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Corfe Castle

Treachery at Corfe Castle AD 978

Against the wishes of King Edgar’s widow, his eldest son Edward was crowned king after his death. Queen Elfrida had petitioned for her own six-year-old son, Ethelred, to be crowned king but in this she failed. Elfrida inherited Corfe Castle where she lived with her young son and spent her time scheming and plotting the downfall of her step-son.

On March the 18th AD 978 King Edward died – killed by one of his step-mother’s servants, as she offered him a kiss and a goblet of wine.

Edward was fifteen when he became king, but for all his youth he was popular and respected by his subjects. He was eighteen when he came to the Isle of Purbeck to hunt in the royal chase; when he became separated from his party he decided to drop-in on his half-brother at Corfe Castle.  While he waited at the castle gate to be admitted a message was sent up to Elfrida who, we must assume, immediately seized the opportunity to rid herself of the obstruction to her son becoming king.

Elfrida came down the steep slope from the Keep to what is now known as Martyr’s Gate to greet Edward and invite him into the castle. Sensing he was in danger Edward declined her invitation saying he only wished to greet his brother and then be on his way. A servant arrived at the gate with a goblet of wine and as Edward raised it to his lips with his right hand the servant grabbed his left arm, twisted it behind him and stabbed him in the back.  Some versions of the story suggest that Elfrida herself stabbed Edward but it seems more likely that she distracted him with the offer of a kiss as he was raising the goblet to drink, giving the servant every opportunity to stab the king.

Edward immediately pressed his spurs to his horse, cleared the gate and galloped-off; he had been severely wounded. He fainted from loss of blood, fell from his horse and was dragged by the stirrup down the steep hill to the brook at the bottom, where the horse came to a halt.

Running after him, Elfrida’s servants found his lifeless body badly mutilated as a result of being dragged over the rough stony ground. On Elfrida’s instruction the king’s body was concealed in a well; it wasn’t found until the following year when it was buried at the church of St. Mary in Wareham. Three years later the king’s body was removed to Shaftesbury and with great pomp and ceremony was buried in the Abbey.

The young king was canonised by the Pope as Edward the Martyr. The Church at Corfe Castle, which was founded by St. Aldhelm, was later dedicated to Edward and the days of his murder and the two internments: February 18th and June 20th were ordained to be kept sacred to his memory. According to some accounts Queen Elfrida went to a nunnery in Bere Regis where she became Abbess. Elfrida’s son did become king but King Ethelred the Unready ruled over a period of conflict with the Danes, who repeatedly overran the country. He was the father of two later kings: Edmund Ironside and Edward the Confessor.

The story of the events at Corfe Castle on March 18th AD 978 is confirmed by the examination of King Edward’s bones after they were discovered during excavations at Shaftesbury Abbey. On the left side both leg and arm were broken in two places and the neck, right arm, hip and leg were fractured, these injuries being consistent with the assault on Edward, his escape, fall from the saddle, and being dragged some distance by his horse.

John Calcraft: Father of a Rempstone Dynasty

The ancestry of John Calcraft of Rempstone Hall, like that of many other Dorset families, did not have its roots in the county with which they are most associated, but in another. Calcraft was born on 14th August 1726 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, son of another John Calcraft who was a lawyer, and a woman called Christian Bursbie. At least, that is the genealogy according to the penned inscriptions in three family Bibles.

But official records tell a rather different story. It is now more likely that John Calcraft was an illegitimate son of the famous Whig parliamentarian Sir Henry Fox by Christian, who also appears to have been the mother of John’s Brother Thomas. For it has been noted that the name Christian occurs more than once in both of these Lincolnshire families; added to that there is a marked resemblance between John and Henry Fox that can be seen in portraits handing at Rempstone Hall in Purbeck.

There are no surviving records about the younger John’s education, but by the age of 18 he had meteorically risen to the position of Deputy Paymaster to the army in Scotland. At 19 he had been entrusted with considerable responsibilities. This entailed commanding and escorting consignments of money from Newcastle to Edinburgh – in winter, often through deep snow. Furthermore, Calcraft was appointed Clerk of the War Office towards the end of 1746, and was to effectively act as Fox’s private secretary. By 1749 the latter was securing army agencies for him and for several years was even recommending him as “a dear relative.”

