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Spectacles of Justice

In this step we’ll examine the trials held at Lancaster Castle through their representation in a work of literary narration.

As mentioned in the video in step 3.2, Edward Baines passed through Lancaster during the assizes while on his way to the Lake District in 1827. He and his travelling companions – including his aunt Anabella, his niece Matilda, and his nephew George – spent a considerable portion of their time in the town attending sessions in the criminal and civil courts.

Baines’ account of the hearings they attended affords insights into the various motives that drew visitors to the Lancaster assizes.

Please read the excerpt from his account below and take note of:

  • the way the court rooms are described;
  • the people and things in which he and his companions express an interest.

Consider what these interests suggest about people’s motives for attending the Lancaster assizes. Contextual and explanatory notes have been added to aid comprehension.

Once you’ve finished reading, please reflect on the questions posed at the end of the passage.

[W]e repaired to the Crown Court, which looked sufficiently gloomy…. This court is plain, sombre, and rather incommodious1; the “dim judicial light” shed into it through windows overtopped by the spike-surmounted walls of the prison, seemed not inappropriate to the dismal investigations carried on there. The presiding judge was Sir John Bayley2, an amiable, upright, and independent man, but who was thought to err on the side of humanity. The court was engaged in the trial of a man charged with burglary, who seemed likely to escape owing to the stupidity and hesitation with which the prosecutor gave his evidence; the witness quailed and floundered under the cross-examination of a noisy counsel; but the case was helped out by the glib swearing of a constable, and the prisoner was convicted. This trial possessed little interest, but the sight of the barristers in their wigs and gowns afforded infinite amusement to Matilda, who now saw the legal attire for the first time….

crown court at Lancaster Castle The Crown Court, Lancaster Castle

From the Crown Court, we proceeded to the Nisi Prius Court3, where Mr. Baron Hullock4 (since deceased) presided, and where some of the most eminent counsel of the day were wrangling about the death of an old horse. This is a spacious and handsome Court, and contrasted very advantageously with that which we had just quitted. The Nisi Prius Court is, I believe, one of the most beautiful halls of justice in the kingdom; for my own part, I have not seen its equal. It is built after the ancient fashion, and with Gothic ornaments; but it is exceedingly lightsome and elegant. The form is nearly that of a semicircle, and the Judge sits with his back to the wall in the centre of its base: in the curve opposite to him are half a dozen tall windows, with the printed arch and handsome mullions; and above him are two other windows, which, being of stained glass, admit less light, but give great richness to the building. The wall is indented with riches, above which a screen carved in stone, of delicate workmanship, runs along like a string; and upon it rest two full length portraits, very well painted, the one of Col. Stanley5, and the other of Mr. Blackburne6, who were the members for the county when the portraits were placed there. The roof corresponds with the Gothic character of the hall, rising upwards in a concave form, and being carved in stone, with several clustered pillars supporting it. The substantial oaken furniture, and the yeoman-like bailiffs in uniform, pacing about with their halberds7, complete the venerable appearance of the Court of Common Pleas of the County Palatine of Lancaster.

Here Mrs. Anabella had the unspeakable pleasure of seeing her old friend, Mr. Brougham8, and hearing one of his wittiest speeches. Before he rose, she observed to me that fifteen years had made a very perceptible alteration to his appearance. “So many sessions in the House of Commons,” she said, “in which, you know, Sir, he often made his great speeches after midnight, —so many years’ confinement in crowded courts like this, or in his chambers, —so many years of severe and unceasing labour, in literary and scientific studies, —so much writing, speaking, thinking, and wrangling, —so much trouble, vexation, and fatigue, —all undergone, you know, Sir, for the good of his country and of mankind—all these, Sir, must have made great inroads upon his constitution.” Matilda, who had been watching Mr. Brougham’s meagre and unprepossessing countenance, and wondering how it could belong to so eloquent a man, here interposed—“You know, aunt, Mr. Brougham is the god of your idolatry—and (aside) I marvel at your taste—but should you not think that, with all his patriotism and philanthropy, he has some little regard for his own fame and emolument?” Mrs. Anabella declared with warmth that Mr. Brougham was the most public-spirited man in the kingdom, and that he had done more for the cause of education and for the spread of knowledge than all the other members of Parliament of his age. She was proceeding to expatiate on his great labours and achievements, when she was interrupted by his rising to reply in the horse cause. The speech was a series of felicitous jokes, which kept the whole court in a roar of laughter, and had well nigh been the death of Mrs. Anabella, who was prodigiously tickled by every pun and happy turn that fell from her favourite orator. Matilda, too, was delighted by Mr. Brougham’s wit and drollery, and her opinion was very much changed in his favour, though she still declared that he was “any thing, any thing but what she had expected.”

