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Lancashire History


Fortifications in Lancashire

In order to secure and consolidate his new kingdom, William had immediately set about building or strengthening forts around Lancashire. In particular at the northern extremities of the county. Territories to the north of the county of Lancashire, (then known as "The King's Lands in Yorkshire") were always vulnerable and northwards of Carlisle were effectively in Scottish hands, and it was here that William placed his main line of fortified defences. There was, of course, another point to the building of castles. They were intended to billet his own troops to maintain the peace, to keep the ever rebellious Saxon peasantry in place and to serve as a powerful reminder that the Normans had come to stay and that Saxon rule had ended once and for all.

Norman Forts in Lancashire
Norman forts in Lancashire. © 2003 John Moss.

By the mid-12th century these lands had become known as "the County of Lancashire". In 1267, one Edmund Crouchback was made First Earl of Lancaster and in 1351 the Earldom of Lancaster was raised to the status of a Dukedom with royal powers (known as palatine powers - that is, powers belonging to the palace). The Duchy of Lancaster appointed its own sheriffs and judges, which were not directly answerable to the king. Henceforth Lancashire was to be known as a County Palatine, an honour that it retains today. Norman rule was thus visibly consolidated and all trace of a ruling Saxon class was systematically removed or replaced by men of Norman descent. From this time, French was to be the language of the ruling class, and Saxon, such as it survived at all, became the dialect of a feudal peasant underclass.

Trade & Commerce in Post-Norman Medieval Cheshire

It took a very long time for native Saxons to come to terms with their Norman overlords, and for the best part of two centuries the land was divided - not until the 12th century did a clear sense of being "English" emerge. Even then, lands tended to be retained by a landed aristocracy of Norman descent with Saxon peasantry working the land under feudal conditions.
The granting of markets by Royal Charter during the 12th and 13th centuries gives some indication that divisions had healed and that the county had begun to increase in prosperity through its trade and commerce. The 13th century also saw the beginnings of land enclosure when hedges were laid down to mark the borders of land ownership. These hedgerows and the rights of way footpaths between them formed the basis of the old system of roads and went some way towards setting the character of the English countryside.

Lancashire Market Towns.
Medieval Market Towns in Lancashire. © John Moss 2003

Markets usually grew up in the squares around churches in townships like Manchester, Wigan, Burnley, Preston, Bolton, Kirkham and Lancaster. Even today, most towns have places known as "Market Place" or "Market Street". It is not coincidental therefore that these market towns became the first real towns of any major importance within the county and as such formed the basis of modern England - most would emerge into great towns or cities. While goods were produced in the countryside, the wealth was actually created through trade at market. One by one, Market Charters were granted - Lancaster in 1200, Bolton in 1251, Manchester in 1282, Preston in 1292, Burnley in 1294, and so on.
Many other smaller townships held markets without an official charter - these included Chorley, Colne, Blackburn and Whalley, where markets grew up unofficially and remained by tradition and custom rather than legislation. At least 40 markets can be identified as having existed in Lancashire before 1550, though the actual figure might have been twice that number through such 'unofficial' or casual markets.
But, more than half of the known markets had failed and disappeared by 1550, probably through fierce competition in neighbouring townships. By this time Lancashire had developed 28 towns with borough status, and by the end of medieval times a clear urban infrastructure was in place. Despite this increase in trade and resultant prosperity, much of the county was very sparsely populated and was counted as one of the poorest counties in the land and recorded some of the lowest tax returns in medieval England.

