The Hanging Town
The ancient city of Lancaster was once known as the ‘hanging town’ as more people were hanged here than anywhere else outside London. Between 1782 and 1865 around 265 people were hanged at Lancaster, only 43 were for murder, other crimes included burglary, passing forged bank notes, robbery, cattle and horse theft.
Aerial view of Lancaster Castle.
Up to 1800 the executions took place on the moors outside the city’s southern gate, known as Gallows Hill, where The Ashton Memorial now stands in Williamson Park. As many as nine condemned prisoners and their coffins would be carried in a cart from Lancaster Castle, along Moor Lane and stopping at the Golden Lion public house (still serving pints to this day) at the corner of Brewery Lane so the condemned prisoners could take a last drink with their friends and family. An execution could bring as many as 6,000 people from all over the county into Lancaster to watch the hangings and the local ale-houses, inns and market traders did a roaring trade.
The Ashton Memorial on the site of Gallows Hill.
From 1800 to 1865 it was decided it would be more convenient to carry out executions in the grounds of the castle and the spot chosen became known as ‘Hanging Corner’. (Below is a photo of ‘Hanging Corner’. The bricked up doorway on the left is where the condemned where brought from).
The last public hanging was on 25th March 1865 when Stephen Burke was executed for the murder of his wife.
The Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 ended public executions, requiring that criminals be put to death in private.
The last hanging at the castle was on 15th November 1910. Thomas Rawcliffe was executed for the wilful murder of his wife.
The castle from across the River Lune. The church to the right is Lancaster Priory, formally the Priory of St Mary.
Lancaster Castle dates back to Roman times and is built on the site of a Roman fort. It was built by Roger of Poitou in 1093 as a hilltop Norman stronghold. Lancaster is mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086 as Loncaster, where ‘Lon’ refers to the River Lune and ‘castle’ from the Latin castrum for ‘fort’ referring to the Roman fort.
Duchy of Lancaster
The castle is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster (Her Majesty the Queen is the Duke of Lancaster). The Duchy of Lancaster is an ancient inheritance that began in 1265, when Henry III gifted to his son Edmund Crouchbank lands which had been forfeited by the Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort.
Later that same year, lands taken from Robert Ferrers, Earl of Derby were added to this holding. However, it was not until Edmund was given the ‘county, honor and castle of Lancaster’ in 1267 that it became known as the ‘Lancaster inheritance’.
Duke of Lancaster
The title ‘Duke of Lancaster’ did not come into existence until it was conferred on Edmund’s grandson Henry Grosmont in 1351. At the same time, Lancaster was made a County Palatine for Henry’s lifetime.
This meant that the Duke had Royal powers within the county and could do practically everything that would otherwise be the king’s privilege. The law courts were in the Duke’s hands and he appointed the Sheriff, the Judges, and the Justices of the Peace, as well as all other senior officials.
Henry died without leaving a male heir in in 1362, so the title and inheritance became part of his daughter Blanche’s dowry. Through her marriage, Blanche passed on both to perhaps the best known Duke of Lancaster, her new husband, John O’Gaunt. The third son of King Edward III and the younger brother of the Black Prince, this was the ‘time-honoured Lancaster’ referred to by Shakespeare.
Over the next several years, John O’Gaunt added significantly to his wealth and possessions. On 28 February 1377, Edward III recreated the Palatinate for John’s lifetime. In 1390, this grant was extended to include John’s heirs. The Duke of Lancaster had now become one of the most important figures in the country.
When John died in 1399, the young King Richard II was fearful of the power that the Lancaster inheritance gave to his heir, Henry Bolingbroke. Richard therefore banished Henry from England and took the Duchy of Lancaster title, lands and properties for himself. Bolingbroke returned to England at the head of an army and overthrew the King in 1399, reclaiming his historic Lancaster inheritance.
On his accession to the throne as Henry IV, Bolingbroke passed a Royal Charter which decreed that the Duchy should be a distinct entity held separate from all other Crown possessions and handed down through the Monarchy.
The Monarch is always the Duke of Lancaster – hence the historic Lancastrian toast ‘The Queen, Duke of Lancaster!’. The title is always that of ‘Duke’ for both Kings and Queens.
(All photos courtesy of Google images.)