Pocket Britain

A Roman city with a reputation for tough justice

The word "Lancaster" translates as "Roman fort on the River Lune". This original structure eventually evolved into the foreboding castle that still stands in the centre of the city. Much of the local history focuses around this single building.
Despite its battlements and arrow slits, the castle has often been more concerned with keeping people in, rather than keeping people out. It has been in use as a dungeon or jail since at least 1196. There's also a courtroom, meaning that guilty parties didn't have to walk very far to reach their new cells.
Lancaster has a reputation for tough justice. One drastic example occurred in 1612. In a series of trials, eleven people were accused of murder via the evil powers of witchcraft. Ten of them were convicted. These proven witches each received the same sentence - they were hung from the neck until dead.
Throughout British history, Lancaster has given out more death sentences than anywhere except London. This earned it the nickname: "Hanging Town". The executions often took place outside the castle walls, before a sizeable crowd of cheering townsfolk.
Those days are long gone, but the building is still in use as a court and jail. For this reason many areas are closed to the public. However, some parts of the castle can be seen via a guided tour. Along the way, you'll learn that the hangings were only a part of its violent history. The fort has been involved in more than its fair share of battles and sieges. The most memorable was the 15th century's War of the Roses, when the House of Lancaster faced off against its rivals in York.
By the 19th century the conflicts were over, and life in the city had become a lot safer. Lancaster quickly took advantage of the peace by transforming itself into a prosperous port. It managed to achieve this without actually being on the coast! The ships arrived via the River Lune, which was deep enough to admit them. The big business was trade, with huge cargoes of tobacco, timber and coffee regularly changing hands. Shipbuilders and fishermen too found themselves a lot richer than they used to be. Sadly, Lancaster was also an important part of Britain's slave trade.
The city used its new-found wealth to erect a series of impressive new buildings. There was the Town Hall, which decided local matters, and the Custom House, which handled business. Both have impressive Georgian exteriors, lined with tall stone pillars. The Town Hall now houses the City Museum. It displays peices from all the different time periods of Lancaster's history, from the Roman invasion to the present day. A separate exhibition looks at the military forces that were based in the city. Meanwhile, the Custom House is now the Maritime Museum. It stands on the quayside, which would have once bustled with activity. Inside, two carefully recreated period rooms show how the traders used to conduct their business.
With its nautical wealth, Lancaster turned itself into one of the richest settlements in Britain. Unfortunately, this couldn't last. The River Lune eventually silted up, preventing access to all the water traffic that used to fill its ports. Altogether the city's prosperity only lasted for 100 years, but by the end of that period the place was unrecognisable from its origins. The traders have gone, but the attractive buildings and interesting stories will be around for a long time to come.
Visitor Information
Lancaster Castle runs tours daily from 10am to 5pm. Entry costs around £5 for adults, £3 for children. Castle Parade, Lancaster, LA1 1YJ. Tel: 01524 64998

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