Posted on September 15, 2018
MB’s post of last weekend was written from a bar stool in the historic Robert Gillow pub in the medieval town of Lancaster, UK. MB’s Lancaster story now continues with a tale of his visit to Lancaster Castle of only a few days back. For many reasons, it was a visit that will live very long in the memory.
The castle reeks of history from every pore. It is a stunning Grade 1 listed building set on a high point of the city next to the Lune River and dates back almost 1,000 years. It was a functioning prison up to 2011 and remains the venue for the Lancaster courts. It’s open to the public seven days per week, and if you happen to get local guide James, as MB fortunately did, then you are in for a real castle tour treat. The building’s earliest history is somewhat vague and if followers wish to investigate that aspect some more, they can check out the castle’s website.
In 1322, the Scottish army under King Robert the Bruce invaded from across nearby Morcombe Bay and caused damage to the castle structure. In 1612, the castle was the site of the famous Pendle Witches trial, named after the Pendle Hill area of Lancashire from where the twelve accused hailed. Following the trial, nine of the ten found guilty were hung from a gallows on the moors above the town, the tenth being hung at York. Convicts found guilty in the castle courts-of-old were often sentenced to transportation to Australia, and that being the case, prisoners had to walk in chains from Lancaster town to the ports of the English channel, a long wearying journey south that must surely have taken many weeks or even months.
But for MB, the most stunning revelation encountered on the castle tour was the fact that the castle was the venue of the trial of the Birmingham Six in 1975. The castle was chosen on that occasion because the case was considered very high-risk from a security point of view, and in the opinion of the authorities provided the most secure location for the case, the court area being inside a secure live prison/castle.
For followers who may not know the story, the Birmingham Six were six Irishmen sentenced to life in prison in 1975 for the Birmingham Pub Bombings of November 1974 in which 21 people died. The convictions were quashed and the men released in March 1991, sixteen sorry years later. The story was also the subject of a Daniel Day-Lewis movie called ‘In the name of the father’ which is well worth a watch for those who may be interested in the story. In a nutshell, and very simplistically, the original convictions were largely based on forensic evidence, but it was later discovered that the chemicals discovered on the hands of the convicted could have also come from playing cards. Hence the men were released, but with lives then largely past.
It was not allowed to take photos in the court area of the castle which was a real pity as the court interior is truly stunning. But if MB was to be sentenced to life in prison at any future date, then he would certainly want the sentence to be passed in Lancaster Castle court!
An entire wall of the court is full of Coats of Arms from the Kings of 12th century England and right up to current times. Tour guide James pointed of the insignia of King James ll and King William of Orange who fought a defining battle in Irish history at the Boyne River in County Meath, and many more interesting references.
On a floor level below that of the court lies the jury room where those who considered the Birmingham Six case had sat. The jury sits at a circular timber table, some 8 feet in diameter. MB sat on one of the red-cushioned chairs at that table on Tuesday just past, placed his hands on the table surface and wondered what the conversation had been like on 15 August 1975 when the guilty verdicts were reached and the judgment of 21 life sentences were passed on the accused. Incidentally, and to add more poignancy to the situation, 15 August is also the birthday of MB.
So dear followers, if ever you visit the English Lake District or happen to be in the vicinity of Lancaster, do not miss the chance to visit Lancaster Castle. And tell guide James that MB said hello and extends well-wishes!