Light Up Lancaster puts a spotlight on the Castle and the Cowcher

Concept for Lancaster Castle lit up with The Great Cowcher and other Duchy records for Light up Lancaster

Researchers at Lancaster University have worked with the Duchy of Lancaster and projection artists Illuminos to create a monumental sound and light display at Lancaster Castle for Light Up Lancaster 2023.

The display will showcase the history of the Duchy of Lancaster and the centrepiece of its medieval archive, the Great Cowcher Book, at its ancestral home.

Around 1402, King Henry IV, who was heir to the Duchy of Lancaster, commissioned the Great Cowcher Book: a record of land, titles and rights within the Duchy of Lancaster ownership.

The Cowcher includes copies of 2,433 documents, written in Latin and French, making it second only to William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book as a record of medieval landholding and the lives of ordinary people and communities in medieval England.

Unlike Domesday, though, The Cowcher (which derives from Anglo-Norman French ‘couchour’, meaning here a large book that lies on a table) is richly illuminated. The scribes used precious inks to decorate the text and create captivating drawings of the earls and dukes across the centuries, as well as heraldic banners.

Over the nights of November 2 to 4, the Duchy’s medieval archive – from the magnificent illustrations from the Great Cowcher to the Duchy’s charters and its records of forests in Lancashire and beyond – will light up the Castle walls, amidst a dramatic soundscape including readings from the Great Cowcher.

This display will be an innovative and appealing way to engage a wide audience with Lancaster’s research. The event is free and open to all.

The Duchy of Lancaster began life in 1267, when the earldom of Lancaster was created by King Henry III for his second son, Edmund. The new earldom incorporated the Honour of Lancaster, a collection of landholdings focused on Lancaster Castle, as well as the estates of disinherited rebels.

The title ‘Duke of Lancaster’ was first used in 1351. In 1399, the inheritance fell to Henry Bolingbroke, who seized the English throne, becoming Henry IV. He decreed that the Duchy should be held separately from all other Crown possessions and descend through the monarchy as a private estate.

Today the estates of the Duchy belong to His Majesty the King and cover more than 18,228 hectares across England and Wales.

The Great Cowcher Book sits within the Duchy of Lancaster’s archive, housed at The National Archives (TNA): one of the largest private archives of medieval documents in the world.

Lancaster University historians Dr Sophie Thérèse Ambler and Professor Fiona Edmonds are working with colleagues at TNA and the University of Lincoln to explore these records to see what they can reveal about how the inhabitants of the Duchy’s lands experienced the political and military strife of their day and the environmental change of the medieval era.

Professor Edmonds, the Director of the Regional Heritage Centre at Lancaster University, says: “The Great Cowcher book contains vital records of a formative period in the history of Lancashire and beyond. It is really exciting to bring this manuscript to wider attention through Illuminos’ exhilarating light and sound art. We are delighted to be working with the Duchy of Lancaster to bring this display to historic Lancaster Castle as part of Light Up Lancaster and the Regional Heritage Centre’s 50th anniversary programme.”

Dr Sophie Thérèse Ambler, a Reader in Medieval History at Lancaster, says: “The earldom and then Duchy of Lancaster is tied to momentous events in British History – from England’s First Revolution of 1258-67, with the lands of crown enemies used to create the earldom, to the Anglo-Scottish wars of the fourteenth century that ravaged much of northern England, and to the deposition of King Richard II by Henry IV. Showcasing the Duchy’s history at Light Up Lancaster will bring this history to life.”

The display is hosted at Lancaster Castle November 2 to 4 as part of Light Up Lancaster.

Lancaster University is a community sponsorship supporter of Light Up Lancaster, demonstrating its commitment to the local area.

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