The castle we see today at Lancaster dates from the Medieval era, but a preceding one was built in Norman times and would have been a motte and bailey type. Constructed in 1093 by Roger Poitou along with a Benedictine monastery, it stood (as does the present castle) on the site of Lancaster’s Roman Fort.
King William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, fixed the fluid border between England and Scotland by annexing Cumbria and building Carlisle Castle. He was aided in these endeavors by Roger Poitou. Roger already held lands between the Ribble and the Mersey. As a reward for his efforts, he was given the land up to the River Lune, and also the area north of Morecambe Bay (Cartmel and Furness). He ruled a region that came to be called the Honour of Lancaster, and which we would know today as Lancashire. It would act in effect as a large buffer zone against the Scots.
However, he wasn’t to hold the area for long. When King William Rufus died, many of the northern barons thought his older brother Geoffrey, Duke of Normandy, should be the next king. However Henry, the younger brother, was in line for succession. Roger Poitou sided with Geoffrey and took part in the failed Barons’ Rebellion of 1102. King Henry confiscated the Honour of Lancaster from him and gave it to his own nephew, Stephen of Blois (the future King Stephen).
The Great Keep is built
When King Henry died without a son to be his heir, Stephen claimed the throne. Henry’s daughter Matilda rebelled, believing that she was her father’s rightful successor and should be queen. Both sides amassed forces to back their claim and this period became known as The Anarchy, a terrible time of civil war. During this period, Stephen allowed the King of Scotland to administer Lancashire down as far as the River Ribble, presumably because he was so busy fighting Matilda’s forces in the rest of the country. The war only ended when Stephen agreed that after he died Matilda’s son could be king, and not his own son. Stephen’s son did however gain the Honour of Lancaster.
It was during this turbulent period that the Great Keep, which still stands today, was built. Constructed at some point in the first part of the 1100s, the historical records don’t show who was responsible or exactly when it was made. It was probably built by King Henry (although King Stephen and the King of Scotland, David I, are also contenders). It is a formidable edifice that has walls three metres thick. Still towering over much of the later buildings at four storeys high, it had two rooms on each floor. To support the huge structure there are buttresses on each corner and also in the middle of each side. It would have had accommodation for the ruling lord (or the serving constable) and also enough room to hold a garrison if the castle was besieged.
The Castle is Strengthened
Originally the Keep would have had a timber fence around it, but by the end of the 1100s catapult technology had progressed so much that this was no longer effective. A stone curtain wall was therefore erected around the Keep. The wall would be further fortified by towers with arrow slits.
Prince John received Lancaster from his brother King Richard the Lionheart, in an effort to keep him loyal. When he became king he spent a large amount of money on Lancaster Castle. Beginning in 1209, the building work went on for three years. A defensive ditch was dug on the south and west sides. Adrian’s Tower was added (which still stands today – named after the Roman Emperor Hadrian because people later wrongly thought it had a Roman origin). The King’s Lodgings were also improved. John also had other interests in Lancashire in the same period. He founded Liverpool as a port and commercial city in competition with Chester, which he had no influence over and could collect little tax from (see our page on Liverpool Castle here).
By the mid 1200s the Dungeon Tower was added. The next century saw the construction of the Well Tower, which still stands today. It has two wells in its basement and three vaulted stone flagged store rooms underground. However, this period of building work did not make the castle impregnable. In 1322, Robert the Bruce attacked and the castle performed poorly as a defensive structure. (This was a major year of incursions into Lancashire by Bruce and his men, and to see what the monks at Furness Abbey did to protect themselves, see our page on Dalton Castle here). Again in 1389, there was a Scottish invasion and the castle was damaged. In response to the latter attack, it was seen that there was a real need to strengthen its defences.
Building of the Gatehouse
Perhaps the most imposing structure standing today is the Gatehouse. It was built by Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, when he became King Henry IV in 1399. It was made to be the strongest part of the whole building and was constructed to fortify the castle after the Scottish attack ten years previously. Today it is still visually imposing and highly defendable, with two semi-octagonal towers, a portcullis and battlements. Traditionally it has been named after Henry’s father, John of Gaunt. John of Gaunt was regent to the previous king and as a duke with Palatine powers he was able to collect taxes and dispense justice in all criminal cases in Lancashire. Since the time of Henry IV, the castle has always remained in the hands of the crown, and every monarch since also holds the title ‘Duke of Lancaster’.
