Although the Keep is the largest medieval building in the Castle, the John O’ Gaunt Gatehouse is the most impressive. Its two semi-octagonal towers rise 20 metres above massive sloping plinths and, with its portcullis and its battlements built out over corbels, it is perhaps the finest gatehouse of its date and type in England.
The Governor’s House
The Governor’s House was erected between the Gatehouse and the Well Tower in 1788. After this was completed in 1792 work began on the prison for female felons. This four-storey tower with Gothic windows and a canted front to the courtyard can be seen on the other side of the Gatehouse.
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 stone-flagged underground dungeons which, traditions tells us, were used to house the Lancashire Witches prior to their trial in the castle in 1612.
The Male Felons Prison
Built between 1794 and 1796, this extended to the north of the Keep and was cut off from the outside world by high walls. Above these rose three four-storey towers with canted fronts and Gothic windows where the prisoners slept in separate cells.
Also known as ‘A-Wing’, this Pentonville-style prison wing was added to the Castle in the 19th Century. It has 18 cells per floor and extends over 3 floors.
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.
Also built between 1794 and 1796, two storey accommodation was built to house debtors. These were built above an attractive open arcade with Gothic arches and access onto the Castle’s main (upper) courtyard.
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 as does the adjacent Hadrian’s Tower.
In 1796, the Great Hall of the Castle was redesigned. Its basement cells survive, together with the cylindrical Hadrian’s Tower built in 1210.
At the end of the 18th Century, a new Crown Court and Shire Hall were begun to the designs of Thomas Harrison. Reputed to be the oldest continually sitting Crown Court in the country, this oak-panelled room still features the original branding iron used on ‘malefactors’ appearing in the dock. The courtroom – but not the branding iron! – is still in use today.
This magnificent ten-sided room is Joseph Gandy’s masterpiece. Completed in 1802, its semi-circle of Gothic pillars carry not only 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. Still used as a working courtroom on rare occasions, today the Shire Hall is also the centrepiece for one the UK’s finest displays of chivalric heraldry.
The last major extension to Lancaster Castle was the Female Penitentiary built in 1821. Also designed by Joseph Gandy it drew heavily on Jeremy Bentham’s ‘panopticon’ concept for the labour-saving supervision of prisoners. The panopticon is semi-circular 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.
English Heritage has described the Castle as being “not only the North-West’s most important historic and archaeological monument but also of international “. 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.