Thursday, 19 July 2012

Thursday Tour - today we're in Lancaster

Lancaster, situated on the River Lune in the northern part of Lancashire, was originally a Roman fort which was built on the hill where the medieval castle now stands. Little is known about it between Roman times and the Norman Conquest (between the 5th and 11th centuries), although some Anglo-Saxon remains have been found in the area, suggesting there may have been a monastery there.

The first documentary evidence of Lancaster is in the Domesday Book of 1086 when it was referred to as Loncastre – Lon referring to the River Lune, and caster from the Roman word, castra, meaning a fort. The ‘Honour of Lancaster’ was granted to one of William 1st’s supporters, and changed hands several times over the next few centuries, with more land being added until the owner held one of the largest estates in the country.

The Duchy of Lancaster was created in the 14th century for John of Gaunt, one of Edward III’s sons, who had married the Lancastrian heiress. When John’s son, Henry, usurped the throne in 1399, he declared that the Lancastrian inheritance should be held separately from the other possessions of the Crown. Thus the Duchy was never surrendered to the Crown Estates, and still belongs personally to the monarch. The present Queen, therefore, has the title of ‘Duke of Lancaster’ as well as her royal title.

Lancaster Castle was started in the 12th century, and added to in later centuries. John of Gaunt’s gateway was built by Henry IV in the early 15th century (presumably named in honour of his father), and has been called the finest gatehouse of its type in England.

For many years, the Castle was used as a court and a prison. The ‘Lancashire Witches’ were tried and sentenced to death here in 1612, and ten of them were hanged. The castle is still used as a Crown Court, and was also used as a prison until last year.

The Priory Church of St Mary, which stands close to the castle, is thought to have been built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery. It was established in the 11th century as a Benedictine Priory, but when the monasteries were abolished by Henry VIII in 1539, it became Lancaster’s parish church. Since then it has been enlarged several times.

In the Middle Ages, Lancaster was a market town, serving the surrounding agricultural countryside. During the 19th century, it also became a busy port, although this was short-lived when the River Lune began to silt up.

In recent years, Lancaster has developed as a centre for information technology companies, in addition to other industries such as animal feeds, textiles, chemicals and farm machinery. It’s also a cultural centre, with theatres and concerts, both classical and pop. A new University was established just outside the city in the 1960’s (which I featured briefly in my novel 'Changing the Future').

My personal link with Lancaster comes through my father’s family. His great-grandfather, Joseph Wilson, was baptised at the Priory Church in 1812 and married his wife Jane there in 1833. He was a tailor and draper, with a shop on Market Street in the town, and was also a member of the Town Council.

He and Jane had 10 children between 1834 and 1857, including my own great-grandfather, Edward Wilson, who was born in 1834. In 1860 Edward married the oldest daughter of a Primitive Methodist Minister who had eventually settled in Lancaster after a previously peripatetic life in over a dozen different towns. When Edward fell out with his twin brother, John, he moved to Ashton-under-Lyne, a small town near Manchester, but I think there are probably quite a lot of Wilson descendants still living in or around Lancaster. 


  1. Lancaster is a lovely city, just so long as you don't have to drive through it. It is often a terrible bottleneck if you want to get to the coast.The wonderful furniture people Waring and Gillow were here at one time - my Grandfather was a French Polisher for them. I love the city and don't go often enough.

  2. What a rich history. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hi Margaret, it's better since the M6 bypass was built, but still very busy! I remember queuing to cross Skerton Bridge (beck in the 50's), once from as far back as Galgate!

  4. Thanks, Donna, it's definitely an interesting city historically.

  5. I love Lancaster and am especially interested in its connections with John O' Gaunt, one of my favourite historical figures ever since reading Katherine by Anya Seton - still an all time favourite!

  6. Another fascinating post, Paula - Lancaster is on my list of places to visit as I love medieval cities.

  7. Jenny - not sure whether John ever visited the town, despite his epithet of "Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster." And he wouldn't have seen the gateway as it was built after his death! But you and I certainly share a love of Anya Seton's Katherine.

  8. Thanks, Rosemary. Most of Lancaster is Georgian or Victorian rather than medieval, but the church and castle are definitely worth visiting.

  9. Hey Paula :-) I just tagged you in my latest blogpost. :-)