Lancaster through the ages

John Speed's 1610 plan of Lancaster

John Speed's 1610 plan of Lancaster

Origins of Lancaster

The borough's history goes back more than eight centuries and even before John, Count of Mortain (later King John) granted the liberties of Bristol in his foundation charter of 1193, to the burgesses of Lancaster, there is evidence of human occupation of Castle Hill and the surrounding area.

Lancaster is mentioned in the Doomsday Book as Loncastre and Chercaloncastre (church owned land in Lancaster). The origin of the name LANCASTER, derives from a Roman castrum or camp by the Lune (or Loyne), which was described as being built on "a defensible hill site in the bend of a navigable river, where it is still tidal, but fordable at low water". The name of this Roman military station is unknown, but may have been Longovicus or Alaunus.

John Speed's map of Lancaster from 1610 shows Green Ayre to be a flat sandy waste land, enclosed by the River Lune and the mill damn. Much of where Church Street, Cheapside and Chancery Lane now run was covered by sand, at an average depth of fifteen feet and shows how far the river has receded. Many Roman objects have been discovered in this sand including red Samian ware and during large building works in Market Street, one rare ornamental artefact was found sixteen feet down. Excavations on Castle Hill have also found flint implements from early Britons, which support the idea of early occupation.

Saxon times

Within the confines of the roman camp the Saxons built a church, but only a part of one wall remains, now incorporated in the west end of the present Priory Church. When the church was being restored in 1911, the apse of the Saxon church was discovered under the present north choir stalls, its position is now marked by two sets of nails in the floor. 

Some of the most significant Anglo-Saxon finds were ten fragments from  pre-Norman crosses, which were uncovered in 1902/03. One fragment shows the 'cat's cradle' design and also two figures with human feet and heads of beasts. There was also an inscribed Anglo-Saxon cross dug up in 1807, a replica of which can be seen in the Lancaster Museum.

Norman times

Lancaster Priory, formally the Priory Church of St Mary
Lancaster Priory, formerly the Priory Church of St Mary

Sometime after 1066, when William I conquered England, he gave Halton Manor and all its dependant villages, including Lancaster, to Roger de Poitou (sometime between 1086 and 1094). Roger de Poitou was the third son of Roger de Montgomery, the King's cousin, who had led the right wing of the invading Norman army at the Battle of Hastings.

Roger de Poitou decided to make his headquarters on the (Castle) hill, in Lancaster. There he built a primitive Norman type resident fortress with a levelled courtyard. Sometime before 1102, in place of the wooden fortress, Roger had built a quadrangle stone keep, which was much later developed into the Lungess Tower.

In 1094, Roger de Poitou founded and endowed the Priory Church, which he put under the control of the Norman Abbey of St. Martin at Sées. The Abbey sent Monks to oversee the service and administration of Lancaster Priory and they were directly responsible to the Norman Abbey. The Priory was suppressed by Henry V in 1424 and the first Vicar of Lancaster, Richard Chester, was appointed in 1430.

When Henry I was proclaimed King in 1100, he seized land and property from the supporters of his brother Robert, who was away on crusade. Among those he defeated and deprived of their land was Roger de Poitou.

There was trouble again during King Stephen's reign. An alliance against the King was formed at Carlisle in 1149, when King David of Scotland, Ranulf Gernons, the Earl of Chester and Henry of Anjou, (who in 1154 became King Henry II), agreed on a plan of attack. One of the terms of the agreement was for King David, to concede the Honor of Lancaster to the Earl of Chester, in return for the Earl relinquishing any hereditary claim he may have on Carlisle. This was in the same year, 1149, that King David of Scotland and Henry Anjou, (the future King of England) visited Lancaster Castle.

Henry Anjou became King of England (in 1154) and soon after resumed possession of the Honor of Lancaster. On Henry's death, in 1189, King Richard I bestowed the Honor on his younger brother, John, Earl of Mortain, later King John.

Foundations of the borough

Lancaster's status as a vil or settlement was changed into a BOROUGH, by King Richard I on the 12th June 1193. With the granting of the Foundation Charter, John, Earl of Mortain and Honor of Lancaster, granted the burgesses of Lancaster all the liberties granted to the burgesses of Bristol. In effect this meant the burgesses were free from tolls. He also freed them from the custom of grinding their corn at his mill, from ploughing and mowing his land on certain boon days. John also bestowed on them, the right to take dead wood for burning and as much other wood as they required for building, from his forest in Quernmore, under the supervision of his foresters.

The final clause granted, was for the burgesses to pasture their animals on his land for as far as their animals could travel from the town of Lancaster and return home in the same day.

