Lancaster Castle is a medieval fortification in Lancaster, right at the heart of Lancashire. The early history of the site is unclear, but it is thought the castle may have been founded in the 11th century on the site of the remains of a Roman fort overlooking a crossing of the River Lune.
In 1164 the castle grounds, which altogether are known as the Honour of Lancaster, came under royal control. Invading Scots damaged the castle in 1322 and 1389 during attempted invasion attempts of England, when they progressed as far as Lancaster city. The castle was then relatively peaceful until it saw military action during the English Civil War.
Due to the threat of a Spanish invasion, the castle was strengthened in 1585 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. After 1570, Roman Catholic priests were declared to be guilty of high treason and subsequently taken to Lancaster Castle for trial. Fifteen Catholics were executed in Lancaster during this period as a result of their faith. The notorious Pendle witches trial took place at Lancaster Castle in 1612.
The castle was remodelled during the Georgian era, as it was decided that it would be more convenient to perform executions nearer the castle, with the spot chosen gradually becoming known as Hanging Corner. Lancaster has a reputation as the court that sentenced more people to death than any other in England. Between 1782 and 1865, roughly 260 people were hanged at Lancaster, with executions frequently being attended by thousands of people all cramming into the churchyard to catch the grizzly action.
Until 1835 Lancaster Castle was the only Assize Court in Lancashire, dealing with serious crime, and also covered growing industrial centres in the North West such as Manchester and Liverpool.
The castle was first used as a prison in 1196 although this aspect became more important during the English Civil War. It then acted in this capacity until its closure in the early years of the 21st century.
In 1776 the prison reformer John Howard visited Lancaster, noting that the conditions in the prison were pretty dire. Although it may be seen as a basic human right nowadays, his efforts to instigate reform meant that prisoners throughout the country were finally able to be separated by their sex and category of their crime. After this time, improvements were also made to the basic sanitation of Lancaster Castle. During the 18th century there had been more people died from fever in the prison than by hanging.
Continuing in its capacity as a prison, but with a more formal setting, the castle formally opened as HM Prison Lancaster in 1955, becoming a Category C prison for male inmates, as well as an attached Crown Court facility.
The majority of the castle buildings were leased to the Ministry of Justice until 2011 as Her Majesty’s Prison Lancaster. The Castle was then returned to the Duchy’s ownership, and is now open to the public seven days a week, undergoing a large-scale refurbishment over the next few years in order to allow access to more areas throughout the site.
Due to its role as a prison, Lancaster Castle is unusual in that it has a very full documentary record, enhances the importance of the site and providing ample opportunity for further research and analysis. Unlike many other fortifications of the same era, the fact that Lancaster’s castle has survived intact means that it is also a place of outstanding importance as both a monument and group of historic buildings.