Fears over the Spanish invasion force of the Armada meant that the castle was further fortified in Elizabethan times. A date stone marked ‘ER RA’ for Elizabeth Regina and Richard Assheton, Sheriff of Lancashire is carved with the year of this strengthening in 1585.
The Civil War
In 1643, a small Royalist garrison held the castle at the start of the Civil War. A Parliamentary force headed by Sergeant Major Birch was sent from Preston to see if the entrances to the town of Lancaster had been fortified. When they found they had not they entered into the streets. The Royalist force headed by Sir John Girlington thought they would not be able to beat the Parliamentarians and quietly slipped away from the fortress. Sergeant Major Birch took control of the castle and released the felons and debtors. He then had earthworks built around the entries to the town. The castle was very short on large artillery, but help came from a chance occurrence.
A Spanish ship, the Santa Anna, had been wrecked on the coast near the mouth of the River Wyre. Sergeant Major Sparrow’s Parliamentary force from Preston set out to recover any cannon and ammunition they could and take it up to Lancaster. Unfortunately for them, the Earl of Derby’s Royalist force reached the site before them and set the ship on fire. Nevertheless, Sparrow’s troop managed to salvage some of the cannons and take them to the castle. It’s not recorded what happened to the crew of the Santa Anna, but it’s thought that many of the survivors headed south, as vagabonds. At St Michael’s on Wyre churchyard, there are two unusual graves attributed to Spanish soldiers, a picture of which can be seen on our page here.
The Earl of Derby then advanced on Lancaster, surprising the Parliamentary garrison that were manning the barricades. The Royalist strategy of attacking multiple entry points into the town and a policy of setting buildings on fire sent the Parliamentary forces retreating into the castle. In all, 180 buildings were destroyed and the Royalists then proceeded to loot the unfortunate townsfolk. However, the Royalist siege of the fortress only lasted two days and was abandoned when they heard another Parliamentary troop was leaving Preston and advancing on Lancaster. The castle remained in Parliament’s hands until the war was over.
At the end of the Civil War, Parliament ordered that the castle should no longer be defendable and only the buildings that housed the courts and gaol should be retained. We know that this did not seem to happen immediately, for when King Charles II was restored to the throne the High Sheriff and local Justices of the Peace sent him a petition asking that the castle’s war damage could be repaired. A 1663 survey led to repairs to the stonework of Keep, Gatehouse, Judges Hall, Crown Office, together with the floors and roofs of the kitchens.
It is likely that the protective curtain wall was probably never made whole again, since there was no attempt to defend the castle against the Jacobite invasion in 1715. By then the building no longer had any military value and a picture by the Buck brothers in 1728 shows the wall between the Gatehouse and Well Tower had been fully demolished.
The history of Lancaster Castle as a fortress was over. However, the next stage of its existence would be mainly about keeping people in, rather than keeping them out. It became a very large prison, and continued in use as a court. To read our page on this click here.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2018
Open every day from 9.30 am-5.00 pm. To see most of the interior of the buildings you need to take a guided tour, but it is free to enter the courtyard. It is well worth walking around the exterior (at any time) and also the interior courtyard (during opening times) to see the various remaining Medieval buildings. Although much has been converted to a prison, the Great Keep, Gatehouse, Well Tower and Adrian’s Tower are original.
See the Lancaster Castle website here
On the same site
A few minutes walk away Lancaster’s Roman Bath House
Lancaster Castle: A Brief History, John Champness (1993), Lancashire County Books
Life In Georgian Lancaster, Andrew White (2004) Carnegie Publishing
The Civil Wars in Lancashire 1640-1660, Stephen Bull (2009) Carnegie
Lancaster Castle: 1000 Years of Royal Heritage, Justice, Felony and Incarceration, leaflet (undated circa 2016) available from Lancashire Tourist Information office, printed by Lancaster Castle