South view of Lancaster Castle and the Arms of John of Gaunt
South view of Lancaster Castle and the Arms of John of Gaunt

King John's Castle at Lancaster

Even before his accession to the throne, King John had interested himself in his castle at Lancaster. Before the main rebuilding had begun, King John visited Lancaster Castle on the 26th February 1206, where he stayed for some time. Prior to his visit, one hundred shillings went on repairs and eight pounds provided food for the retainers guarding the castle.

In 1200, repairs were carried out, for the accommodation of the King and the Justices, who held the Assizes Court there. In the following years only small sums were spent in connection with the Castle. After the King's visit in 1206, the Sheriff claimed an allowance for expenses incurred from the Justices of Assize and for one hundred shillings to make repairs to the King's Lodgings. Also, in 1207, another one hundred shillings were spent on repairing the castle.

The main extension to the castle really began in 1209, when the King requested Roger, Constable of Chester and his associates, 'to undertake the work of making the ditches round the Castle at Lancaster', which when completed in conjunction with other works in 1210, cost the enormous sum of £352 3s. 1d. The following year the sum of £180 18s. was spent on the castle and its extensions. This was the period when King John planned and built the medieval Castle of Lancaster, which was almost circular in design, measuring about 380 feet from west to east and about 350 feet from north to south.

At the south-west corner Hadrian's Tower was built, joined on the west side by a curtain wall, to another circular tower near the Lungess Tower. A long curtain wall, running south from Hadrian's Tower was constructed, joining up with the Gateway at the south-east corner facing the town.

The eastern and northern curtain walls, built at obtuse angles, stretched from the Gateway to the Lungess Tower, with two circular towers at the angles. Apart from the Keep, Hadrian's Tower, the lower parts of the Gateway and the Well Tower, very little remains of King John's medieval castle.

Lancaster in the 14th and 15th centuries

The castle was a strong prison and a fortress against the Scots when they invaded the North of England. The raiders came to Lancaster in 1316 and when Robert the Bruce came in 1322 Lancaster was set alight. The Scots came again in 1389 but were unable to breach the walls of the Castle.

When Edward III raised the status of Lancashire, to a County Palatine in 1351, Henry, the fourth Earl of Lancaster, was created first Duke of Lancaster and on his death, John of Gaunt succeeded him. One of the few benefits to Lancaster from the Dukedom at this time was the King's Charter granting all Sessions of the Justices and Assizes to be held at Lancaster only. This had been a request in 1362, to the King, Edward III, from his son, the newly invested Duke, John of Gaunt .

Lancaster Castle still has a working Crown Court to this day. The only occasions that John of Gaunt visited his Castle at Lancaster, was from the 21st to 23rd of September, 1385 and for a few days in the summer of 1393. A later addition to the Castle was a statue of John of Gaunt, which was placed over the Gateway, on the 19th of July 1822.

Mayor's seal of 1432
The Mayor's Seal, 1432

In 1424 and following the suppression of the 'alien' Priory Church in 1415, the building was given to the nuns of the Convent of Syon, in Isleworth, and during their possession, much of the present church was built.

Lancaster's first school stood on the Castle Hill slope, below the west end of the church. Though there had been a schoolmaster in Lancaster from early times, the Grammar School owes its foundation to John Gardyner, who endowed a Chantry and paid for the rent of a mill, with a salary for a priest to teach grammar.

It was also in the 15th century, 1432 to be exact, that the earliest seal belonging to the Borough, called the Mayor's Seal, was authorised to be used for recording debts, incurred on market days in Lancaster. Its main device is a triple towered Castle and below is a lion with a fleur-de-lys on its tail.

Lancaster in Tudor and Stuart times

In Tudor times at the southern entrance to the town, was the White Cross. The road leading from here to the castle and the church was Chennell Lane, later Back Lane and now King Street. The road to the right of this was Penny Street, which continued to a crossroads with Market Street, by Butchers Street or Pudding Lane, now Cheapside. There were facilities for collecting tolls at all the entrances to the town, the stocks and whipping post were by the toll booth in the market place and the Pillory was by the castle.

Late in Elizabeth I's reign, the upper story of the Lungess Tower was repaired, as the Queen's initials and those of the then High Sheriff's, Richard Assheton, with the date 1585, testify.

In James I's reign, the trial of the Lancashire Witches took place at the castle from the 17th to the 19th August of 1612 and five years later, the king himself, passed through Lancaster on his way from Hornby to Ashton Hall.

