Corfe Castle: a large enclosure castle, and 18th century Vineyard Bridge
- Heritage Category:
- Scheduled Monument
- List Entry Number:
- Date first listed:
- Date of most recent amendment:
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
- Purbeck (District Authority)
- Corfe Castle
- National Grid Reference:
- SY 95881 82314
Reasons for Designation
An enclosure castle is a defended residence or stronghold, built mainly of
stone, in which the principal or sole defence comprises the walls and towers
bounding the site. Some form of keep may have stood within the enclosure but
this was not significant in defensive terms and served mainly to provide
accommodation. Larger sites might have more than one line of walling and there
are normally mural towers and gatehouses. Outside the walls a ditch, either
waterfilled or dry, crossed by bridges may be found. The first enclosure
castles were constructed at the time of the Norman Conquest. However, they
developed considerably in form during the 12th century when defensive
experience gained during the Crusades was applied to their design. The
majority of examples were constructed in the 13th century although a few were
built as late as the 14th century. Some represent reconstructions of earlier
medieval earthwork castles of the motte and bailey type, although others were
new creations. They provided strongly defended residences for the king or
leading families and occur in both urban and rural situations. Enclosure
castles are widely dispersed throughout England, with a slight concentration
in Kent and Sussex supporting a vulnerable coast, and a strong concentration
along the Welsh border where some of the best examples were built under Edward
I. They are rare nationally with only 126 recorded examples. Considerable
diversity of form is exhibited with no two examples being exactly alike. With
other castle types, they are major medieval monument types which, belonging to
the highest levels of society, frequently acted as major administrative
centres and formed the foci for developing settlement patterns. Castles
generally provide an emotive and evocative link to the past and can provide a
valuable educational resource, both with respect to medieval warfare and
defence and with respect to wider aspects of medieval society. All examples
retaining significant remains of medieval date are considered to be nationally
Corfe Castle is a striking and well-known example of an enclosure castle. Although ruinous, much of the castle survives as upstanding masonry including the keep and curtain wall, while partial excavation of the interior has demonstrated that buried archaeological remains survive relating to the castle's occupation and fortunes of its inhabitants. The history of Corfe Castle, including details ot its architectural development, is well documented with plans and written sources surviving from the 11th century through to at least the 17th century. Documentary records also indicate the important strategic role played by Corfe Castle in the civil wars of the 12th and 17th centuries. The Rings, an associated siegework, reputedly used by King Stephen when he unsuccessfully besieged the castle in 1139, is located a short distance to the west of Corfe Castle and is scheduled as a separate monument. This was later used as the site of a Civil War battery in the 17th century.
The monument includes a large enclosure castle built on a natural mound
overlooking a gap in the Purbeck Hills and situated immediately north of the
town of Corfe. The castle is separated from the town by a deep ditch cut
across a narrow natural tongue of land.
The castle is built of Purbeck stone, ashlar and rubble, generally with flint
in the core. It has an inner ward, west bailey and outer bailey.
The inner ward, on the summit of the hill, belongs to the original phase of
the castle and is defined by a late 11th century curtain wall. This encloses a
pear shaped area containing the remains of the keep, a range of buildings
known as the 'Gloriette' with traces of an intervening kitchen range, and
other buildings. The ashlar built keep is dated to c.1105. The 'Gloriette' is
an early 13th century courtyard mansion with 15th century additions, which was
built to supplement or replace accommodation in the keep.
The west bailey occupies a relatively level, triangular spur of the hill,
below and to the west of the inner ward. The curtain wall, along the north and
south sides of the west bailey, and the three towers which comprise its
defences, were part of the defensive works of King John in the early years of
the 13th century. Within the west bailey are late 11th century fragments of a
hall. These, together with the wall surrounding the inner ward are the
earliest visible features of the castle.
