Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page

Corfe Castle

ORFE CASTLE has an unenviable notoriety as the scene of one of the most shocking crimes that stain our annals. Elfrida, the wife of Ethelbald, Alderman of the East Angles, betrayed her unhappy husband, and wedded King Edgar after his murder.

She was Edgar's second wife. His first, Elfleda the Fair, left a little son, to whom Elfrida became step-mother. She also had a son, and the young princes, Edward and Ethelred, were extremely attached to each other, though Edward was seven or eight years older than Elfrida's child. After the death of Edgar, she made a party to get the crown for her boy; but the famous Dunstan was on the side of the rightful heir, and succeeded in placing young Edward on the throne. But Elfrida, who hated her stepson, determined to destroy him, and thus make way for her own son to the throne. She watched for her opportunity, and it came in about two years' time. Edward was hunting in the forest of Wareham one day, when the clever, cankered dwarf of the queen, Wulstan, came up to him, and by some story of strange bird or beast, lured the boy-king to follow him into the wood, and leave his attendants. Then, finding that Corfe Castle, where his brother dwelt, was close at hand, Edward thought he should like to see little Ethelred - then ten or eleven year' old - and rode thus unattended to the door of his stepmother's home. She received him at the doorway, kissed him, and asked him to alight. He declined, but asked to see his brother. Elfrida then called for wine, and whilst the king held the cup to his lips, either the queen or one of her attendants stabbed him in the back. The wounded prince had, however, strength enough to set spurs to his horse, and attempt to rejoin his suite; but fainting from loss of blood, he fell; his foot got entangled in the stirrup, and he was dragged a considerable distance, till the horse stopped of itself Elfrida, alarmed at his apparent escape, sent servants after him, who found the poor young prince dead, and his face much cut by the flints of the road over which he had been dragged. The queen ordered his body to be lodged in a house near; on that spot a church was afterwards built. The next morning she had it conveyed to a marshy place, and retired herself to a mansion of hers called Bere, ten miles off. Little Ethelred had seen the murder, and was overpowered by his mother's wickedness; he reproached her so bitterly, in his childish grief and horror, that she beat him most severely with the great wax tapers, the only weapons she had near her hand. Ethelred was so much hurt that he hated the sight of them ever afterwards. Edward's body was found, and the murder discovered; but Ethelred, who of course was quite innocent of his beloved brother's death, succeeded to the throne. Dunstan was compelled to crown him ; but as he placed the royal diadem on the boy's head, he accompanied the act with an awful prophecy. It ran thus: "Even as, by the death of thy brother, thou didst aspire to the kingdom, hear the decree of Heaven. The sin of thy wicked mother and of her accomplices shall rest upon thy head, and such evils shall fall upon the English as they have never yet suffered, from the days when they first came into the isle of Britain even until the present time."

Fearfully was that doom fulfilled by the Danish invasions. Three years after little Ethelred's coronation the "dreadful banner of the Raven was again unfurled." Sweyne came with an army; Southampton was plundered, and the inhabitants carried off into slavery. Chester was taken; London was burnt down; and the whole coast from the Mersey to the Thames was ravaged.

Elfrida, miserable and despised, tried to expiate her crimes by building and endowing two nunneries - those of Amesbury in Wiltshire, and Wherwell in Hampshire. She took the nun's habit in the latter, and spent the rest of her life in great austerity, confessing on her death-bed another most atrocious secret murder. Her servants appear to have been a band of assassins.

King John made the crime-stained castle his residence, and deposited his regalia in it. He also converted it into a State prison, and starved to death in it, in 1202, twenty-two French prisoners, the very flower of the Poitevin chivalry. Not many years afterwards he brutally tortured here Peter of Pomfret, the poor hermit who had prophesied that John should lose his crown in 1213. The king actually did resign it that year to the Papal Legate, and the truth of the hermit's prediction so infuriated the royal monster that he caused Peter to be dragged to and fro through the town of Wareham at the tail of horses, and afterwards he had the poor mutilated man and his son hanged in sight of the walls.

