In the early 17th century, England (not for the first or last time) descended into a period of collective insanity. Viewed from an age of science and reason, its easy to deride the hysterical fear of witches and witchcraft that gripped the country, from King James I down. For the average person though, witches were very real. Nowhere in England was this hysteria more destructive than in the wild northern county of Lancashire.
Here, amidst the remote hills and villages of Pendle, Protestant England undertook it own version of the Catholic Inquisition. There were a number of factors, religious and societal, that collided in the early 17th century to give rise to the madness. In the popular imagination, witches were real and dangerous emissaries of the Devil; whichever way you slice it, Lancashire was a dangerous place to be a woman of independent mind.
King James I was obsessed with witchcraft. He wrote a book, Daemonologie (1597), encouraging the exposure, capture and death of these ‘slaves of the devil’. At the same time in Lancashire, the Protestant Reformation was struggling against a conservative and Catholic rural society containing a large number of ‘traditional healers’. These predominately poor women became the focal point of accusations of witchcraft. Religious fear of difference created a tinderbox environment ripe for persecution.
Those accused of witchcraft invariably ended up in Lancaster Castle awaiting ‘trial’ before execution. So many witches were put to death in Lancaster that it gained the sobriquet, ‘The Hanging Town’. For some reason, the City Council have deemed this an inappropriate motto for Lancaster, favouring instead the motto ‘Luck to Loyne’. ‘Loyne’ being the original name for the River Lune.
The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 were only one of many extraordinary moments in Lancaster’s history. The huge and solid Lancaster Castle occupies the site of a former Roman fort, and was an important Roman military settlement for several centuries. The Roman’s loved a good bath, unsurprisingly the foundations of a bath house have been found near the Castle.
Lancaster Castle is still used as a prison. There are actual convicted criminals imprisoned inside this ancient monument. Which is a bit weird. It must be hard enough being in prison, but being in a prison that is also a tourist attraction – tours available daily – just seems cruel. As an aside, its claimed that the portcullis printed on the official paper of Parliament is modelled on the portcullis of Lancaster Castle.
Although Lancaster itself wasn’t really involved, it was to be the House of Lancaster that won the War of the Roses in the 15th century. This series of feudal conflicts, between two sides of the Royal House of Plantagenet, dragged on for decades and was littered with violence, bloody intrigue, double dealing and backstabbing. In the end Henry Tudor, Henry VII, won the throne. Paving the way for Henry VIII and the Reformation which would, in turn, lead to the Pendle Witch Trials.
Its from this period that Lancaster and Lancashire derive their most recognisable symbol, the red rose. This mirrored the white rose, symbol of the House of York, the other combatant in the War of the Roses. When Henry VII took the throne, he married Elizabeth of York, uniting the two warring factions. He also merged the Red Rose of Lancaster with the White Rose of York to form a hybrid, the Tudor Rose.
If the Pendle Witch Trials were a bleak period in Lancaster’s history, it was surpassed by an even greater injustice in the 18th century. Lancaster is a small town, but it played a major role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Lancaster was the fourth most important English port for the Slave Trade; its ships carried upwards of 30,000 Africans, predominately from Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and The Gambia, into slavery.
Almost every prominent Lancaster family and business had connections to the slave trade, but the Rawlinson family were the wealthiest Lancaster slavers. Perhaps the most unusual industry to benefit directly from the slave trade, was Lancaster’s famed cabinet making industry – epitomised by the Gillow company who dominated fine English furniture for 200 years. Most of the mahogany used to make cabinets arrived on the final leg of the triangular slave trade.
Lancaster ended its role in the slave trade in the 1790s, but the coming of the canal to Lancaster in 1797 was the stimulus for an industrial boom, enhancing the city’s wealth further. Mills sprung up along the banks of the canal, and Lancaster canal boats plied their trade up and down the new waterway: coal to power steam engines in the mills, and limestone from quarries near Kendal for use in iron, steel and glass manufacture. Lancaster became a centre for cloth production. The Moor Lane Mill, built in 1819, made bombazine (silk twisted with yarn) before switching to cotton in 1826.
Lancaster grew rich from the slave trade and industrialisation, and there are many grand buildings still standing which testify to that fact. City Hall is a classic piece of imperialist architecture, in front of it stands a giant statue of Queen Victoria adorned with metal sculptures of the great and the good from Victorian Britain. Its quite remarkable, and interesting how few women make an appearance. George Eliot and Florence Nightingale the two exceptions I spotted.
Today, despite the presence of Lancaster University, the town feels down on its luck – its Georgian and Victorian buildings seemingly out of place and at odds with the tawdry city centre of its present.