|Lancaster, Lancashire, England|
Lancaster Castle as seen from the Ashton Memorial
|Coordinates||grid reference SD473619|
Lancaster Castle is a medieval castle in Lancaster in the English county of Lancashire. Its early history is unclear, but may have been founded in the 11th century on the site of a Roman fort overlooking a crossing of the River Lune. In 1164, the Honour of Lancaster, including the castle, came under royal control. In 1322 and 1389 the Scots invaded England, progressing as far as Lancaster and damaging the castle. It was not to see military action again until the English Civil War. The castle was first used as a prison in 1196 although this aspect became more important during the English Civil War. The castle buildings are owned by Lancashire County Council, which leases a major part of the structure to the Ministry of Justice who operate a crown court in part of the building. The site is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster.
In 79 AD, a Roman fort was built at Lancaster on a hill commanding a crossing over the River Lune. Little is known about Lancaster between the end of the Roman occupation of England in the early 5th century and the Norman Conquest in the late 11th century. The layout of the town was influenced by the Roman fort and the associated civilian settlement; the main road through the town was the route that led east from the fort. After the Norman Conquest in the second half of the 11th century, Lancaster was part of the Earldom of Northumbria; it was claimed by the kings of England and Scotland. In 1092, William II established a permanent border with Scotland further to the north by capturing Carlisle. It is generally thought that Lancaster Castle was founded in the 1090s on the site of the Roman fort in a strategic location. The castle is the oldest standing building in Lancaster and one of the most important. The history of the structure is uncertain. This is partly due to its former use as a prison, which has prevented extensive archaeological investigation.
As there are no contemporary documents recording the foundation of the castle, it is uncertain when and by whom it was started, but it is supposed that Roger de Poitou, the Norman lord in control of the Honour of Lancaster, was responsible. If it was Roger who began construction, the structure would have been built of timber, probably incorporating the earthworks of the Roman fort into its defences. The form of the original castle is unknown. There is no trace of a motte, so it may have been a ringwork – a circular defended enclosure.
Roger de Poitou fled England in 1102 after participating in a failed rebellion against the new king, Henry I. As a result, the king confiscated the Honour of Lancaster, which included the castle. The Honour changed hands several times. Henry granted it to Stephen of Blois, his nephew and later king. When the Anarchy erupted in 1139 – a civil war between Stephen and Empress Matilda for the English throne – the area was in turmoil. Stephen secured his northern frontier by allowing David I of Scotland to occupy the Honour in 1141. It is possible that David refortified the castle at this time. Due to a lack of investigation, there is little evidence to suggest additions to Lancaster in the mid-12th century. However, the uncertain construction date of the keep means that the King of Scotland could have been responsible for building it. The war came to an end in 1153. It was agreed that after Stephen died, he would be succeeded by Henry Plantagenet (later King Henry II), Matilda's son. Part of the agreement was that the King of Scotland would relinquish the Honour of Lancaster, which would be held by William, Stephen's son. After William's death in 1164, the Honour of Lancaster again came under royal control when Henry II gained possession of the Honour.
On the death of Henry II, the Honour passed to his son, Richard the Lionheart, who gave it to his brother, Prince John, in the hope of securing his loyalty. One of the functions castles served was as a prison; the first record of the castle being used in this way was in 1196, although the role became much more important after the English Civil War. Since the 12th century, the monarch appointed a sheriff to maintain the peace in Lancashire, a role usually filled by the duke and based at the castle. In the late 12th and early 13th century, many timber castles founded during the Norman Conquest were rebuilt in stone. Lancaster was one such castle. Building in stone was expensive and time consuming. For example, the late 12th-century stone keep at Peveril Castle in Derbyshire cost around £200, although something on a much larger scale, such as the vast Château Gaillard cost an estimated £15,000 to £20,000 and took several years to complete. For many castles, the expenditure is unknown. However, work on royal castles was often documented in Pipe Rolls, which began in 1155. The Rolls show that John spent over £630 on digging a ditch outside the south and west walls, and for the construction of "the King's lodgings". This probably referred to what is now known as Adrian's Tower. His successor, Henry III also spent large sums on Lancaster: £200 in 1243 and £250 in 1254 for work on the gatehouse and creating a stone curtain wall.