Edward II. was imprisoned in Corfe Castle by Queen Isabella, his wife, and Mortimer, his gaolers being Sir John Gournay and Sir John Maltravers. He was removed by them from Corfe to Berkeley Castle to die.

In the reign of Edward III. the castle was the property of the Earl of Holland.

Corfe castle

George, Duke of Clarence, the unhappy brother of Edward IV., possessed it till, by his attainder for high treason, it became the property of the Crown. Henry VII. gave it to his mother, the Countess of Richmond and Derby, and founder of Wimborne Grammar School. On her death it reverted to her grandson, Henry VIII.

Queen Elizabeth gave the castle to Sir Christopher Hatton, making him (the Lord Chancellor) Admiral and Lord Lieutenant of the island of Purbeck. He repaired and decorated it in the most costly manner, and inhabited it till his death, when it became the property of his nephew, Sir William Hatton; and he dying childless, it passed to his widow, Lady Hatton, of Stoke Pogeis.

On the death of Sir Edward Coke, Lady Hatton's second husband, Sir John Banks, afterwards Lord Chief Justice, purchased the castle. In 1643 he declared from the bench at Salisbury that the acts of Essex, Manchester, and Waller were treasonable, and the Parliament at once declared him, and the other judges who had agreed with him, traitors. Lady Banks and her family had taken shelter in the castle as soon as they saw the storm of civil war break, and here she remained till 1643, when the Parliamentarians, having possessed themselves of Dorchester, Lyme, Melcombe, Weymouth, Wareham, and Poole (Portland Castle being treacherously delivered to them), only Corfe Castle remained in obedience to the king. The castle, standing on a very steep, rocky hill, was very strong - almost impregnable - and if they could take it, the leaders of the rebel forces would command the whole coast. It was indeed of great importance, as it commanded the whole isle or peninsula of Purbeck, and had been justly named by the Saxons, Corf Gate, as it was the pass into the best part of the county. The fortress is separated from the town of the same name by a strong bridge of four very high, narrow, semi-circular arches, crossing a very deep, but now dry, moat. This bridge leads to the gate of the first ward, which is nearly entire, probably being preserved by the strength of the walls, which are full nine yards thick, from the outer to the inner facing. The ruins of the entrance to the second ward, and the tower near it, are remarkable "The latter (which once adjoined to the gate) was separated with a part of the arch at the demolition of the castle, and is moved down the precipice, preserving its perpendicularity, and projecting almost five feet below the corresponding part. Another of the towers on the same side is, on the contrary, inclined so much that a spectator will tremble when passing under it. The singular position of these towers seems to have been occasioned through the foundations being undermined (for blowing them up) in an incomplete manner. On the higher part of the hill stands the Keep, or citadel, which is at some distance from the centre of the fortress, and commands a view of considerable extent to the north and west. It has not hitherto suffered much diminution of its original height, the fury of the winds being resisted less by the thickness of the walls than by the strength of the cement." 1

Passing the first gateway, the three towers will be seen thrown entirely open by the removal of their inner walls; in each there is a fireplace and flue, and in the next tower, where the kitchen for the guard and warders was, there is a cupboard.

The first or outer ward was the tilting. ground, and is now a verdant lawn. Just beyond the guard-room a huge block of wall has blown over, so that the outer face is turned in on the escarpment surface. As this was the most assailable part of the castle, the walls were four feet thicker than in the steeper and more impregnable parts We come now to the guards' prison tower that defended the southeast corner of this ward; against the south angle, constructed in the thickness of the wall, is a small cell having a little window fitted for iron gratings. This was probably a place of temporary confinement of refractory soldiers. The tower is circular, with loophole bays in good preservation. There was, it is evident from the open lodgment for the beams, an upper floor, or platform, from which the causeway and the opposite side of the moat might be swept. It is supposed that on this platform Lady Banks mounted the guns that dispersed the first party of the besiegers. The second gate, which is gained by an ascending pathway, is named Edward the Martyr's gate, and is exactly similar to the first - a square between two round towers. One tower has sunk considerably, and the arch and wall are split apart. Some broken winding stairs show the place of the grand staircase from the king's tower, by which the inhabitants of the state apartments could descend direct to this gate, without passing through the intervening wards or gates. It was constructed on the wall from the Keep to this point, and is probably identical with a similar one by which Elfrida descended to meet her stepson; or it might have even been the identical one she used, for it is of great antiquity. It was, however, repaired and partly rebuilt in 1235. The prison chapel, the fourth ward, and the priest's tower, are all worth examination.