crown court at Lancaster Castle
The Shire Hall, Lancaster Castle

During this trial, George, who sat at the end of the bench on which we were seated, was remarkably taciturn, and I soon discovered that he was engaged in much better employment than conversation with us. He was stealing glances at a very sweet girl who stood near him: for, though exceedingly bashful, he is a passionate admirer of beauty when he can observe it quietly. Matilda was the first to perceive how he was engaged, and she whispering to me, we watched him for a considerable time to our great entertainment. His glances became more frequent and less timid, as he thought himself perfectly unobserved. The lady was very young, with a placid and interesting countenance, and was one of those innocent creatures who can sustain, and even exchange, a look of admiration, without being excited or afflicted. George, therefore, perused her delicate features, soft, clear eye, and brow of alabaster, till it seemed almost necessary for him to speak. His bashfulness struggled for a long time, but at length, when I turned to peep at him, I saw, to my amazement, that he was standing, and the lady sitting in his place. He had plucked up courage to offer her his seat, and with a face of crimson was addressing to her some laconic observation. From want of spirit on his part, and a certain taciturnity on hers, the conversation did not become very brisk; but before the day was over I agreed in the remark which Matilda whispered in my ear, (except as to the libellous part of it) that “George was over head and ears in love with a doll.” She rallied9 him unmercifully in the evening, but I hope he received ample atonement from his dreams.

We remained five days in Lancaster, two of which we spent in the courts. We heard the trial of a young woman, named Jane Scott10, of Preston, a monster of iniquity, who had poisoned her father and mother for the sake of obtaining a trifling sum with which to tempt her paramour to marry her. She was first tried for the patricide, but was acquitted from an accidental defect in the evidence. At the following Assize she was tried for the matricide, convicted, and executed; and before he execution she confessed that she had also murdered an illegitimate child of her own, and a child of her sister’s. This wretched murdress was a compound of brutal ignorance, sensuality, and hypocrisy, —one of the most awful instances of the depravity of human nature.

In the Nisi Prius Court we heard the trial of an indictment against the Mersey and Irwell Navigation Company, preferred by the Corporation of Liverpool, for nuisances in the erection of extensive works connected with the canals of the Company, which were calculated, according to the allegation of the prosecutors, to injure the navigation of the river Mersey. Mr. Brougham was the leading counsel for the prosecution, and Sir James Scarlett11, then the Attorney-General, was brought down by special retainer for the defendants. Both these eminent counsel put forth their strength. Mr. Brougham made an eloquent speech; and Sir James cross-examined, spoke, and manoeuvred with matchless dexterity. The evidence for the prosecution was so defective, and that for the defence so strong, that the Jury stopped the examination of the witnesses, and returned a verdict for the defendants. Mrs. Anabella, however, to this day, believes that the verdict ought to have been the other way; she commends Mr. Brougham’s speech as equally eloquent and unanswerable, and remembers with considerable bitterness the triumphant and arrogant air of the Attorney-General.

E. Baines, A Companion to the Lakes, 3rd edn (1834)12


1Incommodious: uncomfortably small or restricted in size.

2 Sir John Bayley (1763–1841) was appointed a judge of the King’s Bench and knighted in 1808.

3 Nisi prius (literally, ‘if not before’): a court for the hearing of civil cases before a judge and jury. This is why Baines also calls it ‘the Court of Common Pleas’. The courtroom Baines is describing is the Shire Hall, which was then a relatively new feature of the Castle.

4 Sir John Hullock (1867–1829) became a Baron of the Exchequer in 1823.

5 Colonel Thomas Stanley (1749–1816) was MP for Lancashire from 1780 to 1812.

6 John Blackburne (1754–1833) was MP for Lancashire from 1784 to 1830.

7 Halberds: ceremonial pole weapons combining the heads of a spear and battle-axe.

8 Henry Brougham (1778–1868) was a highly regarded public figure of the age. He served as an MP for various constituencies between 1810 and 1830, when he was created 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux.

9 To rally: to tease.

10 Jane Scott was executed at Lancaster Castle in 1828

11 Sir James Scarlett (1769–1844) was an MP for various constituencies between 1819 and 1835. He served two terms as Attorney-General in 1827–1828 and 1829–1830. He was created 1st Baron Abinger in 1835.

12 The first edition of Baines’s Companion presents an extended version of the events described in this excerpt.

Now consider the following questions and post a comment.

  • What does Baines’s account suggest about people’s reasons for attending trials at Lancaster during the 1820s?
  • Why do you think Baines contrasts the Crown Court and Civil Court in the way that he does?
  • How might these descriptions relate to the trials he attended in each courtroom?

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This article is from the free online course:

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

Lancaster University