Dorset Stories and Tips

3. At Corfe Castle: The Mute Stones Speak

Corfe Castle Photo, Dorset, England


'Tis not, what once it was, the World;
But a rude heap together hurl'd;
All negligently overthrown,
Gulfs, Deserts, Precipices, Stone.
- Andrew Marvell, Upon Appleton House

What is it about castles that so fascinates us? Ask your average American what he’d like to see in Britain, and chances are he’ll mention a castle. But it’s not just the castle-deprived Americans who are susceptible; our European cousins are equally smitten, it seems.

One notable admirer of castles was T.E. Lawrence, who began his career in the Middle East studying crusader castles. Having been fascinated with all things medieval since boyhood, Lawrence visited 36 crusader castles on his thousand-mile undergraduate trek in 1909 (he had originally hoped to visit 50), making careful notes he later used in writing his thesis, "Crusader Castles: The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture." For Lawrence, it was the defensive aspects of castles that most held his interest. It is somewhat ironic perhaps that the man who later became a master of the ever shifting, mobile art of guerilla warfare should have begun his career studying such massive fixed structures. But there you have it.

One of England’s most spectacular ruins, Corfe Castle, stands perched on a hilltop not many miles from Clouds Hill, Lawrence’s cottage near Bovington Camp. I am sure he knew of the castle’s colorful history; perhaps he stood among the ruins, as I did one fine March afternoon, looking out over the peaceful countryside and the Purbeck Hills. However, with his archeological training, Lawrence surely would have deduced from the ruins the castle’s original plan, whereas I merely stumbled about, pleased with the picturesque rubble. Anyone, however, can appreciate the story that rubble has to tell. To borrow a phrase from Paul MacKendrick, "The mute stones speak."

Constructed of fine local limestone, the castle commanded a strategically important position, a gap in the ridge of the Purbeck Hills. Although there is evidence that the Romans may have been the first to take advantage of this site, the original castle was built during William the Conqueror’s time, then underwent extensive rebuilding and enlargement in the thirteenth century under King John.

However, during John’s time the castle also served darker purposes. There he imprisoned his niece Eleanor, the sister of a rival to the throne, as well as twenty-five French knights who were loyal to her. These unfortunate knights managed to escape but were later recaptured, whereupon John had them sealed in the dungeon without so much as a cask of Amontillado to sustain them. They slowly starved to death, while Eleanor remained a prisoner most of her life.

By the late 1500s, the center of royal power had shifted to London. Queen Elizabeth then sold the castle to a court favorite, Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Chancellor of England. After Hatton’s death, the castle changed hands a number of times, finally purchased by Sir John Bankes in 1635. It is at this time that perhaps the most interesting chapter in the castle’s long history begins.

Sir John Bankes was a Royalist, and when the Civil War broke out he rallied to his king, Charles I, leaving his wife, Lady Mary Bankes, in charge of Corfe Castle. Parliamentarian forces laid siege to the castle, which was defended only by a handful of untrained local men, but despite their best efforts after six weeks the castle still stood fast. Worse yet, the Parliamentarian losses had been heavy -- over a hundred fatalities in comparison to only two men lost fighting for Lady Bankes. The Parliamentarian forces withdrew.

When London fell, Charles I fled to Oxford. Loyal Sir John Bankes went with him, but he died shortly afterward. Seizing the opportunity to attack what he viewed as a now-defenseless widow, the Governor of Poole laid siege once again to the castle, ceaselessly bombarding it for two months. The tenacious Lady Bankes refused to capitulate. Then the governor devised a cunning plan. Sending men disguised as Royalists to the castle, he infiltrated the garrison. At long last the drawbridge came down.

Even still Lady Bankes fought on, locking herself in her chamber and flinging hot coals down upon the invaders scaling a ladder to her window. Ultimately, she was forced to surrender, but the governor was so impressed by her unwavering courage that he allowed her to withdraw with her men, retaining the keys to the castle.

Much good it did her. Once the castle was in the hands of the Roundheads, they planted enormous caches of explosives in its walls. In what must have been a truly cataclysmic explosion, the castle walls came tumbling down.

But that was not the end of the castle, not entirely. If you visit the village of Corfe Castle today, it is quite apparent what became of the bits of masonry and stone that rained down that fateful day in March of 1646. There you’ll see street after street of fine stone houses, inns, and cottages, all constructed of the same lovely Purbeck stone. Those structures and the majestic ruins on the hill are all that remain of Corfe Castle.

I have, in one of several photo albums chronicling an idyllic year spent in England, photos of ourselves at Corfe Castle in 1987. I can remember how we climbed among the ruins, posing for photos on great slabs of toppled rubble and threading our way through the confusing maze of half-destroyed walls and chambers. Afterward, we sat in the sunshine at a table outside a pub in the town below, laughing and squinting up at the ruins behind us. I look at these photos now and think, "We didn’t have a care in the world, back then," which of course is utter nonsense.

It is always disconcerting to me to go back to places where I was once extremely happy, and in general I avoid doing so. It is such a disappointment if things have changed, or if the earlier experience is diminished in some way. And so although I had not originally intended it, when I set out one morning from Dorchester to go to Bovington Camp, I found myself making a detour to nearby Corfe Castle. I had last seen the castle in March of 1987. When I returned sixteen years later, it seemed virtually unchanged.

The past stands like a fortress, but our unreliable memories, like those Roundhead infiltrators, betray us. I have visited scores of romantic ruins in England – abbeys, castles, stone circles, barrows, towers, churches – yet I can clearly recall only a handful. But this is not the case with Corfe Castle, for I can still taste that pint of bitter at the pub, feel the warmth of the castle’s sun-drenched stones, and hear the distant bleat of sheep on the hillside. These memories have survived where a million and one have vanished, yet I cannot tell you why.

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