In March 1753 Fox promoted Calcraft to Deputy Commissary General at 23 shilling a day. One of Calcraft’s friends was General Edward Braddock, who the British had charged with expelling the French from the American colonies in 1754. Braddock however, was killed in action in Quebec soon after, but not before he had made a will in favour of John Calcraft, leaving his table silverware to him. Calcraft was also well acquainted with many of the military leaders of his day, including the Duke of Cumberland and General Wolfe.

Another friend was a cavalry hero, John, Marquis of Granby, who in collaboration with Fox and Calcraft is known to have shared as mistresses two leading stage actresses of the day, Georgina Bellamy and Elizabeth Bride. By 1753 Calcraft had moved in with Georgiana in London, and was amassing a fortune in his work as banker and contractor to the forces. Besides his residence in Parliament Street he acquired a property on Sackville Street and also Ingress Abbey. His relationship with Georgiana seemed to be founded on a lasting basis for several years, but was eventually fated to end when Calcraft was distracted by an attraction to Elizabeth Bride, leaving Georgiana in distress and saddled with many debts. Georgiana had kept house for John from about 1752 to 1761. Calcraft then lived with Elizabeth from 1764 until his death.

Calcraft’s children by Elizabeth were Katherine, born at Parliament Street in 1764; Granby at Ingress Abbey in 1766; Richard at Sackville Street, 1770 and William at Ingress Abbey in 1771. His heir was John, born at Ingress on 16th October 1765, though it is not certain that Elizabeth was his mother. However, since all five children were left to her guardianship after their father’s death, it is thought that John, too, must have been Elizabeth’s son. From his will Elizabeth inherited from Calcraft £3000 and an annuity of £1000 for life.

In 1757 Calcraft acquired the sprawling eleven square mile estate and manor of Rempstone in Purbeck and the manor of Wareham ten years later from Thomas Erle Drax; the same year he bought from John and George Pitt and John Bankes all the remaining Wareham land.

In 1763 Fox, who had gained a reputation for affluence and corruption, was deserted in his cause by Calcraft, in favour of an alliance with William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. Calcraft stood as MP for Calne, Wiltshire from 1766-68, and for Rochester from 1768 to 1772. He also had his younger brother Thomas elected for Poole in 1762 and 1768. Ideologically, he stood for liberty of the people and for Parliamentary reform but only one speech of John has been recorded: during a debate on the Liberty of the Press Bill on December 2nd 1770. In the hope of persuading voters to return the men he favoured to Parliament, Calcraft used his great wealth to buy up boroughs and other property such as Ingress Abbey.

Not long before he died, Calcraft had been the subject of several satirical cartoons and malicious attacks mainly instigated by Fox and Georgiana Bellamy. He was further lampooned by his detractors under the derisory label of “Crafterio.” It is recorded that in appearance Calcraft was a rather tall man with a ruddy complexion, handsome, of easy address and facility of speech that recommended him to others.

John Calcraft died on August 23rd 1772 at the age of only 46. He had not lived long enough to warrant the title of Earl of Osmonde.

Irene Stockley of Corfe Castle

What’s My Line?

Many of us remember the television show ‘What’s My Line.’ Imported from America, it aired in the UK from 1951 to 1964 and over the years it was hosted by several show biz personalities and who can forget some of the regular panellists on the show: Gilbert Harding; Isobel Barnett; Barbara Kelly and Bob Monkhouse. For much of the time the chairman was Eamon Andrews. The panellists had to guess the contestants occupation but only questions that could be answered with a yes or a no were allowed.

On the 30th of May 1954 a lady from Corfe Castle, Mrs Irene Stockley, appeared on the show and beat the panellists, who were stumped by her occupation: she delivered coal!  She came away with a certificate signed by all the celebrities on the show. It seems her name was put forward by one of her customers. Family members including her husband were in the audience to witness her triumph and to hear the then chairman Canadian Ron Rendell, admit to not knowing what Corfe meant but he did promise to visit the town.

Mrs. Stockley’s husband had been in poor health for several years and showing true Dorset spirit she took over the task of weighing up the bags of coal and helping load the lorries.
The Stockley family has been in Corfe Castle for centuries and we have often been asked to find information about them and we thought this little snippet would be of interest. There is a photo in the gallery of Mrs. Stockley at work.

