Carlisle Castle

  > This venerable relic of antiquity, which stands on an eminence at the north-west angle of the city, is of an irregular triangular form, and occupies an area of about three acres. Although very defective as a place of defence according to the modern art of war, it was once a most important fortress, and was looked upon as one of the keys of England. It is supposed to occupy the site of the old Roman fort, and was repaired by Egdrid1, king of Northumberland, in A.D. 680. After the destruction of it by the Danes in the ninth century, it remained in a dilapidated state till 1072, when its restoration was commenced by William Rufus. His successor, Henry I, in 1122, disbursed money for the erection of some part of the castle and fortifications; and in 1135, David, king of Scotland, who seized Carlisle, assisted in completing the works. As nearly every incident of general importance relative to the castle, together with the sieges it has sustained, are already noticed in the ancient history of the city, it will be unnecessary to recapitulate it here.

The castle was again in a ruinous state, in the reign of Henry III, in consequence of the damage done to it in 1216, when besiegedcastlegateway.jpg (6543 bytes) by Alexander of Scotland. In 1256, the return to a commission of inquiry states that "the queen's chamber, Maunsell's turret, the turret of William de Ireby, the chapel, the great hall, kitchen, and other offices," were much decayed, having been the object of frequent attack. In 1344, an estimate of its repairs were made, when the expense of repairing the stone work was stated at 200; the wood works in the great tower, hall, and other buildings, at one hundred marks; and the reparation of the walls, turrets, runnels, and gates, at 300.

In the reign of Edward IV, Richard, duke of Gloucester, (afterwards Richard III) was governor of Carlisle, and sheriff of Cumberland; and Camden says, "this castle, king Richard III, as appears by his arms, repaired." In A.D. 1563, a report was made to queen Elizabeth, "that the dungeon tower (which should be the principal defence of the castle) was in a state of great decay, and although the walls were twelve feet thick, was in daily danger of falling." The castle, upon this report, was ordered to be thoroughly repaired, and it appears to have been of sufficient strength in the following century to stand a protracted siege.

castlekeep.jpg (4307 bytes)This ancient structure consists of an outer ward, an inner ward, and the donjon tower or keep. The outer ward is nearly square, and its walls are nine feet in thickness and eighteen feet in height, surmounted by battlements. It contains the governor's house, (now an hospital,) old armoury, (now the residence of the master gunner,) and barracks, (built in 1819,) for about 200 soldiers. The old portcullis is still visible on entering the outer gate, above which is a defaced piece of masonry representing the arms of Henry VII. The outer and inner wards are separated by a wall and tower gate, defended by a half-moon battery, which was formerly mounted with cannon, and strengthened by a wide and deep ditch, with a draw bridge. The inner ward is of a triangular form, with walls twelve feet thick, and contains the keep, or great tower, barracks for the officers, the magazine, and store keeper's office, &c. There were formerly in this ward a chapel, queen Mary's tower, barracks for the soldiers, and a great hall; the magazine was erected in 1827, on the site of the hall, and the chapel has been converted into officers' barracks, and a mess-room, the old barracks being pulled down in 1812. On the north side of the inner ward is a rampart, twenty-seven feet thick, and has now five embrasures of cannon. Queen Mary's tower, so called from having been the prison of Mary, queen of Scots, in 1568, was, in consequence of its insecure state, taken down in 1834-5, when several Roman coins were discovered. The great tower is a massive and lofty building, which is now used as an armoury, and contains upwards of 6000 muskets, 1000 Irish pikes, and a considerable number of swords, bayonets, &c. The top of this tower commands a rich and extensive prospect, the foreground of which is formed of fertile meadows on the banks of the Eden. Towards the north-east are seen the mountains about Bewcastle; to the south, the plains towards Penrith; and a vast chain of mountains on either side, over which Cross Fell and Skiddaw are distinctly seen; to the east, a rich tract of cultivated country, terminated by the heights of Northumberland; to the westward, the Solway Frith2 spreads out its expansive waters, margined on the south by fertile meadows, and on the north by Scotland, where Criffle, and a chain of mountains, extend toward the sea. The keep is nearly square, and its height from the ground to the top of the parapet is sixty-eight feet, and consists of three stories, each sixteen feet in height, and the ground floor; beneath the armoury on the latter are the dark and solitary dungeons, which are entered by narrow doors, but into which the light of day cannot enter. In the eastern wall of the keep are two cells, and on the walls of the outer one are carved the figures of men, birds, and animals, with the crests of some of the ancient families of the county. Within the north wall is a well, seventy-eight feet in depth, said to have been constructed by the Romans, for the purpose of furnishing the garrison with such a supply of water as could not be cut off by an assailing enemy. This is probably the identical well shown to Saint Cuthbert, on his visit to the city, in 686. In cleansing it out, about forty years ago, there was found a medal, having on one side the head and name of "His Royal Highness, William, Duke of Cumberland," and on the other is represented a party of retreating rebels, round which is inscribed, "The Pretender's last shift, or Rebels' race for Life, 1745." Near the outer gate of the castle, were two stately ash trees, probably the largest in the county, said to have been planted by the fair hands of the unfortunate Mary, queen of Scots. They formed a very ornamental appendage to the castle, but were cut down in 1804, by order of the Board of Ordnance. The usual promenade of the royal captive, during her imprisonment here, is still called "the lady's walk," but the door through which she came out has been walled up. On the city walls, at a short distance from the castle, is a ruin, called king Richard's, or the Tile Tower, from which there is a subterranean passage to the keep. At present there are only two guns mounted upon the ramparts.

