Carlisle on the west and Berwick on the east coast were the two main military fortifications on the English side of the Borders in the 16thcentury. Carlisle, just 10 miles from the Scottish border, was a walled city with a massive and strong castle. The castle still stands, and some of the walls still exist. However the castle lacks the romantic look of castles such as Norham or Caerlaverock; Carlisle Castle is built for business, not for decoration, and that business is war. The city walls connected to the castle, creating a strong defensive system, with the castle the place of last resort. The castle is on the north edge of the old town and on slightly higher ground than the town.
Carlisle has been an important military centre since the time of the Romans, and probably before that. Positioned at the meeting point of three rivers, the main west coast road to Scotland, and the road from the west across the north of England to Newcastle, it is in a strategic position.
Carlisle and much of northern England was for many years disputed territory between the English and Scots. In 1066, when William the Conqueror won his victory at the Battle of Hastings, Cumberland and Carlisle were controlled by a chief who is likely to have considered himself a vassal of the King of Scots. So Carlisle is not recorded in the Domesday Book – it wasn’t part of England at the time. However, in 1092 William the Conqueror’s son Rufus invaded the area and annexed Cumberland, including Carlisle, for England. The Normans were great castle builders, and therefore he immediately began building a wooden castle.
The castle was rebuilt in stone in 1112. The castle has been added to over the centuries and now consists of a large outer ward protected by walls and a strong gatehouse. Once in the outer ward, there is a further gatehouse, called the Captains Tower, which controls access to the inner ward, the centre of the castle. In front and below the Captain’s Tower is the Half Moon battery, a semi-circular artillery fortification, build in the 1540s to provide additional firepower to control access to inner ward.
The Captain’s Tower with the Half Moon Battery below.
In more recent times the ground level in the outer ward was raised to create a parade ground. Before that was done the Half Moon battery’s field of fire allowed it to control the outer ward, and would have turned it into a killing zone if invaders had breeched the outer ward’s walls. At one time there was an inner moat and drawbridge, in front of the Captain’s Tower and Half Moon battery, assisting in protecting access to the castle’s inner ward. Within the inner ward is the castle’s keep, the centre of the castle and its last redoubt.
The Scots retook Carlisle and controlled it from 1135 until they withdrew in 1157 because they recognised they were up against overpowering English force. The Scots captured the castle again for a short time in 1216. However ninety nine years later in 1315, a year after the Scots major victory at Bannockburn, even Robert the Bruce was unable to capture the castle in an eleven day assault.
Around 1541, because of increased concern about an attack from the Scots in alliance with France, the castle’s and town’s defences were modernised on the orders of Henry VIII. This involved strengthening some walls to withstand artillery bombardment and to enable them to carry defensive heavy guns. At the same time the keep was lowered and its roof strengthened to take heavy guns, and the Half-Moon gun battery was built in the outer ward.
During the time of the border reivers, the castle was the centre of power in the English West March, and used as a prison for Border reivers. Another famous prisoner was Mary Queen of Scots, who fled to England in May 1567 following what was effectively a civil war with her Protestant subjects. She was held in the castle for several weeks after landing in England following a journey across the Solway Firth.
The castle’s last hurrah was in 1745, during the Jacobite rebellion. Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite army made its way into England via Carlisle, and the town and castle surrendered to them. When the Jacobites retreated via Carlisle, they left a garrison of 400 men to delay the English army’s pursuit. However the castle, which was designed to resist attacks made with the military hardware of the 1500s, proved no match for the artillery available in the 1700s, and after a few days bombardment it surrendered.
The castle we see now was remodelled a little in the 1820s as a military barracks, but very extensive amounts of the earlier castle remain. It is now under the protection of English Heritage.
Whilst in Carlisle it is worth visiting the Cathedral, England’s second smallest cathedral. The cathedral has a long history going back to the 1100s, and is situated in the cathedral precinct which has an attractive gatehouse, and a building called the Fratry, which was the dining hall for the monks, and is now partly used as a restaurant.
Carlisle Cathedral and stain glass window.