the forces of King Stephen. Under Henry III, in the 1240’s, Corfe Castle was again expanded, by strengthening the walls and adding towers and stronger gatehouses. The castle was not significantly changed after that.
By 1572, Corfe Castle had lost most of its strategic value, and Queen Elizabeth I sold it to her dance instructor, Sir Christopher Hatton, who used it as a private residence. In 1635, the castle was purchased by Sir John Bankes, the Lord Chief Justice. When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, the Bankes family, who supported the King, was besieged in Corfe Castle by Parliamentary forces for six weeks before being rescued by one of the King’s armies. Three years later, though, the Castle was successfully attacked by Cromwell’s forces under the command of Colonel Bingham, the Governor of Poole. In March 1645, the Parliamentarians systematically destroyed the captured castle, leaving it in ruins. It remains that way today.
In 1982, the Bankes family bequeathed the ruins of Corfe Castle to the National Trust, and from 2006 to 2008, the British government funded a partial restoration to repair and stabilize the crumbling keep. The site is now visited by nearly 200,000 tourists per year.