The Judges’ Lodgings’ connection to the law dates back to the late Tudor/early Stuart period when Thomas Covell, Keeper of Lancaster Castle, lived here. Covell, who was also a magistrate and several times mayor of the city, is now best remembered for locking up the ill-fated “Pendle Witches” in their underground cell. The witches were executed in August 1612.
The building was given the name after its use which, for 200 years, was the temporary home for visiting Assize Judges. The Assize courts (from the French assis meaning sitting) were the system by which, for 800 years, serious criminal cases and some civil cases were dealt with outside London. Three times a year these courts would sit in the designated Assize towns (Lancaster being the designated Assize town for Lancashire) and be presided over by High Court judges. The courts would remain in session for two to three days or longer (depending on the length of the list or the difficulty of the cases listed). The arrival of the judges in Lancaster was a grand affair which drew the crowds (and with them an assortment of street trade and entertainment!). During their stay in town, the judges would lodge at the Judges’ Lodgings and be transported back and forth to the court in the Castle.
Between 1782 and 1865 over 200 people were sentenced to execution by hanging at Lancaster giving it the grisly reputation as “the hanging town”. Outside of London more people were sentenced to death at Lancaster Assizes than anywhere else in the country. Crimes ranged from murder, burglary and arson to livestock theft.
The Courts Act of 1971 abolished Assizes and replaced them with permanent Crown Courts for each county. Lancaster lost out to Preston as the main Crown Court for Lancashire and so from the end of 1971 the Judges’ Lodgings ceased to accommodate itinerant judges. The building’s conversion to a museum dates from the mid-1970s.
Of course, the history wasn’t all grisly. Find out about the toys that child had growing up at Childhood Museum>
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