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The Other Siege of Corfe Castle

The heroic defence of Corfe Castle during the Civil War is a well-known Dorset story, but it was a repeat of a briefer siege some five hundred years earlier, as David Pilling recounts

Reconstruction Corfe Castle Siege
A reconstruction of the later, Civil War siege. In the 12th century the curtain wall would have been of wood, but the main part of the keep on the top of the hill would have looked much the same.

The ruins of Corfe Castle are still an impressive sight, soaring above the village below and dominating the landscape for miles around. There has been a fortress of one sort or another upon this naturally defensible site for many centuries: a wooden Saxon stronghold was in existence in the 9th century and a Roman fortification several hundred years earlier. Much of what remains today is that of the early Norman castle, the perimeter wall and the imposing bulk of the typically Norman rectangular keep dating from the 11th and 12th centuries.

The castle was built during the reign of William the Conqueror so his troops could control the route through the Purbeck Hills via a road between Swanage and Wareham, and over the centuries it has endured a grim history. King John used the castle as a dungeon for political prisoners, and it was here that that amiable monarch ordered the slow starvation of 24 French prisoners of war. Later on it was besieged and slighted by the Roundheads during the Civil War, but Corfe was also the scene of another much earlier siege in the mid-11th century during the civil wars that raged in England in the time of King Stephen.

King Stephen
Stephen may have been rather boss-eyed according to this 17th-century
portrait, but he was an energetic military leader who acted decisively
when he heard of Baldwin de Redvers’s takeover of Corfe Castle.

Stephen’s troubles stemmed from the fact that he had usurped the throne from its rightful inheritor, the Empress Matilda, daughter and heir of King Henry I. Unhappy at the prospect of a woman on the throne, the Norman baronage swore fealty to Stephen when he claimed the throne in 1135 but many soon reneged on their oaths, some out of loyalty to Matilda but others through greed as they gauged Stephen’s weakness as a ruler. Matilda herself did not land in England to press her rights until 1139, but before she arrived, the country had already been thrown into turmoil by the rebellion of several powerful barons, among them Baldwin de Redvers.

The siege of Corfe was the last act in a rebellion initiated by Baldwin in 1136. Reacting to rumours that King Stephen had died, Baldwin seized Exeter Castle but was driven out by the very much alive Stephen, and then operated out of Carisbrooke as a pirate for a time until he was forced to flee abroad and joined the disinherited Matilda in Anjou. From here Baldwin sent a message to Stephen offering to make peace, but this was rejected and so Baldwin threw in his lot with the Empress.

Baldwin returned to England at about the beginning of August 1139 with orders to establish a maritime base for Matilda’s planned invasion. He chose to land at Wareham with ‘a fine and strong body of troops’, but it seems he was unable to utilise Wareham as a base for he quickly moved on to Corfe Castle, where the garrison turned traitor and admitted him and his men. This was the signal for other supporters of Matilda such as William de Mohun at Dunster and the Castellan of Marlborough to declare for her and rise up in revolt.

Upon receiving the news of Baldwin’s invasion and seizure of Corfe, King Stephen acted with the same decisiveness as he had in 1136 and raced with an army to re-take the castle. The size of the King’s army is unknown, but it seems that he recognised that the castle’s massive fortified strength and superb defensive position made it impossible to take by storm.

Although the castle’s fortifications would be enlarged and improved during the reign of King John some sixty years later, by 1139 it was already a formidable obstacle. Then as now, it stood on an eminence that falls almost sheer on three sides, and as well as the stone perimeter wall that had replaced the old Saxon palisade, Stephen’s troops were faced with a massive rectangular keep that had been erected during the reign of the previous king, Henry I.

Instead of attempting a direct assault upon the castle, Stephen prepared for a long siege and ordered his troops to construct a ‘counter-castle’, the remains of which still stand today on a hill 320 yards west of the ruined castle. These remains are known today as ‘The Rings’ and consist of the earthworks of a ring and bailey fortress, a timber fortification of the type that were common in England after the Norman invasion. The earthwork was also used as a convenient mounting for a gun battery by the Parliamentarians during the later siege of Corfe Castle in the 1640s, but the view that it was originally built by King Stephen is supported by the features that it shares with other ‘siege castles’ such as Bentley in Hampshire.

The Rings stand on a high position overlooking a main route into Corfe village, and the original earthwork built by Stephen could have been intended to block the way south should Redvers and his garrison attempt to break through the king’s siege lines. The north-east section of the earthwork is of a different width and shape from the rest and these alterations seem to be of a later date, indicating that this section was altered to support the Parliamentarian gun battery in the 17th century.

The Rings near Corfe Castle
This view of the castle from the south-west clearly shows the Rings in the middle right of the picture

While Stephen was distracted at Corfe, the Empress and her brother, Robert of Gloucester, took the decision to invade England and landed at Arundel on the last day of September with only 140 knights. Before marching to Corfe, Stephen had taken precautions against their arrival and ordered a careful watch to be kept night and day on all the approaches to the harbour, but this did not prevent their landing.

Aerial View Corfe Castle
An aerial view of Corfe Castle and the Rings, which are near the top centre of the photo, alongside the road to Church Knowle

Upon hearing of the invasion, Stephen quickly abandoned the siege of Corfe and marched straight to Arundel, too late to prevent Robert of Gloucester slipping away to raise support at Bristol. This was the beginning of a civil war that lasted for the next fourteen years.

Tiverton Castle
Although Tiverton Castle was re-built in the 14th century, the site was the seat of the de Redvers family

Baldwin de Redvers was left to his own devices at Corfe and there is no record of his immediate action following King Stephen’s abandonment of the siege. What is known is that two years later the Empress, by now having temporarily recovered her throne after the defeat and capture of Stephen at the battle of Lincoln, rewarded Baldwin for his loyal service at Corfe by making him the first Earl of Devon. Baldwin continued to support the Empress during the remaining years of war and died peacefully in 1159 during the reign of Matilda’s son, Henry II.

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