The outer bailey, to the south east of the west bailey, lies on land which is
nearly flat from west to east but rising to the north. This area retains a
defensive system of walls and mural towers mainly of early and late 13th
century date. There are four towers on the eastern curtain wall and two on the
west. Within the outer bailey is the south west gatehouse, the great ditch and
the outer gatehouse. The south west gatehouse guards the narrow approach to
the west bailey. The great ditch, quarried in 1207, removed the south wall of
the presumed south west bailey. The outer gatehouse gives access from the
outer bailey to the bridge which spans the ditch between castle and town. The
bridge has four spans of uneven width with plain semi-circular arches, the
oldest part of which dates to the 12th or early 13th century.
The foundations of a suggested pre-Conquest building were revealed during
excavations in the west bailey in 1950-52. These are thought to represent
either a 'hospitium' belonging to Shaftesbury Abbey, a royal residence
associated with King Edward, who was murdered at 'Corfegeat' in AD978 or the
'domus' of Queen Elfrida.
During excavation a single sherd of Romano-British pottery was found near to
the spot where a sherd of the same period was previously discovered.
Documentary sources provide additional evidence for the construction and
development of Corfe Castle. For example, in the Domesday record there is a
reference to the building of a castle at Wareham, although it is generally
accepted that this was an error, and that the castle was, in fact, Corfe. The
enclosure wall of the inner ward and the 'Old Hall' in the west bailey can be
attributed to the reign of William I. In the reign of Henry I Corfe is
mentioned as being the place of imprisonment of Robert Duke of Normandy, by
which time the keep had been built as a secure place of imprisonment. During
the civil wars between Stephen and Matilda there was military activity at
Corfe in 1138 and 1139. The siegeworks known as 'the Rings', to the west of
the castle were built by Stephen's forces as part of this attack. The reigns
of Henry II and Richard I were periods of minimal activity and repair, while
King John's reign ushered in intensive building operations and the castle saw
a great deal of use as a treasury, prison and royal residence. Work during
Edward I's reign included the completion of the outer bailey defences. The
castle then fell into disrepair until Edward III commissioned a survey, and
extensive repairs were carried out between 1356 and 1377. Following that no
further major works were undertaken until 1496 when Henry VII prepared the
castle as a residence for his mother Margaret, Countess of Richmond. In 1572
Corfe Castle passed out of the hands of the Crown and the following steward
Ralph Treswell carried out surveys, the plans of which survive. Eventually the
estate was sold in 1635 to Sir John Bankes. Corfe Castle again saw military
activity during the English Civil War. In May 1643 Parliamentary forces failed
to take the castle by suprise, and by June the castle was under siege. This
first siege lasted for 6 weeks. By October 1645 Corfe was under siege once
again until finally, in February 1646, the castle was taken by treachery and
subterfuge. In March 1646 a vote was passed by the Commons for its demolition.
This delibarate slighting was caused by explosions which scattered fabric to
the slopes around the castle and into the valley bottom. Following this, the
castle was retained by the Bankes Estate as a romantic ruin, a state which has
been maintained in recent years by the National Trust.
Immediately at the western end of the hill on which Corfe Castle is situated,
is the 18th century Vineyard Bridge. This is a single arched stone structure
of coursed Purbeck stone rubble with ashlar dressings. The close proximity of
this to a castle deliberately slighted at the time of the Civil War, makes it
likely that the bridge will incorporate earlier medieval fabric in its
Inside the castle, huts, wooden fence posts and road metalling are excluded
from the scheduling, but the ground beneath them is included. Beyond the
castle all metalled sufaces are excluded from the scheduling though the ground
beneath them is included.
MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
- Legacy System number:
- Legacy System:
Books and journals
The National Trust, , Corfe Castle, (1992), 37
The National Trust, , Corfe Castle, (1992), 37-50
The National Trust, , Corfe Castle, (1992), 5-35
RCHME, , 'Medieval Archaeology' in Excavations in the west bailey of Corfe Castle, (1960), 54
RCHME, , 'Medieval Archaeology' in Excavations in the west bailey of Corfe Castle, (1960), 29-55
This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
End of official listing