Passing over the site of the king's, or fifth court, we see the lofty ruins of the great keep rising before us; the south front alone is standing; the adjoining returns of the two side walls and of the east side are isolated from the rest, and covered entirely with ivy.

Such is a very brief sketch of the Corfe ruins; its strength when a perfect fortress must indeed have been great.

Lady Banks, when besieged there in 1645, was alone, with her children and the garrison; for her husband, Sir John, was with the king. But she fearlessly defended her stronghold against repeated attacks by the governor of Wareham, Captain Butler, and Colonel Bingham, governor of Poole. Yet her courage and loyalty were vain. She was infamously betrayed. A traitor was in the garrison, a Colonel Pitman, who put himself in communication with the enemy, and offered, on assurance of his own protection and pardon, to deliver the castle to the Parliament. The proposal was accepted, and the traitor at once proposed to Colonel Anketill, the governor of the castle, that he (Pitman) should go into Somersetshire and get a hundred men as reinforcements for the garrison. Anketill consented to his running the supposed risk of getting through the besieging forces, and agreed to receive Pitman and his recruits at a certain post Pitman went at once to Colonel Bingham, who commanded the Parliamentary forces, and proposed to him to take more than a hundred rebel soldiers into the castle, as the expected relief, and that as soon as they were inside it, the besiegers should attack. Bingham immediately drew a hundred men out of Weymouth garrison, and marched to Lulworth Castle, where he added thirty or forty to their number. Pitman led them at night to the castle, to the spot where Colonel Anketill awaited and admitted him. Some of these men came from the neighbourhood, and knew every part of the castle. These at once seized the king's and the queen's towers, and the two platforms.

The besieged, headed by Lady Banks herself, threw down great stones and fired on the rebels as soon as the treachery was discovered, but could not drive them out; the lady, in fact, having only six men with her in the upper ward, as that had been thought impregnable; and the defending force had been placed in the lower wards as the post of danger.

As soon as the Parliamentarians saw their men on the towers and platforms, they attacked at once.

The inmates of the castle, with enemies within and without, demanded a parley; the terms of the besiegers were accepted; but almost immediately afterwards, two of the Parliamentary soldiers, in haste to enter the castle, came over the wall by means of a ladder, and some of the castle garrison fired on them. The besieging troops were furious, and there was great danger of a general massacre of the castle's defenders. Colonel Bingham, however, succeeded in saving the lives of the hundred and forty persons then in the castle; but two of the garrison were killed and one of the besiegers through this fatal accident. Thirty rebels who were prisoners in the castle were released.

Everything, however, was given up to plunder and destruction. The magnificent decorations and furniture put there by Sir Edward Coke and Sir John Banks were all stolen or destroyed, and months were spent in undermining the tower, and reducing Corfe Castle to the ruins that still crown the hill of Purbeck. The place seemed fertile in crime, especially in treachery, beginning with the treacherous murder of an innocent boy by Elfrida, and ending in the cowardly betrayal of a woman by Colonel Pitman.

John's ruthless murders; Isabella's cruel imprisonment of her husband, Edward II., all stained that fatal castle, and perhaps it is as well that it no longer exists to be a stronghold of crime.

The maiden name of Lady Banks was Mary Hawtrey, the only daughter of Robert Hawtrey, Esq., of Riselip. From her descends the family of Bankes, of Kingston Hall and Corfe Castle. She lived for fifteen years after her gallant defence of her home, and was buried at Riselip.

* * * * * *

1. Dr. Morton's " Observations," vol. i. p. 12.

Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page
Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004