Lancaster Castle has long been associated with both the trial of criminals and their detention. In 1166 the first assizes court was recorded and in 1196 there was the first written reference to a gaol. In the late 1190s certain local knights were appointed Keepers of the Peace by the king. This role morphed into that of Justices of the Peace who would work at the castle presiding over the trying of minor crimes, in four sessions a year. For more serious crimes the assizes courts were held twice a year and defendants would be kept in prison for months, awaiting the time when the next assize came around.

This dual courts and prison function would continue right through the Medieval period up into the 21st century. Lancaster Castle’s other function as a defendable stronghold is discussed on our page here.

The Well Tower – in the basement dungeon the Pendle Witches were held

King James I Conspiracy and Witchcraft Accusations

The most famous trial and detention in the castle’s history is that of the Pendle Witches. In 1612, local magistrate Roger Nowell of Read Hall had accusations of witchcraft brought before him. The claims centred initially around Alizon Device, who was accused of causing a stroke to a pedlar when he refused to give her pins. Nowell’s investigation led him into a series of claims and counterclaims of witchcraft between three local families. More seriously, he had reports of a meeting that had occurred on Good Friday in which it was claimed there was a conspiracy to blow up Lancaster Castle with gunpowder, and kill the Keeper Thomas Covell who lived close by at the building now called the Judges’ Lodgings.

This was just seven years after the Gunpowder Plot had so nearly succeeded in killing not only King James I but all the members of parliament too. The foiled scheme would mean that Nowell, a former High Sheriff of Lancashire, would have security very much on his mind. This, coupled with the fact that in 1604 the Witchcraft Act of Parliament had been passed under King James, meant that the accused were in a very serious trouble. People could now be convicted for “making covenant with an evil spirit, using a corpse for magic, hurting life or limb, procuring love or injuring cattle by means of charms”. The conspiracy charges to blow up the castle and commit murder may well have been trumped up, but nevertheless eight women and two men were brought to trial. They were found guilty of witchcraft and hung.

During the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, another targeted ‘out’ group were Catholic priests. Between 1583 and 1646 eleven priests and four catholic laymen were sentenced and killed at Lancaster, perhaps the most famous amongst them being Edward Arrowsmith. (See our page on Broughton Tower for a story of another one of the priests who was put on trial at Lancaster here).  Catholic priests were seen as spies and insurgents and believed to be encouraging rebellion against the Protestant monarchs.

After the Civil War

In the aftermath of the Civil War the castle was never made fully defendable again, and its curtain walls were either demolished or left unrepaired. The castle role as a prison was becoming increasingly important, with the Gatehouse rooms being occupied by debtors. New ‘out’ groups were targeted, including numerous Quakers. Their founder George Fox (who famously had a vision of his religious mission on Pendle Hill) was imprisoned at the castle. The Quakers believed that men and women should be treated as equals. This, coupled with their refusal to swear loyalty to King Charles II, meant that they were seen as ‘disturbers of the peace of the nation’ and gaoled. None were executed, but some died while detained.

The Medieval Gatehouse was used as a debtors prison after the Civil War

Georgian Times

A more serious class of convict started to be housed at Lancaster in Georgian times – felons. These were a group of prisoners that were not going to be flogged, branded, killed, transported or sent to a house of correction. Often they were mixed in with other categories of prisoners and overcrowding began to be a real problem. There was also a separate group of people deemed to be insane who were detained indefinitely, until the county asylum was built.

The prison reformer John Howard visited Lancaster Castle in 1776. He had instigated widespread changes to all gaols which included segregating prisoners on the basis of their crime and gender. He was impressed by Lancaster’s large courtyard and bowling green (for the debtor prisoners) but criticised the lack of hospital facilities. He noted that spinning and knitting were being carried out by those detained. His records show that women slept in the day room while men slept in the now demolished dungeon tower.

