Lancaster Castle: An Overview
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Lancaster Castle occupies a city -centre hilltop location on the site of three successive Roman forts. It consists of an extensive group of historic structures, including the 12thc Keep, the 14thc Witches' Tower, the 15thc Gatehouse, and the Female Penitentiary, which dates from the early years of the 19th c. It is a Grade I Listed Building, with the area to the north of it designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument . It is currently used as both a Court and a Prison.
The Keep (also known as the Lungess Tower) is a four-storey tower, 20 metres high and with a shallow buttress at each corner and halfway along each side. Its outer walls are about 3 metres thick, and it is divided internally by a central wall into two rooms on each floor. The upper storey of the Keep was rebuilt in the reign of Elizabeth I in 1585.
The Well Tower
Also known as the Witches' Tower, this part of the castle was built in about 1325 and contains two wells and three vaulted stone-flagged underground dungeons which, traditions tells us, were used to house the Lancashire Witches prior to their trial in the castle in 1612.
Shortly after Henry IV's accession an extensive rebuilding programme was started, culminating in the construction of the great twin-towered gatehouse. Although the Keep is the largest medieval building in the castle, the John O' Gaunt Gatehouse is the most impressive. It has two semi-octagonal towers which rise 20 metres above their massive sloping plinths, and, with its portcullis and its battlements built out over corbels, is perhaps the finest gatehouse of its date and type in England.
The Governor's House
In 1788, the Governor's House was erected between the Gatehouse and the Well Tower. After this was completed work was begun in 1792 on the prison for female felons. This is on the other side of the Gatehouse, in a four-storey tower with Gothic windows and a canted front to the courtyard.
From the late 18th Century, the Castle was substantially modified for use as a court and prison, during which time the medieval curtain wall and several of the towers were demolished.
Between 1794 and 1796 the prison for male felons was built ,which extended to the north of the Keep, well beyond the line of the medieval curtain wall, and which was cut off from the outside world by the construction of the present high walls. Above these rose three four-storey towers (again with canted fronts and Gothic windows) where the prisoners slept in separate cells. At the same time, to the south of the Keep, two storeys of accommodation were built for debtors above an attractive open arcade with Gothic arches.
In 1796 the medieval hall of the castle, which stood to the south-west of the Keep and which housed the Crown Court, was demolished. Its dungeon basement survives, however (re-discovered from an old plan in 1931) and today forms a highlight of the guided tour. Adjacent to the dungeons is Hadrian's Tower..
At the end of the 18th Century, a new Crown Court and Shire Hall were begun to the designs of Thomas Harrison. These form a symmetrical group to the west of the Keep, with the Shire Hall projecting on to a wide terrace between Hadrian's Tower on the south and a new round tower on the north.
The Shire Hall is a splendid ten-sided room, within whose walls a semi-circle of Gothic pillars carry not merely the arches which support the timber ceiling over the main part of the court room but also the arches of the plaster vault over the surrounding aisle. This is a most ingenious and beautiful design, giving easy public access to the court room while allowing the business of the court to proceed in suitably dignified surroundings. A shortage of money caused a delay in the furnishing and interior decoration of the Crown Court and Shire Hall, and it was not until 1802 that Joseph Gandy provided the designs for the window tracery, the seating and the elaborately detailed canopy over the judge's bench.
The last major extension to Lancaster Castle was the Female Penitentiary, built in 1821. It was designed by Joseph Gandy who had been trained by James Wyatt and who had worked for John Nash. For this project Gandy produced a design of considerable originality, based on Jeremy Bentham's ideas for the labour-saving supervision of prisoners. The panopticon is semi-circular in plan and contains five tiers of cells, each with a window. These cells lead off curved internal galleries and are visible across an open space from the central control room. It is now the only building of its kind in existence which still fulfils the purpose for which it was originally designed- albeit it now housing male prisoners..
English Heritage has described the Castle as being "not only the North-West's most important historic and archaeological monument but also of international importance". Their formal "Assessment of Importance" states:
The castle has a very full documentary record, which enhances the importance of the site and its potential for further research and analysis. Taken together with the very rare survival of so much of the medieval fabric, it confirms the outstanding importance of the castle as a monument and group of historic buildings. It meets all the non-statutory criteria for the determination of national importance and has great potential in several fields of study for further research, analysis and presentation to specialist and other audiences.
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