14th and 15th centuries
For the next 150 years, there is no record of building work, although accounts are incomplete. The Well Tower is thought to date from the early 14th century. If there was no work on the castle, this may indicate that it was not important enough to warrant expenditure beyond upkeep, as Lancaster was not near a border. Though the region was generally peaceful, the Scots invaded in 1322 and 1389, reaching Lancaster and damaging the castle. The holdings of the Duchy of Lancaster extended beyond the county, and Lancaster was not especially important. However, when Henry Duke of Lancaster ascended the throne as King Henry IV in 1399, he almost immediately began adding the monumental gatehouse. A further devastation of the town, as inflicted in 1389, would have been an embarrassment for the new king; his expensive programme of building at the castle helped protect against this. The gatehouse Henry replaced was probably a simple structure, no more than a passage between two towers, but once complete, it rivalled the keep as the strongest part of the castle. Records show that between 1402 and 1422, the year Henry IV died, over £2,500 was spent on building work. While most of this sum would have been spent on the gatehouse, some may have been used to make alterations to the top storey of the keep. Since then, the castle has remained in the ownership of the Crown.
After the Scottish invasion of 1389, Lancaster saw no further military action until the English Civil War. A survey in 1578 led to repairs to the keep costing £235. With the threat of a Spanish invasion, the castle was strengthened in 1585. After Elizabeth I was excommunicated in 1570, she retaliated by declaring Roman Catholic priests guilty of high treason. Any discovered in Lancashire were taken to Lancaster Castle for trial. The notorious Pendle witches trial took place at Lancaster Castle in 1612.
At the outbreak of the Civil War Lancaster was lightly garrisoned. A small Parliamentarian force captured the castle in February 1643, established a garrison and set about building earthworks around the approaches to the town. In response, the Royalists dispatched an army to retake Lancaster. The outer defences fell in March; a siege of the castle lasted just two days as Parliamentarian reinforcements were heading to Lancaster from Preston. The Royalists unsuccessfully tried to recapture Lancaster in April and again in June; the town and castle remained under Parliament's control until the end of the war. Orders were given that "all the walls about [Lancaster Castle] should be thrown down". The instruction was not followed, and in August 1648 the town withstood a siege from the Royalist Duke of Hamilton who led an army south from Scotland. King Charles was executed in January 1649 and shortly after Parliament again ordered the slighting of the castle, apart from buildings necessary for administration and use as a county gaol. The monarchy was restored in 1660, and Charles II visited Lancaster on 12 August and released all the prisoners held in the castle. Lancashire's High Sheriff and Justices of the Peace petitioned the king to repair the castle. The buildings were surveyed and repair work estimated at £1,957. After the slighting of the castle, including the demolition of the Well Tower, it was militarily redundant.
In 1554, martyr, George Marsh was held at the castle before standing trial at Chester Cathedral. Some Quakers, including in 1660 George Fox, were held at the castle for being politically dangerous. County gaols, such as this one, were intended to hold prisoners for short periods immediately before trial. The castle also served as a debtors' prison. In the 18th century it became more common for county gaols to hold longer-term prisoners; as a result they began to suffer from overcrowding.
Prison reformer John Howard (1726–1790) visited Lancaster in 1776 and noted the conditions in the prison. His efforts to instigate reform led to prisoners in gaols throughout the country being separated by gender and category of their crime. Improvements were also made to sanitation; in the 18th century more people died from gaol fever than by hanging. In the last two decades of the century, around £30,000 was spent rebuilding Lancaster's county gaol. Architect Thomas Harrison was commissioned to complete the work. Under his auspices, the Gaoler's House was built in 1788 in a Gothic style. Separate prisons were built for men and women. The Shire Hall and Crown Court were complete by 1798. Harrison had to divide his time between Lancaster and designing and building Chester Castle's Shire Hall and Courts; work at Lancaster slowed, partly because of dwindling funds due to war with France, and Harrison was released from the work as the Justices of the Peace felt it was taking too long. The artist Robert Freebairn was paid £500 to paint twelve watercolours of the work in 1800 to be presented to the Duke of Lancaster, King George III. In 1802 the castle received more funding and Joseph Gandy was commissioned to complete the interiors of the Shire Hall and Crown Court.
