Description of Corfe Castle from Samuel Lewis' Topographical Dictionary of England, 1848

CORFE-CASTLE (ST. EDWARD THE MARTYR), an incorporated town and parish, in the union of WAREHAM and PURBECK, possessing separate jurisdiction, locally in the hundred of CORFE-CASTLE, Wareham division of DORSET, 23 miles (E. S. E.) from Dorchester, and 120 (S. W.) from London; containing 1946 inhabitants. This place, which in the Saxon Chronicle is termed Corve and Cortesgeate, appears to have derived its importance from a formidable CASTLE erected by Edgar prior to the year 980, at the gate of which Edward the Martyr, when calling to visit his step-mother Elfrida, was by her order treacherously murdered. In the reign of Stephen the castle was taken by Baldwin de Rivers, Earl of Devonshire, who held it against the king: it was frequently the residence of King John, who here kept the regalia, and by whose orders twenty-two prisoners, some of them among the principal nobility of Poitiers, were starved to death in its dungeons; and Edward II., after his deposition in 1327, was removed from Kenilworth to this fortress, where he was detained for a short time prior to his tragical death at Berkeley Castle. During the parliamentary war, Lord Chief Justice Bankes, who then resided in the castle, being with the king at York, Sir Walter Earl and Sir Thomas Trenchard assaulted the place, thinking to obtain easy possession of it for the parliament; but it was heroically defended by Lady Bankes and her daughters, with the assistance only of their domestics, until, on the approach of Charles to Blandford, Captain Lawrence was sent to her assistance, when, having raised a small guard of her tenantry, she sustained a siege for six weeks, and, with the loss of two men only, preserved the castle for the king. In 1645, the castle was again besieged by the parliamentarian forces, under Fairfax, when, by the treachery of Lieutenant-Colonel Pitman, an officer of the garrison, who deserted from the king's service, it was taken and demolished. The remains of this stupendous edifice are extensive and interesting, and plainly indicate its former prodigious strength; they occupy the summit of a lofty and steep eminence to the north of the town, with which they are connected by a bridge of four narrow circular arches, crossing a deep ravine, and leading to the principal entrance between two massive circular towers. The walls, which inclose a spacious area divided into four wards, were defended by numerous circular towers at convenient distances, of which several have declined from the perpendicular line, owing to the attempts made to undermine them at the siege, and of which, as well as of the walls, vast fragments have fallen into the vale. At the western angle are the remains of the keep, a massive octagonal tower, and in the inner ward those of the king's and queen's towers, between which is part of the chapel, with two pointed windows; the east end of the king's tower, which is separated from the main building, is overgrown with ivy, and forms a picturesque feature in these extensive ruins, which, from their elevated situation, are conspicuously grand and majestic.

The TOWN stands on an eminence, nearly in the centre of the Isle of Purbeck, and consists principally of two streets diverging from the market-place, in the centre of which is an ancient stone cross; the houses are in general built of stone, obtained from the neighbouring quarries, and are approached by a flight of steps; the inhabitants are well supplied with water. The bridge connecting the castle with the town is called St. Edward's bridge, and is said to be the spot where Edward, fainting from the loss of blood, fell from his horse and expired. At the entrance from the London road is an ancient stone bridge over the small river Corfe, by which the town is bounded on the east. The population is chiefly employed in the quarries and claypits for which the isle is celebrated; and from the principal of these, called Norden, about a mile from the town, a railway has been constructed, to facilitate the communication with Poole harbour, where the clay is shipped for the Staffordshire and other potteries. A few of the female inhabitants are engaged in the knitting of stockings. The market, which was held on Thursday, has been for some time discontinued; the fairs are on May 12th and October 29th. The lord of the manor of Corfe was anciently hereditary lord-lieutenant of the Isle of Purbeck, and had the power of appointing all officers, and determining all actions or suits by his bailiff or deputy; he was also admiral of the isle, and exercised the authority of lord high admiral, in which capacity he was entitled to all wrecks, except in cases where there was a special grant to the contrary. These privileges ceased on the passing of the Militia act, in 1757, Mr. Bankes, then lord of the manor, having omitted to enforce his claims. Though a borough by prescription, the town was not incorporated till the 18th of Queen Elizabeth, who invested it with the same powers as were enjoyed by the cinque-ports. Under the existing charter of Charles II., the corporation consists of a mayor, who is elected at the court leet of the lord of the manor, held at Michaelmas, and eight barons, who have previously served the office of mayor; the mayor and the late mayor are justices of the peace. The elective franchise was granted in the 14th of Elizabeth, from which time the borough returned two members to parliament, till it was disfranchised in the 2nd of William IV.

The parish comprises 7193 acres, of which 1479 are common or waste. The LIVING is a rectory, valued in the king's books at £40. 14. 7.; net income, £685; patron, William Bankes, Esq. The church is a spacious and ancient structure, partly Norman, and partly in the early English style, with a lofty embattled tower, crowned by pinnacles, and ornamented with niches in which are some sculptured decorations of singular design; it contains a few old monuments and several altar-tombs of Purbeck marble. The parish is in the centre of a district of considerable extent, in which the earliest of the Sunday schools were established, under the auspices of William Morton Pitt, Esq., of Kingston House. Several schools are supported by subscription; and there are almshouses in East-street for six aged persons, with an endowment in land. In making a road near the town, in 1768, two stone coffins, formed of flat stones placed edgeways, and containing a skeleton, were found; in 1753, an urn containing burnt bones was discovered, with the mouth downwards, near St. Edward's bridge. About two miles to the east of the town is an eminence called Nine-Barrow Down, where are sixteen barrows of various dimensions, chiefly circular, nine of which are in a straight line; eight or ten of them are surrounded by a narrow trench. The eminence commands a beautiful view of the bay of Swanwich, the British Channel, and the Isle of Wight.

Source: A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, 1848. Transcribed by Nigel Batty-Smith ©2014