CORFE CASTLE, a borough and parish, formerly a market town, in the hundred of CORFE CASTLE, Blandford (South) division of the county of DORSET, 23 miles (E.S.E.) from Dorchester, and 120 (S.W.) from London, containing, with the tythings of North division and South division, 1465 inhabitants.
This place 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 kept the regalia at it, and by whose orders twenty-two prisoners, some of whom were among the principal nobility of Poictiers, were starved to death in its dungeons. Richard 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 Banks, 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 Banks and her daughters, with the assistance only of their domestics; until, on the approach of the king 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, Corfe 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 the castle was connected by a bridge of four narrow circular arches leading to the principal entrance between two massive circular towers; the walls, which enclose 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, by the attempts made to undermine them at the siege, and of which, together with 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 is situated 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 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 into the town from the London road is an ancient stone bridge over the small river Corfe, by which the town is bounded on the east. The inhabitants are principally employed in the quarries and clay pits, for which the isle is celebrated; 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 employed in the knitting of stockings. The market, which was held on Thursday, has been for some time discontinued: the fairs are, 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 of 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, and had power to array the militia: these privileges ceased on the passing of the militia act, in 1757, Mr. Banks, 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 privileges as were enjoyed by the cinque ports. Under the existing charter of Charles II. the corporation consists of a mayor, who is annually elected at the court leet of the lord of the manor, 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, since which time the borough has returned two members to parliament: the right of election is vested in the freeholders, and in holders of leases determinable on life or lives, paying scot and lot, who are chiefly in the interest of Henry Banks, Esq.: the mayor is the returning officer.
The living, a rectory rated in the king's books at £40. 14. 7., is a royal peculiar, in the patronage of Henry Banks, Esq. The church, dedicated to St. Edward the Martyr, is a spacious and ancient structure, partly in the Norman, and partly in the early style of English architecture, with a lofty square embattled tower, crowned with pinnacles, and ornamented with niches, in which are some sculptured decorations of singular design.
This parish is 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; there are thirteen of these schools supported by subscription, in which more than four hundred children are instructed. A National school has been recently established, which is also supported by subscription. The almshouses in East-street, for six aged persons, have an endowment in land. In making a turnpike-road near the town in 1768, two stone coffins, formed of flat stones placed edgeways, and containing a skeleton, were found; and 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, on which are sixteen barrows of various dimensions, chiefly circular, nine of which are in a straight line, and from this circumstance the hill has derived its name; eight or ten of them are surrounded by a narrow trench: the eminence commands a beautiful view of the port and bay of Sandwich, the British channel, and the Isle of Wight.
Volume 1, page 479