Those sentenced to death at the castle were usually taken to Lancaster Moor, near where the Ashton Memorial now stands, to be hanged. After the Georgian remodelling of the castle, it was decided it would be more convenient to perform executions nearer the castle. The spot chosen became known as Hanging Corner. Lancaster has a reputation as the court that sentenced more people to death than any other in England. This is partly because until 1835 Lancaster Castle was the only Assize Court in the entire county and covered rapidly growing industrial centres including Manchester and Liverpool. Between 1782 and 1865, around 265 people were hanged at Lancaster; the executions were frequently attended by thousands of people crowded into the churchyard. The Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 ended public executions, requiring that criminals be put to death in private, after which executions were performed inside the castle, at first from the Chapel steps, then later in a purpose-built execution shed, on the inside wall of Hanging Corner. This shed remained until the mid-20th Century, allegedly still containing the Gallows. The last execution at Lancaster took place in 1910. The prison closed in 1916 due to a national decrease in the number of prisoners, although for part of the First World War it held German prisoners of war.
Between 1931 and 1937 the castle was used by the county council to train police officers. Lancaster was once again designated for use as a prison from 1954 onwards when the council leased the castle to the Home Office. The last Assizes were held at Lancaster in 1972. As the court and prison were so close, and contained within the castle walls, Lancaster was used for high-security trials.
The castle formally opened as a prison in 1955, becoming a Category C prison for male inmates, and a crown court. In July 2010 the Ministry of Justice announced it was intending to close it, stating it was outdated and costly. The prison closure was confirmed for March 2011. However, the castle will continue to be leased by the Ministry of Justice until 2014, when the crown court is expected to be relocated. Closure of the prison will eventually allow the castle to be opened to visitors and tourists as a permanent attraction. In the meantime, while access to the keep, towers, battlements and dungeons is currently denied to visitors, the castle operates limited guided tours seven days a week. The Castle Courtyard opened to the public 7 days a week in May 2013 and now has a cafe, NICE @ The Castle and regular events now take place every month.
The keep is the oldest part of the castle. It is uncertain when the keep was built, although it probably dates to the 12th century when it was the residence for the lord of the castle – the owner or his representative. In the event of an assault, the keep formed the last line of defence. It is 20 metres (66 ft) high with four storeys; each floor divided into two rooms. The outer wall is 3 metres (9.8 ft) thick; along the exterior are buttresses at each corner and in the middle of each wall. Like most Norman keeps, Lancaster's would have been entered at first floor level. Construction in stone would have been a costly and time consuming exercise, taking around five years and costing about £1,000. The medieval hall stood south-west of the keep and was dismantled in 1796 during the remodelling of the castle. The late 18th- early 19th-century Shire Hall next to the keep is a large ten-side room.
In the south-west corner of the castle is a cylindrical tower named Adrian's Tower from the popular legend that it was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. The tower was, however, built in the early 13th century, probably during the reign of King John. Although the exterior was refaced in the 18th century, medieval stonework is visible in the interior.
The main entrance is through a 20 m (66 ft) high gatehouse built at the start of the 15th century. It was instigated by King Henry IV, although legend attributes the work to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster from 1362 to his death in 1399. Two semi-octagonal towers flank a passageway protected by a portcullis. Battlements project over the gatehouse, and would have allowed defenders to rain missiles on attackers immediately below. Above the gate is a niche which would originally have contained a statue of a saint, flanked by a coat of arms of the kings of England. Because of the legend, a statue of John of Gaunt was placed in the empty niche in the 19th century. Three storeys high, the apartment on the ground floor would probably have been used by the Constable of the castle; the two floors above had three rooms each. After the English Civil War, most of the gatehouse rooms were filled with debtors. The sophistication of the gatehouse prompted John Champness, who wrote Lancaster Castle: A Brief History, to remark "it is perhaps the finest of its date and type in England".
During the Roman era in the 4th century, the fort was surrounded by the "Wery Wall" which is believed to translate as the 'green wall'. The wall, described as being a 3m thick 'indestructible mass' with a defensive ditch, now only remains visible on the east slope of Castle Hill. In his book The Historic Lands of England', Sir Bernard Burke suggests the wall may have been visible in more places 100 years prior to his writing in 1849. However, it is unclear where the wall would have been. The remaining Wery Wall measures 4m x 3m x 3m and consists of only rubble due to the facing stones having been reused elsewhere.
- Shotter 2001, p. 3
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- White, Andrew (2001), "Continuity, Charter, Castle and County Town, 400–1500", A History of Lancaster, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 33–72, ISBN 0-7486-1466-4
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lancaster Castle.|
- Bibliography of works mentioning Lancaster Castle
- Lancaster Castle official site from Lancashire County Council
- Lancaster Castle official site from the Duchy of Lancaster