The History of Lancaster
Even today the original reasons for a settlement being created in what is now Lancaster are evident: steep hills offering natural defences, and the River Lune whose very name is derived from the Ancient British word for ‘clear’ providing water, good fishing – for salmon and even famously for sturgeon until a few centuries ago –and access to the sea. It is not surprising then that archaeologists have found stone-age tools around Castle Hill, the same site that the Romans chose to establish their fortress in the place.
Agricola is supposed to have used that fortress to hold the ford of the Lune, and thus dominate the area. There was a Roman settlement in Lancaster in about 80 AD, and the town’s name combines the fact that it was a Roman castrum with the Saxon name its river. St Mary’s Church just north of Castle Hill is built on ground previously occupied by a 2nd-century Roman church.
After the departure of the Romans in the early 5th century there is no reason to believe that the small town which had arisen to serve and be protected by the Roman fort would have been abandoned. The Saxons eventually arrived, building their own church in 630 where the Romans had before them; and later that same decade St Peter’s at Heysham was constructed, its subsidiary chapel of St Patrick still standing today.
The Normans like those before them recognized the strategic value of Castle Hill. Roger de Poitou built first a wooden stockade, then about 1100 AD a stone keep. King John in one of his cleverer moves added stone walls, towers, and a great gateway. John of Gaunt, who in 1362 became the first Duke of Lancaster having married Blanche of Lancaster, likewise improved the fortifications, as much later did Elizabeth I . John of Gaunt had ambitions to be king, but was also aware of the danger the Scots presented to his territories: they had attacked the place in 1322, razing many buildings to the ground. And this was no novelty, for their ancestors had similarly raided the place when the Romans held it.
But Lancaster had developed cultural and economic roots too. It was given its first charter in 1193, making the place a borough. By 1235 a grammar school is thought to have existed there, though the earliest documents extant regarding the foundation date from 1469; and in 1260 the Dominicans arrived in the town, establishing a priory which lasted until Henry VIII ’s Dissolution in 1539. Three years previously the Pilgrimage of Grace had made Lancaster one of its rallying points, albeit briefly happily for the town.
Perhaps the most notorious event in the then town’s history was the trial of most of the Pendle Witches in 1612, with nine of them hanged there in August that year. The Castle prison with its court was famed for the frequency of its executions, earning the settlement the nickname ‘hanging town’.
Lancaster’s strategic significance was seen again in the Civil War : the town was taken from the Royalists by Parliamentary sympathisers early on, and thereafter had to endure three sieges by Charles I ’s forces, one of which saw the burning of several buildings as the Cavaliers, frustrated in their attempts to take the castle, left the area. Charles II , on his way to eventual defeat at Worcester in 1651, was declared King of England as his Scottish army rested at Lancaster, which took on talismanic status for the Stuart dynasty: Bonnie Prince Charlie halted his army there in the 1745 rising; and 30 years before him James Edward Stuart was proclaimed James III in Lancaster’s Market Square.
In the 18th century Lancaster thrived as a port, benefitting from the shameful slave trade as its ships operated in the triangle that saw human being transported from Africa to the Caribbean, rum, molasses and sugar brought from there to England, and money and trading goods in turn sent from England to buy the slaves. Lancaster today still has many fine Georgian buildings, a reminder of the prosperity this appalling episode in our history brought. A more honourable trade that sprang from the same shipping route was Lancaster’s mahogany furniture making by such as Gillows, who exported part of their output from Lancaster. As shipping flourished so did shipbuilding and ancillary trades like rope-making, but as the Lune silted up and Liverpool grew the port declined in importance, cotton for a time booming in its stead, and then the manufacture of linoleum. In 1792 a canal opened easier communications with Preston to the south, and in 1840 the railway age reached the place, again supporting industry there.
Thanks to its royal connections – the grammar school made Lancaster Royal Grammar in 1851, the reigning monarch also being Duke of Lancaster – the town finally became a city in 1937. Cotton is long gone, and furniture making ceased in 1962, replaced by service industries and by the opening of Lancaster University in 1964, now a major research establishment, with a second university established in 2007.
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