New Prisons, New Courts

When new gaoler John Higgin started in 1785 he received an annual salary of 200 guineas , in compensation for being no longer allowed to collect fees from debtors (as part of John Howard’s reforms). He may have wished he had been able to though, as during his tenure the number of debtors increased tenfold. The debtors were not criminals, but usually small business men and women who could not afford to pay off their creditors. Whilst in prison they could continue to work to earn money, in the hope they would be able to pay their debt off. The debtors area was later nicknamed as Hansbrow’s Hotel and a prison inspector said it “resembled a somewhat noisy tavern ”.

The Debtors Wing added in 1796

1788 saw a new Gaoler’s House constructed between the Gatehouse and the Well Tower and this still stands. It was designed by Thomas Harrison who was the architect of nearby Skerton Bridge, and built to be sympathetic to the Medieval style of the adjoining structures. More building work followed in the 1790s with a new prison constructed for female felons and another for male felons, as well as a new areas for debtors that included an open arcade where they could shelter in bad weather. They enjoyed considerably more freedom than the felons, being able to use the courtyard in good weather or stay in their rooms if they so chose. A new Crown Court and Shire Hall were also added in the same decade.

Joseph Gandy, who had provided the interior decoration for the court and hall, returned in 1821 to construct something much more grim: a panoptican prison for women. This maximised the amount of surveillance that could be done by the prison staff, whose own numbers could be reduced from the norm. Based on a semi-circle, five tiers of cells could be surveyed from a central control room. This is still standing and the Duchy hopes to open it up to visitors in the future.

Female Penitentiary added in 1821

By 1801, executions were no longer being carried out at the area known as ‘Tiburn’ on Lancaster Moor. They were moved to the castle itself in an area that became known as hanging corner, near the churchyard. Over two hundred different crimes could lead to the death penalty, many for crimes against property and theft of items of relatively low value. The Reverend Joseph Rowley, prison chaplain for fifty four years, attended 168 executions. In his time boys from the local grammar school were given a half day holiday to attend executions, in the belief that witnessing such a horror would deter future criminality.

Two tread wheels were used as punishment for prisoners sentenced to hard labour in mid 1800s. These could be used to provide power for calico weaving looms and to draw up water from the castle wells. Women and men would spend 10 hour days working them in teams of four. One of the four was allowed five minutes of recuperation while the others turned the wheel.

In a time of civil unrest, what we would now recognise as political prisoners were held at the castle. After the Peterloo Massacre Henry Hunt and Samuel Bamford were imprisoned, far away from Manchester, a hot bed of radical reform ideas.

The Shire Hall

Changes in the 20th Century

The prison closed in 1916 as the number of prisoners detained nationally was diminishing. However the cells were used to hold German prisoners during the first world war. After the war the castle was used to train police cadets, up until 1931 when the new college was opened in Preston.

The second world war saw the armed forces taking over the castle, and the Royal Observer Corps used it as a local control room. By the 1950s it was back in use as a prison again and this was finally closed in 2011.

Today the Castle has entered a new phase of life after the closure of the prison. The buildings were returned to being under the control of the Queen, in her role as the Duke of Lancaster. Large amounts of money are being spent in improving the fabric of the whole building with a view to open more of it up to tourists. The large internal courtyard is now accessible to the public, for the first time in decades. The female panoptican prison is also on the cards to be included in the guided tour, as is the basement of the Well Tower where the Pendle Witches where held.

You can enter the extensive courtyard for free, but the tours of the castle are charged.

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 and Georgian and Victorian prisons. The female felons prison, the male felons prison, the female penitentiary, debtors prison and Gaoler’s House are all very clearly intact. To see our page with details on the Medieval buildings and the life of Lancaster Castle as a fortress click here.

Visit Lancaster Castle’s website here

Nearby, just a few steps away

Lancaster’s Lost Roman Fort

Lancaster Roman Baths and Wery Wall

Just a short walk away

The Judges’ Lodgings

Lancaster’s Custom House and Maritime Museum

A longer walk away

The Ashton Memorial

A drive away

The Ruskin Library and Museum

Galgate Silk Mill


Lancaster Castle: A Brief History, John Champness (1993), Lancashire County Books

Life In Georgian Lancaster, Andrew White (2004) Carnegie Publishing

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