Carlisle Castle and the Escape of Kinmont Willie Armstrong

Carlisle is in the news as I write this, because rainfall we are supposed to see only once in a hundred years has flooded parts of the city, and parts of Cumbria and the Scottish Borders.  I spent several weeks in and around Carlisle last summer when researching and photographing for my book “Exploring History in the Scottish Borders”, so I thought I would share some images with you of Carlisle Castle in better weather, and the story of the most jailbreak in Borders’ history, involving Kinmont Willie Armstrong.

Carlisle’s massive castle was the centre of English administration in the English western Borders.  It was close to being impregnable. Once through the outer walls which are shown in one photograph, any attackers who survived that far came up against a gatehouse, called the Captains Tower, which controls access to the inner ward, the centre of the castle.  The other photograph shows the Captain’s Tower.

In front of and below the Captain’s Tower is the Half Moon battery, a semi-circular artillery fortification built in the 1540s to provide additional firepower to protect the Captain’s Tower.  In more recent years the ground level in front of the Captain’s Tower was raised to create a parade ground.  Before that the Half Moon battery’s field of fire would have been deadly, if attackers had reached that far.

Even that was not considered strong enough to defend against the Scots.  At one time there was a moat and drawbridge in front of the Captain’s Tower and Half Moon battery, to further protect access to the castle’s inner area.  Beyond the Captain’s Tower was the castle’s keep, the centre of the castle and its last redoubt.

Kinmont Willie Armstrong was a notorious reiver, who was arrested by the English on what was supposed to be a truce day.  Willie deserved to be arrested, but arresting him on a truce day was illegal.

Willie’s arrest on a truce day caused outrage throughout the Borders.  After negotiations for his release came to nought, the reiver families decided to take action. But Carlisle was too strong to be taken by frontal assault, even though the reivers could have easily organized an army of several thousand men.  Stealth was the answer.

On a dark, rainy night, similar to what Carlisle has been suffering in recent days, a group of about 80 reivers, led by the head of the Scott clan, made their way to a small postern gate in the outer wall of the castle.  A postern gate is a small secondary gate, not the main gate.  It isn’t clear whether they had help from inside, or they removed several stones surrounding the door bolt to open the door (a common reiver tactic when attacking fortified towers and farmhouses).  Then they were in, and released Kinmont Willie, who luckily was being held in the outer ward of the castle.  Thankfully they were able to release him through stealth, and not bloodshed.

The incident outraged Queen Elizabeth I, who put pressure on King James VI of Scotland, who eventually made the head of the Scott clan travel of London to apologise to her.

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