Another in our England’s Ancient Castle series, Corfe Castle, not far from the coast in Dorset, is another of the first castles ordered built by William the Conqueror. It is reputedly one of the earliest to be built at least partially of stone (the first part of the castle was in stone). Because most castles built at that time were wooden motte and bailey structures, Corfe’s partial stone construction shows it was of some importance at that time.

Like many Norman castles, Corfe was built on or near the site of an early Anglo-Saxon hall—postholes from that earlier structure can still be found there. That Anglo-Saxon dwelling may have housed the wife of Edgar, sources said

Corfe was in an important defensive location. Situated on top of a natural hill, it overlooked a picturesque valley—and a strategic pass. A wall was built around the base of the hill. Within that space, were two additional baileys. Eventually, a village of the same name as the castle grew up at the bottom of the hill.

Corfe Castle’s Keep, early 12th Century.

Not only was the castle an important defensive structure, it served as a ‘prison’ site for some political hostages. King John reportedly kept both Margaret of Scotland and Isobel of Scotland there for a time.

And here’s a bit of interesting information from one source.  Especially for those who’ve followed John’s maneuvering to obtain the English throne after the death of his brother, Richard the Lionheart.

One of John’s major threats to obtaining the throne lay in his nephew, Arthur of Brittany. Historians believe John had the teen aged Arthur killed. But Arthur’s sister, Eleanor, “The Fair Maid of Brittany”, could have proven a threat to John as well, so he reportedly kept her prisoner.

History doesn’t record (at least that’s been found as yet) what ever happened to Eleanor. Speculation from some say she was committed to a convent. But according to one source, Eleanor was held hostage at Corfe for a time.

Corfe Castle gatehouse providing access to the west bailey from the outer bailey. (All images from Wikipedia)

Back to the castle’s history. Corfe remained under royal control until Elizabeth I sold it to her Lord Chancellor. Later, under Charles I’s reign, Sir John Bankes purchased it. When the English Civil War came, Sir John remained with the King and the castle remained under Royalist control. Sir John’s wife, Lady Mary Bankes, successfully defended the castle against a lengthy siege. A later attack found her defeated through treachery, although she and the defenders were allowed to leave, a source reported.

A few months later, Parliament voted to demolish (slight) Corfe. The stones were thereafter used for buildings in the town. However, the castle had been constructed and reinforced so thoroughly that the ‘slighting’ still left considerable walls standing.

The castle remained in disrepair until the 20th century, when the then-owner of the property died, leaving his entire estate to the government. Repairs were made on the old keep and visitors are now able to visit the ruins, which are registered  historic monuments.

Don’t forget to visit the other ladies of Medieval Monday, Mary Morgan and Anastasia Abboud.



Richard being anointed during his coronation at Westminster. From a 13th Century chronicle.

Several of my books have been set in the period of Richard 1 of England sometimes called Richard the Lionheart. Most have probably heard of him especially through the legends of Robin Hood. Certainly he’d be remembered as the brother who preceded King John, who signed the Magna Carta. (John tried so hard to usurp Richard throughout Richard’s ten-year reign.)

Richard led the Third Crusade, was captured on his way home from the Holy Land and held prisoner first by the ruler of Austria, who later turned him over to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Henry held Richard prisoner until a ransom of 150,000 marks was raised and delivered. Richard was set free on Feb. 4, 1194.

But today let’s look at these several days during the last of March and the first week in April that were the final days of King Richard.

In March 1199, he and his forces had marched to the Limosin where Viscount Airmar V of Limoges had rebelled. In spite of the fact that those weeks were during Lent, Richard effectively and decisively subdued the viscount’s men.

Image of Richard from 13th Century manuscript.

Although the reason is vague—some sources say it was because Richard heard of the discovery of a treasure trove of gold—he took his men to the small castle of Chalus-Chabrol.  There he laid siege to the castle, which wasn’t armed, and certainly wasn’t in revolt.

On March 26, 1199, according to some chroniclers, Richard was making a routine tour around the castle, when a lone bowman on the walls shot at the king. Richard hadn’t even bothered to dress in full armor when he set out, some sources say, which may have made the single shot so effective.

The crossbow bolt hit him in the shoulder. He was seen right away by a physician, but the removal of the bolt and his subsequent treatment was bungled and Richard developed gangrene. When it appeared he would not survive, his mother , Queen Eleanor, was sent for. He died in her arms on April 6.

While all we have are reports from chroniclers, lots of legends swirl around that period. What seems to be true is that Richard called the bowman, a very young man, to his side and forgave him for the deadly strike.

That action makes a wonderful, heartfelt end to King Richard’s life, one in which some of his actions had not been considered so altruistic.

Remains of the castle Chalus-Chabrol.

However—as an ironic footnote, reports say that after the king died, his long-time right hand man, the mercenary Mercadier, had the young bowman the king had pardoned flayed alive and then hanged.

So these last few days mark a kind of a sad ending to such a famous ruler, but it is also colorful, dramatic, and both heartrending  and heartwarming that Richard forgave the man who killed him.

Don’t forget to visit the other ladies of Medieval Monday, Mary Morgan and Anastasia Abboud.



All remaining of Cambridge Castle–the castle motte-known as Castle Mound.

All that remains of Cambridge Castle, an influential holding in the 11th, 12th,  and 13th  centuries, is a remnants of the original motte, called Castle Mound in the area of Castle Hill. William the Conqueror ordered the wooden motte and bailey structure built along the primary road (the Old Romance Road) from London to York about 1068, after William’s sweep to capture the north of England. It was constructed in the town of Cambridge (known then as Grantabridge). Sources said some 27 houses had to be destroyed to build it.

Another source reports that Castle Hill had been the site of several earlier fortifications from the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings. Archeological finds have confirmed these much and perhaps even earlier settlements.

No particular turmoil existed around Cambridge Castle until the war between Stephen and Matilda, or the Anarchy. In that war, each side captured then lost the castle. Ironically, Stephen had some defenses built at Burwell Castle, ostensibly to help deflect attention from Cambridge. Indeed, one of Matilda’s supporters, Geoffrey, died attacking Burwell, and Cambridge Castle remained relatively safe.

Much later, King John undertook some expansion of the place before the first Baron’s Revolt. In that revolt, Cambridge Castle fell (1216). Later the castle was returned to the crown although only basic upkeep was done.

Engraving of the remains of Cambridge Castle in 1730

During the second Baron’s War (1266) the castle was attacked again, but Henry III’s forces came to the rescue.

It wasn’t until Edward I’s time that the castle was rebuilt in stone and became an impressive structure. Circular towers anchored every corner and an impressive gatehouse and barbican were added. More than 14 years was spent on the rebuilding—and it was never really completed.

After that for some reason the place was not given much upkeep and it fell into disrepair in the 14th century. Much of the stone from the buildings was used (beginning by grant from Henry VI) for the construction of several of the colleges in what was to become one of the two major university towns.

Enough of the defense work was left for Cromwell to make build upon during those years. Later, in the early 1800s, what was left of the Castle and buildings was used as jails.

Painting (about 1841) of Cambridge Castle Gatehouse

Eventually, the last of the structures, the gatehouse, was dismantled to make way for a county courthouse.

Photos: All that remains today of Cambridge Castle is the remnant of the motte, referred to as Castle Mound in the area of Castle Hill. Next: An engraving of the gatehouse and motte in 1730. Last: An 1841painting of the gatehouse.

Don’t forget to visit the other ladies of Medieval Monday, Mary Morgan and Anastasia Abboud.


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