Corfe Castle is one of the most spectacular ruined castles in Britain, from whatever direction it is viewed. The name is also given to the village in which the castle is set. One of the best views clearly demonstrating its strategic position, high in the Purbeck Hills, is from the village of Kingston, south of Corfe Castle. The name “Corfe” means a pass, which has been cut by rivers between the Purbeck Hills and indicates its prime defensive site.
The castle has stood here for 900 years, although in a ruined state, since 1646. Although it is believed the castle was built by William the Conqueror and then the Keep, later in 1105, undoubtedly the Saxon kings fortified the site against the Danes. In 978, King Edward, later called the Martyr, was murdered when he was only eighteen years old, at the instigation of his stepmother who wanted the throne for her son, Ethelred the Unready. When Edward arrived at Corfe where his stepmother lived, he was given a drink and then stabbed to death by her servants. At the time, Ethelred was only ten years of age and became king later. The parish church in Corfe Castle village is named after the murdered king.
King John of Magna Carta fame, seized the crown in 1199, but had to fight off a rival claim from his nephew, Prince Arthur of Brittany. In the dungeon at Corfe Castle, John starved to death 22 French noblemen who had supported Arthur.
The English Civil War brought about Corfe Castle’s destruction. Sir John Bankes, Charles I’s Chief Justice, had bought the castle in 1635 to be the family’s country home, but he died in 1644. The Parliamentarians had declared Sir John a traitor and an attempt was made to capture the castle. It proved impregnable to Roundhead forces and Sir John’s widow, Mary, held out against the attackers. However, treachery by a Royalist officer, who allowed the Parliamentarians in, caused Mary to surrender. An Act of Parliament ordered the demolition of Corfe Castle, which destroyed the work of 600 years, in a few months. Lady Bankes appealed to the new government and the ruined castle was returned to her in 1647. In 1982, the Bankes’ family bequeathed Corfe Castle, several miles of coastline, nature reserves, farms and the family mansion, Kingston Lacy, to the National Trust.
The layout of the village has changed little in 500 years. In medieval times, there was a considerable Purbeck marble carving industry. Many of the buildings date from the 16th century. When the castle was ruined in 1646, the villagers took stone from the castle and incorporated it as free material in their cottages.
Swanage Railway, was a railway branch line, which originally opened in 1885 and was closed in 1972. It has now been restored by enthusiasts and operates a regular heritage steam train service over the six miles to Swanage from Corfe, through the beautiful Purbeck countryside.