Irene Stockley of Corfe Castle

In 1954 Irene Stockley of Corfe Castle, pictured here, appeared on the TV show ‘What’s My Line.’ The celebrity panel failed to guess her occupation – she delivered coal!

In 1954 Irene Stockley of Corfe Castle, pictured here, appeared on the TV show ‘What’s My Line.’ The celebrity panel failed to guess her occupation – she delivered coal!

Corfe Castle – its Chequered History of Owners and Occupiers

The ruins of Corfe Castle rise majestically above the town that shares its name. Here is a structure that in its day was one of the most impregnable fortresses in the kingdom: so strong, the ascent so steep, and the walls so massive it was virtually unassailable and commanded the area in the south-east of Dorset that we call the Isle of Purbeck.

These one hundred or so square miles bounded in the north by the River Frome and Poole Harbour, the waters of the English Channel making land fall on the east and south; on the west is Luckford Lake and the parish of East Lulworth. From the head of Luckford Lake south to the English Channel, a distance of about two miles, there is no water boundary so the area might more accurately be called the Purbeck Peninsular.

Straddling east to west across the middle of the island are the Purbeck Hills.The most easterly is known locally as Ballard Down, and then going west to Nine Barrow Down, Challow Hill, Knowle Hill and Purbeck Hill, effectively dividing Purbeck into two roughly equal parts. Between Challow and Knowle Hills is a gap filled by a steep rocky mount upon which sits Corfe Castle. Corfe is Anglo Saxon for gap and in Saxon times it was known as Corfe Gate. The Danes arrived in the area in 876 A.D. destroying the nearby town of Wareham only to be beaten back to the sea the following year by Alfred’s warriors. Their escape in over a hundred boats was thwarted by Alfred’s ships and bad weather; all of the Danes perished in the waters off Swanage.

During the next century the castle was enlarged by King Edgar who resided here and it was Edgar who was most likely responsible for building the central Keep. King Edgar died aged only thirty-three; his widow Elfrida inherited the castle and it is here she plotted the murder of her stepson, Edward the Martyr, clearing the way for her own son Ethelred to become King.

Known as Ethelred the Unready he, by his procrastination, allowed the Danes to over run and plunder much of the southern coast of England including Dorset, but they could not take Corfe Castle. Ethelred had granted the Danes rights over the Kingdom while at the same time plotting to massacre them, his plans exacerbated when hordes more arrived. He fled the country to return later; his reign ended in 1007 and his dynasty was brought to a close by the Norman invasion of 1066.

After the Norman’s took control Corfe Castle followed the fortunes of the Crown and was held as a royal property on behalf of the Conqueror and his descendants and work on the castle proper began.

During the Civil War between Stephen and the Empress Maude (Matilda) Corfe Castle was held by the dependants of Maude. It held out gallantly and defied all Stephen’s efforts to take it. At the close of the war in 1153, the Castle submitted to the authority of the de facto ruler Stephen, but unlike many other strongholds it was not dismantled and on the death of Stephen, which occurred in the following year, the defenders proudly welcomed Henry II as their Sovereign (Henry was Matilda’s son).  The castle was a Royal possession during the reign of Richard I.

It is said that Corfe Castle was King John’s favourite residence. He deposited his treasure and regalia here, probably because of the security it provided and he further increased its defences.  It also served as his State prison. When the King was away from the castle his Constable, Peter de Mauley, was in charge.

Following John ‘s death de Mauley loyally delivered the castle with its treasures and military supplies to the Earl of Pembroke who was Lord Protector of the Kingdom during the infancy of King Henry III. Amongst the regalia handed over by de Mauley was the crown which had been worn by the Anglo Saxon kings and it was used at the coronation of the young Prince Henry.

Pembroke died while Henry was still a child but before his death he released King John’s prisoners including those held at Corfe. Amongst the prisoners released from Corfe Castle were Marjory and Isabel, daughters of the Scotch King William. But for another prisoner – Eleanor, known as “The Damsel of Brittany”, the outcome was not so good; she was incarcerated at Bristol where she spent the next forty years until her death.

Nine years after Pembroke’s death Peter de Mauley forcibly seized the castle for Simon de Montfort who held it as security for King Henry III’s future good conduct. During that time and the reign of the ill-fated Edward II the castle was greatly improved and strengthened.

