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  • Writer's picturetimeless travels

A romantic ruin and an Italianate mansion

by Carol Buxton

Corfe Castle. Image: Herbythyme CC BY-SA 3.0

The cottages shook as a thunderous explosion rent the air. A cloud of dust enveloped them as the mighty castle on the hill above seemed to hover in the air before crashing to the ground, sending rocks, earth and dust reigning down the hillside, burying the streets close to it under a carpet of rubble. The date was March 1646, the place Corfe Castle in Dorset, considered impregnable, now destroyed at the hands of the Parliamentary forces in the bloody strife of the English Civil War.

For more than five centuries the castle had stood on the top of a hill rising steeply to 55metres above sea level. Its massive Keep of gleaming Purbeck limestone towered a further 23metres above the mound. It was an awesome fortress and visible for miles around. From it could be seen the English Channel, and any movement below readily observed. The concept of a castle keep as bastion had been unknown in England before the Normans came in 1066. This one is thought to have been built c. 1105 by Henry I, the third son of William the Conqueror. It was one of the best defensive sites in England.

Corfe Castle is on a hill overlooking the village which bears its name. Image: Herbythyme CC BY-SA 4.0

More buildings were commissioned by successive medieval kings. During the reign of Henry III (reigned 1216-1272) the exterior walls of the Keep were rendered and whitewashed, making it stark against the landscape. Over time it served as a luxurious hunting lodge, a prison for high-ranking prisoners, and a treasury, at one time storing the Coronation Crown.

Castle building is labour intensive. The village below must have been a very busy and noisy place during those centuries, ringing with hundreds of men at work: blacksmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, farriers and the tradesmen calling out their wares. The village was granted a market and a fair in the first half of the thirteenth century and accounts show that at that time hauliers and suppliers brought 759 oak logs, 800 boards, 50 carats (tonnes) of lead, stone and other building materials and 27,000 nails into the castle grounds.

A plan of Corfe Castle from 1586, drawn up by Ralph Treswell

The castle was sold into private hands by Elizabeth I, when Sir Christopher Hatton, a courtier, purchased it in 1572 for £4,761 18s 7½d. It was sold again in 1635, to Sir John Bankes, the Attorney General to King Charles I, who made it into a luxurious family home. His purchase included a vineyard, a mill, stone quarries and several thousand acres of land. He was made Chief Justice of Common Pleas in 1640, the second-highest legal appointment in England. Sir John was in Oxford attending the King when the Parliamentarians first besieged the ‘impregnable’ castle on 23 June 1643, his indomitable wife Mary, Lady Bankes, four of their daughters and the servants left to successfully defend it. Sir John died the following year and, with treachery around every corner, Lady Mary was betrayed by a member of her household and forced to surrender the castle on 27 Feb 1646, during a second siege. Parliament voted to ‘slight’ the castle to destroy the fabric of the building so that its military value was reduced. Within a few months the creation of six centuries was destroyed, and with it the decline in prosperity of the village of Corfe Castle.

The ruins remained mostly untouched and forgotten for over a hundred years, until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when they appealed to the new Romantic sensibilities, spawning sketches and paintings, including this watercolour by Joseph Mallord William Turner painted in about 1793.

Image: © Victoria & Albert Museum London

The railways arrived in 1888, bringing an influx of visitors and the development of hospitality services to provide for them. The first guidebook was written in the 1890s. Meanwhile, the Bankes family had been able to regain its confiscated properties. The Paliamentarian commander, Colonel Bingham, had formally handed Lady Mary the castle keys and seals, as a mark of respect for her courage. In this portrait she appears in widows’ dress, holding the keys, with Corfe Castle in the background.

Left: Lady Mary Bankes by Henry Pierce Bone, after John Hoskins c.1837 Right: Sir Ralph Banks by Sir Peter Lely

Lady Mary Bankes lived out the Interregnum and died the following year in 1661. Her eldest son, Ralph, built a new house in the Italianate style at nearby Kingston Lacy on land acquired by his father in the 1630s.

The east-facing side of the house. Image: Henry Kellner CC BY-SA 3.0

The castle keys are now displayed over the fireplace in the Library. A monument to King Charles I, by Baron Carlo Marochetti, was installed in the marble loggia in 1855. The lower portion shows a detailed relief of the last siege of Corfe Castle.

Left: The monument to King Charles I. Image: Carol Buxton. Right: The keys of the castle © Kingston Lacy/National Trust

Over centuries, the Bankes family altered and embellished the house. Originally built of red brick, it was encased in stone between 1835 and 1840 by William John Bankes (1786-1855), and a tall chimney was built at each corner, the inspirations of the Victorian architect Sir Charles Barry, who also built the Houses of Parliament. An explorer and adventurer, William amassed the largest private collection of Egyptian artefacts in the UK, including a 9m-high Egyptian obelisk, which took six years to travel from the Island of Philae to England.

When it eventually arrived in England, the Duke of Wellington, whom William knew from his military service, offered his gun carriage for its onward transportation to Dorset, where it arrived in 1821, and now stands prominently on the south lawn. The obelisk has inscriptions in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics on the shaft and in Ancient Greek on the base. William’s understanding of Ancient Greek led him to identify the names Ptolemy and Cleopatra in hieroglyphic characters. His discovery was verified, and the obelisk went on to become instrumental in Jean-François Champollion’s eventual decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822.

The obelisk at Kingston Lacy. Image: Carol Buxton

The furnished rooms provide opulent settings for their collections of paintings and other works of art. It is the oldest established gentry collection of paintings in Britain and includes works by Breugel, Rubens, Titian and Van Dyck. In 1841, after being caught in a homosexual scandal, William was forced into exile in Venice, from where he continued to remotely remodel the house, although he never saw it again. The Spanish Room is the most complete expression of his design intentions for the house. It has a gilded, coffered Venetian ceiling, painted and tooled leather wall panels, and an assemblage of Spanish paintings, most of which were acquired during his service with the Duke of Wellington in the Spanish Peninsular War (c.1812-14).

The ornate ceiling of the Spanish room. Image: Carol Buxton

Ownership subsequently fell to Ralph Bankes, who died in 1981. The Kingston Lacy estate, including 12 working farms and Corfe Castle, was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1982, the largest bequest that it had ever accepted.


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