The City of Carlisle stands some seven miles south of the point at which the border between England and Scotland meets the Solway Firth. With a 2001 population of over 71,000 it is the largest settlement in Cumbria and is the administrative headquarters of both Cumbria County Council and Carlisle City Council. Today its importance as a Border City is enhanced by it being at the western end of important road and rail links across the country, as well as the main links south from Glasgow into England.
Carlisle can trace its roots back to the establishment on a rise overlooking the flood plain of the River Eden, close to its confluence with the River Caldew, of a Roman fort during the winter of AD 72-3. The fort was used, abandoned and re-used on a number of occasions over succeeding decades, before it took on a much more permanent form early in the following century as the largest of the forts built along the line of Hadrian's Wall, which passed just half a mile to the north. The fort spawned a large civilian settlement, and the town that grew up here was called Luguvalium, the forerunner of Carlisle itself.
The town survived the removal of central Roman authority in the early 400s, and by 685, when it was visited by St Cuthbert, it was under the control of the Kingdom of Northumbria. In the late 800s it fell to the Vikings.
In 1092 the Normans under King William Rufus took steps to consolidate their hold on northern England. This involved suppressing local magnates whose loyalty to the English throne was suspect and their replacement with men whose loyalty was beyond question. He also ordered the building of a castle on the site of the earlier Roman fort. In 1122 King Henry I visited Carlisle and ordered the building of a stone castle, and stone walls to encircle the town. The structure that emerged forms the basis of the keep you can still see today.
In the same year Henry invited the Augustinian order to take over the operation of the religious community he had established in Carlisle and operate it as a priory, which was dedicated to St Mary. In 1133 the priory church was designated as the cathedral serving the newly founded Diocese of Carlisle and today's Carlisle Cathedral retains some of the structure which was built as a result.
It is perhaps ironic that the keep of Carlisle Castle was probably finished during the occupation of Carlisle by Scots under King David I, who captured the town in 1135. David died in Carlisle Castle in 1153 and his successor, Malcolm IV, ordered a Scottish withdrawal in 1157 in the face of growing English power under King Henry II.
In 1216 the city of Carlisle surrendered to Scots under King Alexander II. The Scots departed after the death of King John of England in October 1216. Carlisle and its castle resumed its central role during the Wars of Independence, during which King Edward I of England sought to annex Scotland. The "Hammer of the Scots" very nearly succeeded. Edward I's death in 1307 and his succession by the feeble Edward II restored the balance of power, and in July 1315 the Scots were once more at the gates of Carlisle under the command of King Robert the Bruce. This time their siege failed, largely because of appalling weather which hampered the movement of siege engines.
The 1500s saw the height of activity by Border reivers, families of bandits based on both sides of the border who preyed on land and property, and especially livestock, throughout the area. In 1525 the then Archbishop of Glasgow, Gavin Dunbar, put a curse upon all the reivers of the borderlands. The "Curse of Carlisle", as it is known, ran to 1,069 words and has seldom in history been bettered for sheer sustained invective. As part of Carlisle's millennium celebrations the City Council commissioned a 14 tonne granite artwork in the shape of a vast pebble, with the curse carved upon it. This was a controversial move at the time, and in some eyes remains so today. The artwork can be seen in the underpass linking Carlisle Castle to the Tullie House Museum.
During the English Civil War, Carlisle was occupied by Royalist forces and suffered a long siege that extended from October 1644 until its surrender in late June 1645. Just over a century later the Jacobite army under Bonnie Prince Charlie turned up at the city gates on 9 November 1745 and rapidly took possession. After the Jacobite retreat north on 20 December towards their eventual demise at Culloden, the garrison they had left was besieged by the Duke of Cumberland for ten days until its surrender.
In the 1800s Carlisle took off as a centre for the textile industry, with mills being established along the line of the River Caldew. Engineering industries followed, as did food processing and manufacturing companies. In 1916 the wartime government took over all the public houses and breweries in Carlisle because of problems of drunkenness among workers from the huge munitions factory at Gretna. What became known as the "Carlisle & District State Management Scheme" lasted, incredibly enough, until 1971.
Today's Carlisle is an attractive and thriving city. It is home to the University of Cumbria, and retains a street plan identifiable from maps showing the layout of the walled city in 1560. At its north end is Carlisle Castle, while a little to the castle's south is Carlisle Cathedral and its attractive precinct. The city walls have largely gone, leaving lengths attaching to the south east and south west corners of the castle. The heart of the city remains the large open market to the south of the Old Town Hall, built in 1799.
The southern entrance to the walled city was originally protected by the Englishgate. This was replaced in 1541 by a Citadel designed by the Moravian military engineer Stefan von Haschenperg. In 1810 this in turn was replaced by a structure designed by Thomas Telford, also known as The Citadel, which originally housed the law courts. Nearby is Carlisle's railway station, used by the West Coast Main Line linking London and Scotland, and providing a link to Newcastle. When the railways arrived in the 1800s they passed along the valley of the River Caldew just outside the west walls of the city, causing a legal battle with the dean of the cathedral who didn't want either the noise or the smoke quite so obviously in his back yard. The railways won.
Visitor InformationView Location on Map