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The Medieval Castle

The medieval castle - a video from the Futurelearn course Lancaster Castle and Northern English History - the view from the stronghold
Lancaster’s Castle Hill has long been a strategic site. In this video, we look at the foundation of the castle, its links with royalty, and the turbulent Anglo-Scottish border. In 1066, William the Conqueror famously defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Harold in battle. Yet the Norman conquest of northern England was a contested process. A rebellion led to William’s vicious harrying of the north in the winter of 1069 to ‘70. Gradually, Norman lords were installed. Roger of Poitou acquired many lands, including the core of what became known as the ‘honour of Lancaster’. Roger founded the Priory on Castle Hill but eventually lost these lands in a rebellion. Scottish military activity created further turbulence.
It was not yet clear whether this area would become part of England or Scotland. Following the reign of Henry I, there was a civil war in England. The powerful Scottish King David I took control of northern English territory and was ruling the honour of Lancaster in the 1140s. This fortified tower, known as a keep, is the earliest part of the castle. I’m here with Colin Penny to find out more. Now, Colin, what are the key features of this keep? Well, it’s a big, solid bastion. It’s a split keep, so it’s got a wall running down the middle of it. So it’s split into two, and it’s on two floors. It’s taller than it was originally.
The top floor was added in 1585 under Elizabeth I. Everybody knew the Spanish Armada was coming. They just didn’t know where, so a lot of castles on the coastline had their fortifications strengthened. The original entrance wasn’t on the ground floor. It was on the first floor, around the corner from where we are, up a narrow flight of steps, through a narrow door. This was the last line of defence. If the castle was attacked, the enemy got in, the last remaining defenders would retreat to the keep, run up the stairs, close the door. In theory, 30 defenders could hold off 3,000 attackers, because the staircase was only ever wide enough for one person to go up at a time.
And the door was wide enough for one person to go through. So didn’t matter how many there were. They would just come through one at a time. Of course, they were never that stupid. They just undermined them and let the whole thing fall down. But that’s another story. Now I’m aware that there is some debate about when this keep was first built. Why would there be uncertainty about that? There were no records, no written records. So in the blue corner, you’ve got those who believe that the keep, as it stands now, is what Richard Poitou built in 1093.
In the other corner, you’ve got those who believe it’s the work of David I, King of Scotland, who controlled this part of the country in the 1140s, the 1150s. At the moment, the jury remains out. By the late 12th century, the area lay firmly within England. The honour of Lancaster was in the gift of the crown. And it eventually passed to the future King John. John gave the townsfolk of Lancaster their first borough charter and invested in the castle. This impressive round tower, long known as Hadrian’s Tower, was actually built in John’s time. By the mid 13th century, the keep was encircled by walls and towers.
In 1265, King Henry III granted to his second son, Edmund Crouchback, lands forfeited by the rebel leader Simon de Montfort. Henry made further grants to Edmond, including the honour, county, town, and castle of Lancaster in 1267. Edmund became the first Earl of Lancaster. Edmond’s son, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, opposed the King and was executed in 1322. 1322 was also a turbulent year because of a Scottish invasion. I’m standing at the tip of the Furness peninsula by the sands of Morecambe Bay. To the north, over the Duddon Sands and around the Cumbrian coast lies a route to the Scottish border. Over the sands to the southeast lies Lancaster Castle.
Uncertainty over Scottish rulership had led Edward I to strengthen his grip on Scotland, provoking the first war of independence. Robert the Bruce was eventually crowned Scottish King. In 1322, Robert brought his army across the sands to Furness. Crossing the sands was a dangerous undertaking. And this must have been a frightening sight. The monks of Furness Abbey seemed to have ordered the fortification of Piel castle as a result. Furness Abbey was one of the most influential abbeys in northern England. We’re told that the abbot paid a ransom to have the region spared. He was only partly successful. The Scottish army then crossed the sands again, eventually reaching Lancaster. They damaged the town and burnt part of the castle.
The structures repaired afterwards included a prison, a foretaste of the castle’s later history. Robert’s army met with another Scottish force at Lancaster and then travelled south. In 1351, Henry, Earl of Lancaster, became a duke. The castle remains part of the Duchy of Lancaster in the present day. Henry was also awarded a set of special administrative powers known as palatine powers. The next Duke of Lancaster was John of Gaunt, who married Blanche, Henry’s daughter. A statue of him was later placed in a niche on the gatehouse. John’s heirs are known as the House of Lancaster, and they include King Henry IV. At the start of the 15th century, Henry made major improvements to Lancaster Castle, including this elaborate new gatehouse.
By this time, Lancaster’s town had developed too. It had a mayor and a market hall. And the castle hosted periodic court sessions known as assizes. Some of the streets we use today were in existence. Later, in the 15th century, the House of Lancaster became embroiled in the Wars of the Roses, though the key battles happened far away from here. The emergence of Henry VII, a distant descendant of John of Gaunt, marked a new era. And with that, we finish Lancaster’s medieval history.

In this short video you’ll explore the foundation of the castle and its development throughout the medieval period.

The video covers the period from the Norman Conquest to the fifteenth century. It is presented by Fiona Edmonds, and also features Dr Colin Penny, Museum Manager at Lancaster Castle.

As you watch, you may find it helpful to consider these questions:

  • What circumstances led to the construction of a castle on this strategic site?
  • What were the castle’s main roles during the medieval period?
  • What connections can be drawn between political developments and the castle buildings?

As usual, our learners are encouraged to share their thoughts with others by posting a comment.

Hopefully you will have a better understanding of the new tagging feature in this course now. In this week try to re-use tags which relate to an interesting theme, to help others focus down on themes – #sociallearning #commentdiscovery

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

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