FORTRESS OF FORTITUDE
Have you ever considered locking your brother in a castle? Well, you’re in good company, since King Henry I of England did precisely that. After defeating his brother Robert in the Battle of Tinchebray, the king proceeded to imprison his older sibling in the keep at Corfe Castle. Personally, I think Henry might have been on to something…
Corfe Castle as it stands today was built by William the Conqueror in the 1000’s. Towering majestically over the surrounding hills, its stones almost as grey as the overcast skies, the castle demands from me a sense of awe and humility as I enter through the Outer Gatehouse. The air is hazy and complemented by the smell of livestock, thanks to the numerous Soay sheep grazing these historic grounds. I sincerely hope they paid their entrance fee…
Climbing up past the Fourth Tower, I am suddenly captivated by the soulful lament of what sounds like Celtic music, its haunting melody emanating from a well-hidden speaker. I wonder if Sir John Bankes, who came to own the fortress in 1635, would have listened to similar performances after a hard day’s hunting.
Then again, Sir John may not have spent much time at Corfe, since the 1600’s bore witness to the Civil War, which tore through the country in a wave of blood and pillaging.
With Sir John Bankes away fighting for the Royalists, the castle was left under the command of his wife, Lady Mary Bankes.
Standing upon the soft grass of the stronghold’s windswept Inner Ward, I watch as a decidedly vocal steam train chug-chugs along a distant railway. It is strange to think that when Lady Bankes stood atop the castle walls, her daughters at her side, it would have been to hurl stones and hot coals at the attacking Parliamentarians, not to enjoy the pleasantries of the English countryside.
As I meander through the South West Gatehouse, I wonder what it must have been like for Lady Bankes, with her husband away at war, being left in charge of the fortress. Did she feel the weight of responsibility on her shoulders as she threaded her way down these same ancient stairs on which I now trod?
Did that formidable woman ever fear for the future, as she leaned against the flaky, moss-covered walls of the South Annex, staring out across a misty landscape as armies fought to control the very identity of her country?
Eventually, the Parliamentarians would emerge victorious and Corfe Castle – the last Royalist stronghold in Dorset – would fall.
However, the courage demonstrated by Lady Mary Bankes did not go unnoticed and the Parliamentarians presented her with the keys to Corfe Castle (albeit a now partly demolished one). These can now be seen at the Bankes’ family home of Kingston Lacy, a small but powerful tribute to the sieges, suffering and survival of the Bankes family.
As the hour grows ever later and the shadows ever longer, I make my way back down the hill, carried along by the scent and song of the river.
As much as I enjoyed visiting the castle, it is the story of Lady Mary Bankes that has inspired me the most. Defiantly resisting the storms of hatred and violence, I am convinced that Lady Mary Bankes was just as impressive and formidable as the castle she so valiantly defended.