During the Civil War, in 1643, Parliamentary troops seized and set up a garrison at the Castle. A month later the Earl of Derby's Royalist Army, tried and failed to capture the castle and on their retreat plundered the town and burned Penny Street as far as the White Cross. Despite Parliament, in 1645, ordering all the Lancaster Castle walls, except the gatehouse and towered buildings of the southwest corner to be dismantled, the parliamentary garrison in 1648, was strong enough to beat off a royalist attack, led by Sir Thomas Tyldesley.

In 1651, when Prince Charles (later King Charles II) and his Scottish Army marched south into England, he was proclaimed King at Lancaster Market Cross, on August the 12th and spent the night at Ashton Hall, before continuing his journey south, only to be defeated at the Battle of Worcester, by Cromwell's forces.

Lancaster Custom House
Lancaster Custom House, St. George's Quay

Lancaster in later times

When the Scottish Jacobites marched into Lancaster on November the 7th, 1715, they proclaimed James, as King James III of England at Lancaster Market Cross. They rounded up as many horses as they could find and left on the 9th of November, for Preston, where James was again proclaimed King of England. However, 230 of them were back in Lancaster as prisoners soon after.

Thirty years later during November 1745, the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, with around 6,000 Highlanders marched through North West England and stayed in Lancaster for three days before moving south. On their retreat, on the 13th of December, 1745, they passed through Lancaster again and released the prisoners from the castle.

After this time Lancaster's story is based around its trade, especially with the West Indies, with whom hardware and woollen goods were traded for sugars, rum, cotton etc. The navigation of the River Lune was improved and among the new buildings erected in the eighteenth century was the Custom House on St. George's Quay in 1764, designed by Richard Gillow, founder of the furniture manufacturers based in Lancaster. New trade, which increased the wealth of Lancaster from 1845, included the production of oil-cloth and linoleum, by James Williamson Snr. and Sir Thomas Storey.

Old Town Hall, Lancaster
Old Town Hall, Lancaster

The ancient toll booth in the Market Place was replaced with a Town Hall in 1668, which was in turn replaced, in 1781/83, with what is now known as the Old Town Hall. This building is now the city museum and the King's Own Royal Regiment museum.

In 1878, James Williamson Snr. began work on turning the old quarries on the moor, into a public park, now known as Williamson Park. The work was completed by his son, James Williamson II, later Lord Ashton, who was a major benefactor to Lancaster. His gifts included the present Town Hall, the statue of Queen Victoria in Dalton Square and the Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park.

Lancaster Town Hall was officially opened on the 27th December 1909, by Lord Ashton. It replaced the existing Town Hall, as the then Lancaster Corporation had outgrown the building. The Corporation was unable to finance a new building but Lord Ashton offered to pay for a new Municipal building. Lord Ashton was a local multi millionaire businessman and industrialist, who had made his fortune after inheriting Williamson's, his father's oil cloth and linoleum business.

The construction began in 1906 and was finally completed in 1909. Waring and Gillows were the main contractors for the stone work, furniture and wood carvings. The stone carving over the front steps was undertaken by F.W. Pomfrey and the stain glass windows were made by local firm Shrigley and Hunt.

Originally, the new town hall incorporated all the council's services and departments. In addition Lancaster Police Station, including cells, was in the basement, the Magistrates Court was based on the ground floor, with a separate connecting staircase to the police cells. Located on the first floor were the Mayor's Parlour, Reception Rooms, Committee Rooms and Council Chamber. To the rear of the building was the public hall, known as the Ashton Hall and adjacent to the town hall was the new fire station (now 'the old fire station'!).

Lancaster Victoria's Monument and Town Hall
Lancaster Town Hall and Queen Victoria Monument

Included in the works was the statue of Queen Victoria in Dalton Square, which was built on an area formerly known as The Oval. The figure of Queen Victoria is made from bronze, as are the faces on the plinths below.

Included in the depictions are Prince Albert and artists, writers, scientists, reformers and entrepreneurs such as Watts, Millias, Ruskin, Darwin, Shaftesbury and Rowland Hill. Also included are Lord Ashton's father, James Williamson I, and his son-in-law, Viscount Peel. The cost of the whole project, including the development of Dalton Square and the erection of the statue, was £155,000.

The Storey Institute, a gift of Sir Thomas Storey in 1887, was built on the old Mechanics Institute and equipped at a cost of £20,000. When built, it housed a Public Free Library, a School of Art and a Technical School.

Lancaster, before the boundary changes of 1974, was the fourth City of Lancashire, but following these changes, became the only City in Lancashire, until Preston was given City status in 2002.

Last updated: 13 July 2016