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Some Lost Castles Of Dorset

Medieval castles were built to resist all the destructive efforts of besieging armies, so you would hardly expect something so substantial to be lost. Yet that has been the fate of most of Dorset’s castles, as M A Rodger records.

Woodsford Castle

Woodsford Castle, with the largest thatched roof in Dorset, was a fortified manor house.

Confusingly, there are many things in Dorset that take the name ‘castle’ but which are not truly castles at all. For example, Maiden Castle is an iron-age hillfort, Portland Castle is a Tudor artillery fort, Highcliffe Castle is but a grand house and Durlston Castle, formerly a place of refreshment for holidaymakers, is being turned into a visitor centre for the Jurassic Coast.

The medieval castle had a combined function. It was a military stronghold, a baronial residence and an administrative centre. First built in England by the Normans, initially most castles were built of wood, often atop man-made earthen mounds. In the following centuries wood was replaced by stonework and, until gunpowder arrived to transform the art of warfare, the county of Dorset was dominated by large royal castles like Corfe Castle and lesser baronial castles or fortified manor houses like Woodsford Castle, which still stands on the banks of the River Frome near Crossways, complete with its thatched roof.

Early wooden castles that fell into disuse before they were re-built in stone would quickly vanish, leaving only the earthworks behind. Under the trees on Castle Hill to the south of Cranborne are hidden the earthworks of just such a castle. Far less evident within encroaching bushes are the surviving earthworks of Shaftesbury Castle at the end of Bimport.

Sturminster Newton Castle

Humps and hollows surround the remaining stonework of Sturminster Newton Castle

Evidence for the existence of other early wooden castles can be sparse. In 1066, following the Conquest, Bridport and Wimborne were both towns important enough to merit a Norman castle. According to documents, in 1150 the keeper of Bridport Castle was taken prisoner by the future Henry II. Today all traces of his castle have been lost beneath the foundations of later building. Indeed, there is some doubt as to where the castle actually stood – possibly on the site of the museum (which is called the Castle) or perhaps where the Chantry now stands half a mile further down South Street.

The evidence for Wimborne Castle is even less definite. Robert of Gloucester ‘fortified Wimborne’ in the 12th century. Some consider this a reference to a castle and its remains may lie in the fields alongside the River Stour four hundred yards south of Julian’s Bridge. On maps it only merits the description ‘tumulus’, the ringwork once evident on its western side now all but invisible.

The hilltop ‘fort’ on a promontory on the far side of the river from Sturminster Newton pre-dates the Norman Conquest. Originally an iron-age hillfort, it was also the site of a royal Anglo-Saxon court. Although called a castle by antiquarians, there is no evidence of any masonry defences and the deep-cut ditch along its western edge may be Saxon. The stone ruins that can be glimpsed through the trees today are variously dated from the 14th to the 17th century and may be the manor house built by Queen Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s widow.

Well-known castles can also be lost entirely when they disappear beneath later buildings. Dorchester Prison, Lulworth Castle and Cranborne Manor all stand on the sites of former castles. All that survived of Dorchester Castle after the prison was built in 1794 was the well, which remained in use until some prisoners managed to use it as a means of escape. The present Lulworth Castle stands on the site of a castle which was captured by Robert of Gloucester in 1142. The present building is much newer, dating from 1608; despite its looks, it was never built with military use in mind and so is not a true castle, although it was garrisoned during the Civil War.

Castle Hill

Castle Hill, the site of one of two castles in the tiny village of East Chelborough

Other castles are the exact opposite to these ‘built-over’ castles: sites where the remains of a castle are obvious but where there is no historical information. An example is ‘The Castle,’ a ten-acre castle-like enclosure a mile south-west of the village of Leigh. More intriguing, at East Chelborough two castles were built within two hundred yards of each other, one on Castle Hill and a second below, now behind Stake Farm. With no history to guide us, the reason for these castles being so close together can only be speculation. Did one supersede the other, or perhaps one was a siege-work (as are ‘The Rings’ at Corfe), or were they the result of some baronial squabble with two families each building a castle to threaten the other?

Although an abandoned stone-built castle would survive longer than a wooden castle, given enough time the stonework would eventually be pillaged and grubbed out for use elsewhere. Even Rufus Castle on Portland, where stone is abundant, has lost much of its stonework. Where a castle’s stonework has completely disappeared, it is sometimes difficult to be sure if the building was originally a castle at all. The earthworks beyond Kingscourt Road in Gillingham were the site of a royal hunting lodge that may have been re-built as a castle by King John before further alterations converted it into a palace 150 years later. Substantial stonework survived until 1790 but today all that are left are grassy mounds.

Rufus Castle

Rufus Castle was the first Norman structure on Portland and is also known as Bow and Arrow Castle

Another vanished stone castle stood at Stourton Caundle. No trace now remains, although an old barn close to the site is said to be the chapel that stood beside the castle. At Wareham, while the prominent castle motte remains, the only fragments of stonework to be seen have been re-worked into walls bordering Pound Lane and Trinity Lane.

Wareham Castle

A Norman doorway, thought to be from Wareham Castle, is set into the wall of the town’s Rectory

More substantial masonry survives at Marshwood Castle. It was built in the 1200s by William de Maudeville, Baron of Marshwood, but ever since the family backed the wrong side in the wars between Henry III and Simon de Montfort, the castle has been in decline. Today the remaining stonework sits forlornly between the buildings at Lodgehouse Farm.

Once standing on the hill between Powerstock and Nettlecombe, Powerstock Castle is often associated with King Athelstan, the grandson of King Alfred. The actual castle was built by King John but was in use for less than a century before being abandoned. The last standing stonework was taken to make lime two hundred years ago.

Chideock Castle

Mounds and dips betray where
Chideock Castle once stood

As well as the tell-tale grassy mounds and ditches, the site of Chideock Castle at the end of Ruins Lane is today marked by a wooden cross to commemorate the ‘Chideock Martyrs’ of the 1590s. Sir John Craddock obtained a royal licence to fortify his manor house at Chideock in 1377 and the resulting castle remained in use until the Civil War, during which it changed hands three times. After the war it was ‘slighted’ and made unusable by the Roundhead governor of Lyme Regis. The governor was paid less than £2 for undertaking this task but presumably made considerably more from selling materials pillaged from the site. Substantial ruins remained for over a century but now all is gone.

Gunpowder had made castles obsolete by the 16th century. With the need for strong walls and ditches thus gone, most castles were converted into baronial houses. However, many castles proved unsuited to this conversion as, with passing centuries, nobility desired more sumptuous homes. Sir Walter Raleigh spent considerable time and effort trying to convert the original Sherborne Castle into a palace before giving up and building afresh on the far side of the lake.

Sherbourne Castle

Sherborne Old Castle, which Sir Walter Raleigh eventually abandoned

Many of the castles that were still fit for use as grand houses were, like Chideock Castle, destroyed in the aftermath of the Civil War and then pillaged for their stonework. Both Christchurch and Corfe Castles were thus ‘slighted’ and pillaged, although in the case of Christchurch Castle the first order for destruction was apparently ignored and a second order had to be issued two years later in 1652.

Christchurch Castle

Christchurch Castle was built for the Earl of Devon in the 12th century and ‘slighted’ following the Civil War

While many would mourn this destruction and the loss of the majority of Dorset’s fine historic castles, in a few cases the resulting romantic ruins, like those of Corfe Castle that so enhance the Purbeck landscape, provide us today with ample compensation.

[Please note that the following sites have no public access but can be seen or glimpsed from public rights of way: East Chelborough, Leigh, Marshwood, Rufus, Sturminster Newton, Wareham, Woodsford.]

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