Tudor and Renaissance Lancashire

In many ways Lancashire was somewhat isolated from the rest of England. First, it lay near the geographical northern limit of the realm. Also, it had very scant parliamentary representation, with only 10 seats: 2 for the county and two each for the townships of Preston, Liverpool, Wigan and Lancaster.... and, by the early 16th century had not actually sent representatives to Parliament in over 200 years. Lancashire was also the most fervently Catholic county in the land during times of religious dissent, enforced Protestantism and eventual Civil Wars.
When the Tudors forced the break with Rome and began the English Reformation, Lancashire's gentry closed ranks and offered stiff resistance. Many Catholic families simply continued practicing the old faith and went on celebrating the Mass in secret, while nominally embracing Protestantism, as new laws demanded. Lancashire Catholics tended to send their children to be educated on the Continent, so that only in the Parish of Manchester itself did the Protestant faith really flourish, surrounded as it was by a veritable sea of overt Catholicism. Official response to Catholicism was somewhat laissez-faire, and initially at least, little was done, other than a few fines here and there. At the very worst of times only 16 Lancastrians were executed for their beliefs during the reign of Elizabeth I, sometime around 1537. The county was a virtual hotbed of priests, and apart from Manchester itself, Anglican Protestant ministers of religion were few and far between.
The establishment of Grammar Schools in the 16th century was a decisive act in the promotion of an Anglican-based education system. Philanthropists established many grammar schools for boys (girls not being considered worth educating at that time) - men like Bishop Hugh Oldham of Exeter had founded the Manchester Grammar School in 1515; William Haigh had left monies to establish a local school in Wigan; a little later, in the 17th century, Sir Humphrey Chetham had bequeathed substantial funds to establish a grammar school, as well as a library, in Manchester - the famous Chetham's Hospital School. In the half century before the Civil Wars, 77 grammar schools were established in Lancashire - at Liverpool in 1515, Leyland in 1524, at Blackrod in 1568, Ashton-in-Makerfield in 1558, Rivington in 1566, Halsall in 1593 and Heskin in 1597.
Other Nonconformist sects also grew within the county. In the early 17th century Bolton became an important centre for Calvanism, and by the 1620s Bury had developed a considerable Presbyterian following. In the 1640s George Fox had founded the Quaker movement in Pendle which quickly spread to St Helens, Marsden and Nelson. Subsequently, in 1690, the Act of Toleration was passed and religious antagonisms effectively ceased in the county thereafter.

Lancashire in the Civil Wars & After

The English Civil Wars of 1642-1659 saw the religious divides of England come to a head. By this time the county had divided almost in half with the north and west remaining staunchly Royalist and the remainder being predominantly Protestant. Bolton was a particularly fervent seat of Parliamentarianism and anti-Royalist and many great battles were fought on the surrounding Lancashire countryside, at Strandish and at Wigan. By 1643, battles at Warrington, Wigan, Preston and Lancaster had secured these towns in Parliamentary hands, though subsequently some changed hands serveral times. In 1664 Royalists under Prince Rupert besieged and sacked Bolton before going on to recapture Wigan and Liverpool. Oliver Cromwell himself led his "roundheads" onto the field at Ribbleton Moor in 1648 to fight the Battle of Preston.
Townships often changed hands, and sides, several times during the conflict, with vicious and brutal reprisals often taken against the unfortunate inhabitants. The Royalists were frequently led by James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, local hero and scourge of the Parliamentary forces - in the end he was captured and beheaded in Bolton Market Place for his pains. Bolton became known for the brutal savagery its townsfolk meted out against captured Royalists. Other Lancashire Royalist leaders were tried in Manchester in 1694. These so-called "Lancashire Plot" trials served to emphasise the deep mistrust that the average English Protestant still felt towards Catholics and supporters of the House of Stuart.
By the end of the conflict in 1650, many Catholic and Royalist estates had been confiscated and their former owners severely punished for their part is supporting the losing side. Their lands were handed over to Protestants on a 'temporary' basis. Nevertheless, hatred and mistrust still existed between Protestants and Catholics, and the eventual downfall of King James II embittered the latter even further so that many were persuaded to join the Jacobite cause. The effects and divisions of the Civil Wars were still felt many years after the peace was declared.

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Copyright © John Moss, Papillon Graphics AD 2013 Manchester, United Kingdom - all rights reserved.
This page last updated 6 Feb 12.