• Lancaster University

Lancaster Castle and Northern English History: The View from the Stronghold

We will use the iconic building of Lancaster Castle to investigate how 2000 years of history has shaped the north-west of England.

10,432 enrolled on this course

Lancaster Castle

Lancaster Castle and Northern English History: The View from the Stronghold

10,432 enrolled on this course

  • 5 weeks

  • 3 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Open level

Find out more about how to join this course

This course takes an innovative approach to exploring history, focusing on Lancaster Castle as a microcosm of broader trends. This fascinating location provides a wealth of evidence from the remains of Roman forts to its life as a prison and visitor attraction.

Our engaging educators respond to the castle and its surroundings in relation to their research interests, such as medieval Anglo-Scottish warfare, the witchcraft trials of the seventeenth century and the achievements of prison reformers.

Join us to uncover this castle’s vital role in northern English history over many centuries.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 17 seconds This is Lancaster Castle, one of the most impressive strongholds of Northern England. From Roman times until the present day, this site has dominated North West England and played a key role in political and social history. In this course, we use the castle as a way into the history of Northern England. We look at famous incidents from the areas past as well as hidden histories, all the time accompanied by the castle’s exceptional buildings. We’ll be exploring turbulent times from a mediaeval Scottish raid to the Second World War. We’ll encounter famous monarchs, including Henry IV of England, Robert the Bruce of Scotland, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Skip to 1 minute and 6 seconds We’ll hear about figures prominent in social and cultural history, such as the prison reformer John Howard and the author Charles Dickens. We’ll learn about the people who were incarcerated here, such as the notorious, yet wretched Lancashire witches and German prisoners of war during the First World War. I begin the story before the castle with the Roman forts on this site. And I trace the castle’s role through the turbulent Mediaeval Period. I will then be joined by colleagues from the Department of History at Lancaster University. Dr. Stephen Pumfrey will tackle Lancashire after the Reformation, a time when witchcraft accusations emerged against a backdrop of religious tension. Dr.

Skip to 1 minute and 54 seconds Chris Donaldson will explore Lancaster Castle’s appeal to 18th and 19th century visitors and the changes in attitudes to life inside the prison. Dr. Corinna Peniston-Bird will trace the history of the castle from the First World War to the very present, ending with the transformation of the site from a prison to a heritage destination. Along the way, we’ll be joined by other experts in the castle’s history. Join us for a fascinating journey through two millennia of Northern England’s history, viewed from the stronghold of Lancaster Castle.


  • Week 1

    The First Millennium

    • Getting Started

      We'll introduce you to the course, the team teaching the course, and to the Castle itself.

    • Roman Britain and Lancaster

      Lancaster Castle is located on the site of a sequence of Roman forts. In this activity, you will learn more about Lancaster’s place in the history of Roman Britain.

    • Roman Lancaster: The Sources

      In this section, you will learn more about two types of source material that can be used to study Roman Britain: coins and inscriptions.

    • Early Medieval Lancaster and its Region

      In this activity, we explore three types of source material that shed light on the mysterious early medieval period.

    • Reflection and Summing Up

      The week's activities have come to an end. This your opportunity to pause and reflect on what you've learned.

  • Week 2

    Lancaster in the High and Late Medieval Periods

    • The Castle and Medieval Politics

      This week we focus on the period ca 1100–1500, from the foundation of the Castle to the ‘Wars of the Roses’. First, we examine the political history of the Castle and its region.

    • The Medieval Castle

      Next we explore the Castle in more detail, looking at aspects of its military and architectural history.

    • Medieval Society

      In this section we examine the social history of the region around the Castle, drawing on the rich documentary record from the late medieval period.

    • Reflection and Summing Up

      The week's activities have come to an end. This your opportunity to pause and reflect on what you've learned.

  • Week 3

    The Early Modern Period

    • Introduction to Week 3

      This week we will focus on the period around the Reformation.

    • Political and Religious Change

      This video introduces some of the key concepts from the Early Modern period, along with questions for discussion.

    • The Geography of the Lancashire Witches

      In this activity we will use the evidence of a map of Lancashire created in the early seventeenth century

    • The Lancashire Witches

      We look more closely at the case of the Lancashire Witches, who were put on trial at Lancaster Castle in 1612. There are also questions for discussion.

    • Weighing Up the Evidence

      This activity gives us the opportunity to read and reflect on some important evidence from the trial of the Lancashire Witches.

    • The Idea of the Witch

      We will now think about the ways that the concept of witches are presented in popular culture and how this might influence our understanding of the past.

    • Optional activity

      This is an opportunity to view a public performance filmed on location in the Shire Hall at Lancaster Castle.

    • Reflection and Summing Up

      It is now time to reflect on what we have learned this week, and to think about how has this course met your expectations.

  • Week 4

    18-19th Century

    • Introduction to Week 4

      This week we’ll be exploring the evolving identity of the Castle as a place of legal authority.

    • The Castle as a Cultural Presence

      In this activity we'll consider the cultural responses to Lancaster Castle from the 19th century.

    • The Castle as a County Prison

      In this activity we will take a look at what life was like on the inside for those who were imprisoned inside the Castle during the 18th and 19th centuries.

    • Reflection and Summing Up

      The week's activities have come to an end. This your opportunity to pause and reflect on what you've learned.

  • Week 5

    20th century to the present day

    • Introduction to Week 5

      This week we will be looking at the changing role and uses of Lancaster Castle in the 20th century to the present day.

    • The castle in the 20th Century

      In this activity we will consider the role of Lancaster Castle in more recent history.

    • Personal accounts

      We look at testimony from people who lived and worked at the Castle.

    • Lancaster Castle as a tourist attraction

      In this activity we'll look at the Castle's role as tourist attraction.

    • Reflection and Summing Up

      The week's activities have come to an end. This your opportunity to pause and reflect on what you've learned.

    • What Next?

      In this last activity we will give you some ideas on how you can develop your knowledge further.

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Reflect on the long sweep of history in relation to one site
  • Interpret the regional context of broader historical trends
  • Evaluate historical debates critically
  • Explain the relationship between famous events or individuals and deeper social and political developments
  • Explore several different types of source material

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for adult learners with an interest in castles, the history of the North West of England or British history in general.

Who will you learn with?

I am a historian of medieval Britain and Ireland, with interests ranging from the sixth century to the twelfth. My research focuses on maritime contacts and now-lost kingdoms.

I'm a lecturer in cultural history at Lancaster University. My research engages with print history, historical geography, heritage studies and the history of tourism and leisure culture.

A historian at Lancaster University, my research is centred on the relationship between memories and cultural representations, most often in the context of Total War.

I recently joined Lancaster University as a lecturer in the history of science and medicine, 1500-1800. I am also keenly interested in the history of witch trials and the supernatural in that period.

Who developed the course?

Lancaster University

Lancaster University is a collegiate university, with a global reputation as a centre for research, scholarship and teaching with an emphasis on employability.

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  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

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Buy this course

$134/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 21 May 2024

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