It was Richard II who granted the Manor and Castle of Corfe to Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent and Alicia his wife. After their deaths Henry IV assigned the castle to John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, who with his heirs held it during the Wars of the Roses when the castle remained free from attack. But at the close of the reign of Henry VI and after the Battle of Tewksbury on 4th May 1471 the then owner, Henry Duke of Somerset, along with other prisoners was executed in the market square of the Gloucestershire town.

Somerset’s estates including the Castle and Manor of Corfe were granted by Edward IV to his brother George, Duke of Clarence, who was later charged with high treason by Parliament in January 1478 and drowned in a butt of malmsey on the 18th of February; the castle and manor then reverted to the Crown.

When Henry VII became King he granted Corfe to his mother, Margaret, Countess of Richmond, daughter of the Duke of Somerset, whose tragic end at Tewkesbury we have referred to. She survived her son by only one year and on her death in the first year of the reign of Henry VIII the castle again reverted to the Crown.

In the twenty-seventh year of his reign Henry VIII granted the Castle and Manor of Corfe, together with the Island of Purbeck, to his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, but on the death of this nobleman thefollowing year, the estate again reverted to the Crown and remained a royal possession until Henry VIII’s death, when it was annexed as his private property by Seymour, Earl of Hertford and Duke of Somerset, the guardian and protector of the youthful King Edward VI. On the fall of that powerful noble in 1553, it once more became a Royal castle.

And that is how the situation remained until the fourteenth year of Elizabeth’s reign when all rights over the Manor and the Castle as well as the Isle of Purbeck were granted to Sir Christopher Hatton, Knight. Sir Christopher spent a small fortune restoring and improving the castle making it a prestigious home with fine furnishings, tapestries and silks. When the Armada was threatening, the castle’s defences were again strengthened.

Sir Christopher died in 1591, just four years after his appointment as Lord High Chancellor. He was single and all his possessions, including Corfe Castle, passed to his nephew Sir William Newport, who assumed the name Hatton by royal licence on succeeding his uncle. When he died in 1597 his second wife Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Cecil, Earl of Exeter, inherited all his possessions.

Lady Elizabeth Hatton, after turning down advances from Francis Bacon, married  Sir Edward Coke five months after the death of his first wife; it was a complicated relationship but what interests us is that on the death of Sir Edward Coke in September 1634 Lady Elizabeth Hatton (she refused to use her husband’s name) sold Corfe Castle and all her possessions in Purbeck to the Attorney General of the day, Sir John Bankes.

Sir John Bankes established his family in the castle and acquired other land and property in Dorset. Lady Bankes resided in the castle while her husband was away attending the king. She was a woman of great courage and, anticipating the storm that was to break around her, she prudently put the castle’s defences on a state of alert, stocking up with food and military supplies. She heroically held the castle for thirteen weeks when attacked by the Roundheads.

When Sir John Bankes returned to Corfe Castle he found that thanks to the heroism of his wife and family the castle was safe and his property preserved. The same could not be said for the town, which was destroyed, the inhabitants having to retreat within the gates of the castle.

In January 1644 Sir John returned to his duties with the King. By mid summer the Royalists were losing the war: Weymouth and Wareham had fallen to the Parliamentarians and Corfe Castle remained the only stronghold between Exeter and London still holding out for the King. Lady Bankes received news of her husband’s death on the 28th of December 1644. Throughout the winter of 1644 and 1645 the Bankes family, barricaded inside the castle, survived all manner of assaults. Still Corfe Castle held out for the King.

Late in 1645 orders were issued for more determined action to be taken to secure Corfe Castle. For this purpose two regiments were placed at the disposal of Colonel Bingham, Governor of Poole, and further reinforcements were despatched to help during December. Following an act of betrayal by someone in the castle it was finally captured by the Parliamentarians.

Lady Bankes surrendered the Castle on the 27th of February 1646 and on the 5th of March the House of Commons voted to demolish the castle and this was done with some vigour but only after it had been plundered. Carried away were rich tapestries and furniture from the days of Sir Christopher Hatton as well as goods belonging to Lady Bankes and her family.

Today the National Trust protects what remains of the Castle and archaeological excavations are promoted to reveal more of the castle’s past. Corfe Castle is part of the huge Kingston Lacy estate left to The National Trust in 1981 by Ralph Bankes, a direct descendant of Sir John Bankes.