Among the governors of the castle, in the reigns of Henry III, and the three Edwards, were John Baliol, and Robert Brus the younger, both afterwards kings of Scotland; William de Fortibus, earl of Albemarle; Peter de Gaveston, the favourite of Edward II; bishops Halton and Kirkby, and Andrew de Harcla, afterwards made the first earl of Carlisle. He attempted to convert it into a garrison for Robert Bruce, but was arrested within its walls, and executed as a traitor. After his death, the title of earl of Carlisle was not revived till the restoration, when Charles Howard, son of Sir William Howard, in the 13th of Charles II, was created lord Dacre of Gilsland, viscount Howard of Morpeth, and earl of Carlisle; in which honours he has been succeeded by his immediate descendants to the present time. The castle stands in the sockage manor of Carlisle, in that part of St. Mary's parish without the city.

citadel.jpg (7490 bytes)The citadel guarded the south-east angle of the city, and consisted of two immense circular towers flanking the English-gate, on the site of the present county court houses. The towers were 170 feet apart, but united by a strong curtain wall, on the inner side of which was a half-moon battery, commanding the principal street of the city. This structure was surrounded by a deep ditch, and formed the last resource of the inhabitants, who could fire on the enemy who had taken possession of the streets. It was originally built by William Rufus, but being in a state of ruin, it was rebuilt, or extensively repaired, in the reigns of Henry VIII, Elizabeth, &c. The south entrance to the city, by English-gate, passed over the site of the gaol, at right angles with English-street, the present road between the towers being formed in 1801, before which, there was a garden on the roof of each of the towers, with blooming flowers. It was taken down with the walls of the city, (except part of the west wall,) pursuant to an Act of Parliament obtained in 1807, for the erection of the county court houses. The walls of the city have been almost entirely removed for the improvement of the streets, and the accommodation required by a rapidly increasing population. A writer of the last century, speaking of the walls as they then stood, says, "Northern commotions being no longer dreaded, they are sinking into decay: they add great beauty to the city, and form a very agreeable walk, being so broad as that three men may walk abreast within the parapet." Besides the castle, citadel, and gates, the wall had about eight towers, placed at various intervals. Springhold Tower, "being chief and principal place and defence of two parts of the city, and helping to the castle," was situated at the junction of Tower-street3 and Lowther-street. The parapet and platform of the west wall near the castle are still complete, and are defended by king Richard's, or the Tile Tower, which contains large apartments, and several recesses, with a subterraneous passage to the castle. The length of the west wall, which extended from the castle to the citadel, along a steep bank rising above the river Caldew, was 1000 yards; the north wall, 650 yards, and the east wall, 460 yards. The north wall occupied the site of Tower-street, and the east that of Lowther-street; and they enclosed an irregular triangular area - the citadel forming the apex on the south - and were surrounded with a dyke and moat. The city was entered by three gates, viz., English-gate, Irish-gate, and Scotch-gate, which were defended by double iron-studded doors of great strength, and, till the end of the last century, were closed every evening at dusk, after which there was no ingress or egress allowed. The Scotch and English gates were long defiled with the revolting spectacle of the heads of some of those who espoused the cause of Prince Charles, in 1745. During the civil war there was a guard house erected at each gate, from the materials obtained by pulling down the west end of the cathedral. David Wilkie is barrack-master and storekeeper; James Memess, master gunner; William Heighton, barrack-sergeant; and Rev. Benjamin Ward, military chaplain.


 Mannix & Whellan, History, Gazetteer and Directory of Cumberland, 1847




1. Egdrid is now usually rendered Ecgfrith, who ruled 670-685.
2. The Solway Frith is now rendered as the Solway Firth, and Criffle as Criffel.
3. Tower-street has been split, and now exists as East and West Tower Street. Lowther-street is now Lowther Street.

The description of the castle, despite the passage of 150 years, is still tolerably good. Although the castle still retains links with the military, it is open to visitors. The keep now houses a museum, and one of the buildings in the outer ward holds the county archives. The Tile Tower, described as ruinous, is now in good repair. A busy road separates the castle from the city; sadly, plans to sink the road in a tunnel have not come to fruition, but the planned footbridge over the road, connecting the west walls with the west wall of the castle is to be welcomed, as is the new pedestrian underpass, which will give easy access to the city, and Tullie House museum. The council's decision to erect a glass pyramid and other glass objects near to the castle can only be viewed as crass and insensitive, and their refusal to accede to a strong body of local opinion opposed to these creations says much about the ivory tower mentality of local government. May they reap the whirlwind at the next election !

Note added in July 1999 - the local council did indeed reap the whirlwind of local anger at the recent elections; the Labour group which had been in power for many years suffered a landslide defeat, and the infamous glass pyramid has thankfully been consigned to the dustbin of "might-have-been."

Note added in September 1999 - the council having been elected largely on a protest vote against the glass structures is now back-tracking, alleging that severe penalty clauses mean that the entire scheme is back on the agenda. They are to hold a "public consultation exercise", which will doubtless cost a considerable sum of money. On offer will be a choice between the old scheme, a revised one (but still with the detested pyramid), and perhaps a third option. Watch this space.

Note added in May 2000. The work on the underpass and footbridge has necessited archaeological excavation of part of the Castle Green, an area of grass between the road and the castle, and Roman buildings and roads have been found. The footbridge which is now in place has created a public uproar; it's a monstrosity, a gleaming white suspension bridge, totally out of keeping with the city and castle walls.

Of the other defensive structures, the West Walls still stand for much of their original length. The citadel described above was replaced by court houses built on a similar floor plan, and while no longer used as court houses they still form an impressive entrance to the city from the south.

Photos Steve Bulman.

19 June 2015

Steve Bulman