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.
Photo courtesy of Robin Utracik.
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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Wonderful history lesson Leighton, the old prisons are the same in Australia and the jailors extremely cruel. That’s not a castle I’ve been to. Enjoy your adventures in England
Thank you Alison, I’m lucky to have an uncle that lives just outside Lancaster. Even in a country that is packed with incredible historic castles this one stands out. Enjoy your UK adventures too!
How did you go with Eunice, nearly got blown away down in Devon.
We got off lightly with Eunice. On Friday we awoke to winds literally ‘attacking’ our house, so we cancelled our morning’s plans. Later, when the winds had died down, we ventured out to the V&A Museum for some safe, indoor exploring. Take care down there, it’s still a bit blustery going into tomorrow.
No we haven’t been there either. It’s always so interesting to uncover the evolving history of an ancient building, and this one certainly has history. You mention workhouses and paupers: the truth behind workhouses is a hidden horror of recent history which I’ve been meaning to post about for ages. This absorbing history of Lancaster Castle is a great reminder of stories hidden within walls….if only walls could speak, as my Nan used to say….
The history is indeed immense. This article captures just an angle of it due to the somewhat limited access of the tour and it’s no photography rules. I think my Nan uttered the same old saying as yours. Thanks for reading.
Whoever said those days were a kinder, gentler time obviously never spent time to research what went on. Like today, it seems it was about power, might and control over the people. I love visiting prisons, to reaffirm why I never want to be incarcerated in one. Thanks for sharing Leighton. Happy Sunday. Allan
Yeah, life in Lancaster Prison sounded like… not my cup of tea shall we say. What privileged times we live in where we can go and visit such a place… have a bit of a chuckle about the old days… and then go grab a latte. Thanks for reading Allan.
This is a place I could spend a week at. What an expansive collection of history and a look into the psyches of the day. Being in prison wasn’t bad enough we have to hire people to make the food worse and crank a meaningless box. Hard to place that alongside the Shire Hall. So glad you took us there but the prisoner photo just isn’t you.
Hey Memo, glad you liked this rather grim slab of English history. It’s also good to know that, despite my best efforts, it seems impossible for me to look even slightly convincing as a convict.
Sometimes I think I’d like to travel back to medieval times, but I’m sure I’d end up being one of those witches or having to do 1800 turns at the crank. Thanks for the tour and bit of history Leighton, Maggie
Ha, somehow I also fear I wouldn’t fare all that well in those times. Glad you enjoyed this virtual visit to Lancaster Castle Maggie.
Great post! And the prison photo LOL!
Thanks for reading and commenting Tanja. So much history within the complex and a sobering look at just how grim prison life used to be in England.
you’re welcome:) indeed
There is so much history behind these castles (and probably a few secrets as well). Can you imagine just giving your castle away to somebody else … I’m not so sure I would be that generous! Oh, and once again, I’m impressed by that 19th century painting – so much detail. And I was wondering … did you choose your own prison number?
Hey Corna, thanks for swinging by. I didn’t get my own number unfortunately ha ha, it was a one size fits all.
Wonderful recap of this cool castle! The picture of you with the prison sign made me chuckle, and I just don’t understand why some people (your tour guide) take their jobs so seriously.
Thanks Lyssy! It was the one natural chance to get a prison selfie so I grabbed it. The tour guide wasn’t my cup of tea but hey, it’s all subjective I guess.
I remember visiting Lancaster Castle with my parents when I was still at school and then you could peer over the castle wall into the prison yard to see the prisoners in the exercise yard! A great reminder Leighton of my visit.
How fascinating to have visited the castle back when it was still a working prison! Thanks for taking the time to read Marion while you are away in Nuremberg. Enjoy your trip!
Lancaster Castle certainly has a ton of history surrounding it! From its royal past to more-recent prison history, it’s incredible how much it has gone through throughout the centuries. Shire Hall looks an absolute delight, and your photo with the prison board is cheeky and great touristy material. Interestingly, there’s a city called Lancaster in Los Angeles County, although it’s not known for being the best place out there…all the same, it’s fascinating to hear that many places in England have inspired namesakes in the US!
Glad you enjoyed Lancaster Castle’s murky history Rebecca. I would imagine there are loads of Lancasters across the U.S., hopefully some of then have a better rep than the one you mentioned.
This was a great site we saw. Thanks for sharing this info, such an historic site. Makes me want to return there.
Thanks for stopping by Anita!
Lancaster Castle certainly has an interesting and diverse history which you have presented in an entertaining way. Those poor witches; they never had a chance.
You’re right about the witches, once charged it was an impossible situation for all concerned. Glad you enjoyed this look at Lancaster and its famous castle.
I had no idea that the Lancaster Castle had so much interesting history. Even though it’s changed hands many times over the years, I’m glad that it’s been preserved and is open to the public to learn more about its past and present. P.S. That’s a great picture of you in the prison!
Thanks for grappling with this long and unsavoury chunk of English history! It’s been fun writing up my Lancaster adventures, plenty more to come. 🙂
Aw Lancaster – this is where my parents met as they went to Uni there. I’ve actually never been, but really need to go and see it for myself. Thanks for the nudge 🙂
How cool that you have such a personal connection to Lancaster. I’m sure you’ll appreciate it all the more when you eventually get there. Hope you enjoy the rest of my Lancaster series!
What a fascinating history of this castle! I was surprised at the number of people condemned during the witch trials because I would have guessed it was in the hundreds like the witch trials in Salem around the same time. And the community so to speak in the debtor prison- I didn’t realize that there would be a hierarchy there. But the best part is that the queen is the current owning duke of the castle. Great read all around 🙂
Yup The Queen has many names, but I must admit to not knowing she was also The Duke of Lancaster before my visit to the castle!
Wow what a captivating historic landmark to explore and photograph Leighton, the castle looks very well preserved 🤗 I’m glad to hear you had a great day out, well apart from the strict tour guide 🤣 Thanks for sharing and have a good day ☺️ Aiva.
Thanks for reading Aiva, Lancaster is packed with history. Hope you enjoy the rest of the series!
Very interesting read. I visited Lancaster for the first time last year and it’s a nice castle with a lot of history, you covered plenty that I didn’t know about though. Looking forward to catching more in your Lancaster series 🙂
Thanks Jason, appreciate that. As you’ll know the castle is Lancaster’s main draw, but I think I much preferred it’s other stuff in terms of the overall visitor experience. I’m sure you’ll recognize many of the places I write about.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m glad I saw the castle but I enjoyed other parts of the town too. That said, like yourself I was mostly there to meet up with a friend for the weekend.
I am glad you were released in time to tell this story!
Ha yes, perhaps I will publish a new short story series covering my Lancaster Prison years 😉
Wow!! What a very fascinating history and castles! Wish I could travel in this place too!
Thanks Abegail, glad you enjoyed the article. Lancaster is an historic city and well worth the visit. Hope you enjoy the other reports from this series.
The castle histories sound a bit like medieval soap operas! The prison stories are bone-chilling. I was afraid the Crank was a torture device.
Ha, I would consider watching a trashy 17th century English soap opera set in Lancaster Castle. Yeah the crank was just tedious rather than torturous.
I love anything to do with castles, and thanks for the extensive background and history of it. Its certainly one I must visit when I come over.
Yeah, as far as the history goes, Lancaster has a heavyweight British castle. Hope you get a chance to visit one day, thanks for reading!
What a gorgeous destination that holds so much history. I will definitely be adding this to the bucket list!
So glad you liked it, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.
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