This was home to Kings, a place where a King was murdered, intrigues were plotted, prisoners of state were held, and for a while it was the stately home of wealthy and important families. It is much more than a pile of stone and rubble, the ruined Keep towers over the town a constant reminder of its place in the history of the Kingdom.

Robert White (1775-1807)

On the night of the 18th of November 1806, five men assembled in a house at Corfe Castle where they blackened-up their faces and hands, disguised their clothes and armed themselves with bludgeons and a gun. At about one o’clock in the morning they broke into the home of 79 year-old Robert Nineham, a yeoman farmer and his son, and burst into their bedrooms and also the maid’s room, threatening them all with “instant death” if they did not lie still. They then proceeded to break open a bureau and several boxes and stole one hundred guineas in gold, bank notes to a value of seventeen pounds, a watch and a gun.

The house where they met was the home of Robert White and his wife Sarah and their children. Three of the other men lodged with White and were strangers to Purbeck. All the men worked on the railway being laid on a route from the clay pits to the sea.

The men were quickly apprehended and much of what was stolen was found still in their possession. Later they were brought before Sir T.M. Sutton a Judge sitting at Dorchester. The charge against them: “burglariously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Robert Nineham, of Hurpson in the Isle of Purbeck.” After a trial lasting five hours all five were convicted of the crime.

Robert White was the first son of William and Grace (nee Hinton) White who married at Corfe Castle on the 15th of February 1774. Robert was baptised on 17th of December 1775 and his siblings were: George (1777 who died in 1779); Martha (1779); George (1782); Mary (1784 who survived for only four months); Sarah (1785); Betty (1788); Mary (1790); John (1793) and Charles (1796). William White was buried on 13th of July 1820 at Corfe Castle aged 67 years surviving his wife; Grace, by three years; she was buried on 3rd of June 1817 and was also aged 67 years.

Robert married Sarah Keats on the 28th of August 1798 and their first child, a daughter (Jane), arrived four months later and was baptised on 23rd of December 1798. Their second child, another daughter named Mary Ann, was baptised on the 17th of August 1800, her short life ended in 1811. The first son, John, was baptised on 30th of September 1801 and another daughter, Harriet, was baptised on the 5th of August1802 but she died fifteen months later. Their younger boy, George, was baptised 26th of October 1804.

From this distance it is impossible to tell who the ring-leader was and if our Dorset son was led astray by visitors from other parts. It seems inconceivable though that his wife would not have known the errand he was on that night; but did she encourage him or attempt to dissuade him. He was bringing in a wage supplemented by whatever the three strangers paid him for lodging so it is unlikely the family was on the bread-line. If greed was the motivation he and his family paid a high price for his involvement in this venture.

According to reports at the time the Judge, in passing sentence of death on the men, did so “in the most impressive manner”. He pointed out to the men the great enormity of their crime and that it was all the more serious because of the aggravated circumstances they used.

Judge Sutton said “that in the interests of public justice and the security of private property he could not give them the least hope of mercy” and he entreated them to “employ the short time allotted them in this world by the most sincere penitence, in endeavouring to obtain pardon from that Almighty Being, in whose unfathomable wisdom mercy can be reconciled with justice”.  At the time it was noted that the behaviour of the prisoners “during the time of their condemnation” was very penitent and it was said they acknowledged the justice of their sentence. As it happened two of the men, George Walker and Thomas Wright were “respited a few days before the execution”, which we take to mean they were granted a “stay of execution”.

Robert White, John Alexander (30) “of a good family and is unmarried” as also was Thomas Gibbons (27) were taken from their cells at about one o’clock to the place of execution being the New Drop, on the ledge of the castle at Dorchester, where on Saturday, March 28th, 1807 they were “launched into eternity”. They were the last men to be hanged in Dorset for house-breaking.

This story ends on a poignant note. Sometime in November of 1806 Robert White and his wife Sarah conceived another child who was born about five months after her father’s execution. She was named Caroline and baptised on the 23rd of August 1807.  Her life was short, as she died in March 1820.

Corfe Castle

The Fox Inn at Corfe Castle

The Fox Inn at Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle – The Fox Inn

The Fox Inn at Corfe Castle

The Fox Inn at Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle viewed from the town

Corfe Castle viewed from the town

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle viewd from Slepe near Arne.

Corfe Castle viewed from Slepe near Arne.