Lancaster Castle, England.
It was a fine sunny day in the English city of Lancaster as Uncle D and I made our leisurely way up Castle Hill. It felt a bit strange (in a good way) to be out and about exploring with D. After all, we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, a time during which I had changed immeasurably. Or at least that’s how it felt to me. Moreover, it was curious to see the changes that had set in with Uncle D. Particularly the northern twang holding court over the remains of his London accent.
It’s a handsome approach to Lancaster Castle. A week earlier I’d spent an afternoon exploring my very first English fortress with a visit to Colchester Castle. That had really whet my appetite for more, hence I’d been excitedly reading up on Lancaster’s long and often grisly history.
Disappointingly, historians can’t be sure precisely when the castle was founded. Basically, there are no solid documents detailing the affair. However, the general consensus is that it cropped up sometime in the 11th century, built by a wealthy aristocrat by the name of Roger the Poitevin.
Unfortunately, ol’ Roger got himself into bother when he completely ballsed up an attempted rebellion against King Henry I. Thus he had to flee England, tail between his legs, while the castle landed neatly into the hands of the king.
From there the castle changed hands a dizzying number of times. You know how kings love granting castles they don’t really need to friends and family. First Henry gave it to his nephew, Stephen of Blois. Next Stephen handed it over to David I of Scotland. A political move to secure his own power at a time of war and turmoil in Britain.
Subsequent landlords included Richard the Lionheart and his devilish brother Prince John, whom he gave the castle to in order to win his loyalty. Oops, didn’t really work. At the end of the 13th century King Henry IV rolled up and expanded the castle greatly, including the addition of the gatehouse.
Henry also passed a royal charter, ensuring the castle would always remain in the possession of the monarchy under the title of The Duke of Lancaster. So yes, the current “duke” is none other than our Queen, Elizabeth II.
The castle certainly saw its fair share of aggression over the centuries. Take The Scots, for example, who caused heavy damage with attacks in 1322 and 1389. Later, a furious army of Royalists smashed down the outer defences during The English Civil War.
Adventures in England.
Naturally I picked up plenty more history at the castle itself. Visits unfold via guided tours, which start daily at 10:30, 12:00, 14:00 and 15:30. Weirdly, you can’t pre-book. Rather, you simply show up at the time and, assuming it’s not too busy, you can join the next tour. We entered the castle through the elegant John O’ Gaunt Gate, named after John of Gaunt, son of King Edward III, father of King Henry IV.
I’m sure Uncle D and I will never forget our guide that day. He was a real stickler for the rules and regulations, dispensing with any form of warm welcome so that he could list all the things we weren’t allowed to do. No photos in this room, no touching anything. Furthermore, there were various parts of the castle off limits because of restoration work. Mm, as first impressions go, I wasn’t exactly charmed.
Nevertheless, he proved highly knowledgeable. Leading us into Chapel Courtyard, our guide walked us through those early centuries, with stories abound on Lancaster’s many and varied personalities.
A great deal of the tour focused on the castle’s role as Great Britain’s oldest working prison. In fact, its first inmates arrived in about 1200 and put under the care of a gaoler called Warren. According to Mr. Guide, he wasn’t a very nice man. And that’s putting it lightly.
Eventually, a court sprang up within the castle to handle the trials of those imprisoned there. The most famous of these was that of The Pendle Witches in 1612. This was one of the most infamous witch trials in English history. A case that saw nine unfortunate women and two men found guilty of murder by use of witchcraft. All ten were executed by hanging.
They sure did love imprisoning and executing people in Lancaster. So much so that by the end of the 18th century the famed architect Thomas Harrison designed an ambitious new oak panelled Crown Court. It is a wondrous room to pass through. But as the court still sits to this day, you can’t take photos. Similarly, at the back of the court, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the sweeping Shire Hall.
Completed in 1802 by the visionary architect Joseph Gandy, this magnificent ten-sided semicircular room is probably worth the entrance ticket alone. Featuring gothic pillars and a stunning collection of heraldry, this is where the trial of Edward Gibbon Wakefield played out in 1826.
Wakefield was a wealthy diplomat when he was charged with forcing a 15 year old heiress, Ellen Turner, into marriage. The court found Wakefield guilty and he consequently spent three years in prison. Despite this fall from grace, he later went on to become a key figure in the establishment of the South Australia and New Zealand colonies.
Before leaving Shire Hall, the guide gave us a few minutes to admire the incredible heraldry on display. Again I was left ruing the strict no photography rule, as they have over 600 shields bearing the arms of English sovereigns, castle constables and High Sheriffs spanning 1189 to 2000.
You can find a section of these heralds on the castle’s official website. The one below, dating back to 1162, belongs to Sir Bertram de Bulmer of Brancepeth, the High Sheriff of Lancaster.
Back outside and we found ourselves in a courtyard once used as the yard of the The Debtors Prison. From the 17th century to the mid 1800s this is where people were held due to their inability to pay debts. Amusingly, castle authorities paid little supervision to the debtors, leaving them as a kind of self-governing society.
Wealthy debtors with hidden funds and strong family connections purchased better rooms, while the penniless would work as their servants to earn money. The community organised their own entertainment by putting on plays and concerts. They even had access to a bowling green.
No wonder the Debtors Prison became the talk of the town, with locals cheekily dubbing it The Hansbrow’s Hotel. Finally, the Bankruptcy Act of 1861 ended this lunacy, greatly reducing the number of residents.
Finally, we got to poke around the small prison museum housed within one of the old penitentiary wings. Within the various former cells, there are modest displays focusing on different areas of prison life.
This mock pantry, pictured below, highlights how prison authorities used food as punishment throughout the 1800s. In short, prison staff made sure that meals were worse than that of Lancaster’s infamous workhouse for the poor. Indeed prison chefs went to great lengths to ensure their dishes looked and tasted as unappealing as possible.
In another section, I learned about Prison Work and a depressing machine known as The Crank. This especially unpopular work/punishment machine was little more than a wooden box with a handle on the side. Prisoners had to continually turn the handle around to reach set targets.
A well behaved prisoner may only have to do say 500 turns before breakfast. In contrast, naughty boys and girls could find themselves with about 1800 to do in an hour. A little counter on the side registered the number of turns, while guards could adjust the tension on the handle to make the work as easy or as difficult as they liked.
I couldn’t help but feel a slight chill run down my spine when I came upon The Condemned Cell. These rooms, kept for those scheduled for execution, were actually much nicer than average cells. For example, they were usually twice the size and in some cases featured a chess set, playing cards and a fireplace. Wardens were generally kinder to these poor souls too, and would even go as far to afford them cigarettes and beer.
In 1915 civilian prisoners found themselves relocated for a few years so that the prison could house German POWs. In the 1920s it became a training centre for Lancashire policemen, though by the mid 1950s it was back to being a regular prison.
In recent years the castle hosted a major drugs rehabilitation unit before closing its doors permanently in 2011. Kenneth Clarke, then British Justice Secretary, said that the prison was too outdated and had become increasingly expensive to maintain. And so 243 inmates found themselves on their way to new homes across the north of England. An understated end to a long and highly eventful chapter of English history.
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