Julian Humphrys visits a city that was battered by centuries of cross-border skirmishing before becoming home to numerous industries, including printing and weaving
Carlisle’s location has left an indelible impact upon its history. Commanding the low-lying land at the west end of the Scottish border, it was for centuries of immense strategic importance as a bulwark against invaders from the north, and frequently found itself under attack. It held out against William the Lion in the 1170s, fought off Bruce after Bannockburn and saw off the Scots and Lancastrians in 1461.
During the English Civil War, Royalist-held Carlisle underwent a nine-month siege before hunger forced the city’s surrender, and in 1745 it was captured and briefly held by the Jacobites. As a result, unlike so many others in England, its castle was never slighted or allowed to fall into ruin.
It was too important for that. Make no mistake about it however – Carlisle Castle is no fairy tale fortress. It’s grimly functional, leading English Heritage to compare it in one of their guidebooks to the face of some old prize-fighter, bruised and bandaged through the centuries!
In addition to its military role, the castle also served as a prison and as an administrative centre, notably as the headquarters of the warden of the West March, the individual with the difficult task of trying to maintain order in what was until the union of the crowns in 1603 one of the most lawless parts of the kingdom.
In an area where the Anglo-Scottish border was not clearly defined, ‘Reiver’ families like the Armstrongs, Elliots, Kerrs and Grahams paid little attention to the laws of either kingdom, pursuing long-standing feuds and carrying out cross-border raids in search of loot and cattle.
The names of these families adorn the floor of the underpass leading from the castle to the Tullie House Museum, while engraved on a large stone is the vitriolic curse uttered by a Scottish bishop who had lost patience with the Border Reivers and their murderous antics.
What was an invasion route in times of war could be a trade route in peacetime and, over the centuries, Carlisle grew into a thriving market town. Industrialisation began with the production of calico in the second half of the 18th century. By 1814 Carlisle was expanding so rapidly that part of the city walls were pulled down to make room.
You can still see many of the buildings associated with the numerous industries that were established in the city in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including weaving, printing, brewing and biscuit making.
The castle’s key position on the Scottish border meant it was frequently in danger of attack and, as a result, it was regularly repaired and strengthened. Some of its medieval walls were later widened to house cannon. The castle served as a military depot until as late as 1959 and a 19th-century storeroom now houses the regimental museum of the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment.
The oldest surviving part of the castle is the 12th-century keep which was begun by Henry I and completed by David I of Scotland during his occupation of the northern counties of England. Jacobite prisoners were held in its basement following Charles Edward Stuart’s abortive invasion of England in 1745.
A priory was founded here in the early 12th century. Its church became the cathedral of the new Diocese of Carlisle in 1133. The building owes its rather truncated appearance to the fact that most of the nave was demolished after the English Civil War.
The richly decorated choir stalls date from the 15th century and feature a superb set of carved misericords. The treasury contains a fine collection of cathedral silver and includes the wand used by Bishop Oglethorpe at the coronation of Elizabeth I. Some of the priory buildings still remain.
The present Georgian-style building dates from 1778–79 although there has been a church on the site since the seventh century. Its most notable feature is the large moveable pulpit which was built by a local crane company in 1905. The adjacent early Tudor Tithe Barn serves as the church hall.
The museum’s wide-ranging displays include Roman Carlisle, the wildlife of the Eden Valley and the story of the Border Reivers. The underground Millennium Gallery features local geology and archaeology as well as displays of art and costume. Old Tullie House was originally built in 1689 by Thomas Tullie, Dean of Carlisle.
It now houses a gallery of childhood together with items from the museum’s collection of fine and decorative art, including some magnificent Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
This is one of Carlisle’s oldest buildings, dating from the early 15th century. Originally the townhouse of a wealthy merchant, it later became a meeting house for the city’s trade guilds. The upper floor is now a branch of the Tullie House Museum with displays on Carlisle’s civic history. Don’t miss the city chest and medieval stocks.
The Old Town Hall originally dates from the early 18th century and houses the city’s tourist information centre on the first floor. Nearby, complete with snarling lion, is the recently restored Market Cross, which was built in 1682 on the site of an earlier cross.
This was the site of Botchergate, the original southern entrance to the city. In the 16th century a fortress designed to house artillery was built here. The present two towers date from the 19th century and were designed by Thomas Telford and completed by Sir Robert Smirke as assize courts and a prison. The statue in front of them is of the Earl of Lonsdale, the man who promoted their construction. The west tower is occasionally open to the public.
Carlisle Citadel station was designed in 1847 in a Gothic style by Sir William Tite, the leading station designer of his age and the architect of London’s Royal Exchange. It is now the northern terminus of the famous 72-mile Settle to Carlisle railway. At one time no less than seven railway companies had lines terminating in Carlisle and by 1880 they were all using the Citadel station.