Visitors to the city of Carlisle in Cumbria cannot fail to be impressed by the massive red castle to the north of the centre. As a border city Carlisle has been no stranger to raids and warfare, and the massive fortifications have played their part in battles and sieges.
The castle is another example of classic medieval military architecture – a stern, square keep situated within an outer circuit of walls. But the military value of the site on the River Eden was recognised much earlier, by the Romans who built a fort there. The site is close to the southern-most point of Hadrian’s Wall. About one thousand years later King William II, son of William the Conqueror, ordered construction of a Norman motte and bailey castle on the site following his successful defeat of the Scots in Cumberland.
The historic border between England and Scotland is just a few miles north of the city, and it was a turbulent area. At this western end of the border was a region known as the ‘debateable land’, where national ownership was in dispute and as a result there was considerable lawlessness. Raider, or reivers, lived in the area and were constantly attacking one another, fighting and stealing for hundreds of years.
King Henry I of England ordered construction of a stone castle in 1122, replacing the earlier Norman structure. This first building put up was the massive keep, along with walls which surrounded the entire city. Despite these defensive works the Scots captured the city in 1135 and held it until 1154. They again laid siege in 1173 and 1315 but were unsuccessful on both occasions. During the English Civil War the castle was held by a Royalist garrison who withstood an initial siege, but eventually surrendered to a second attempt when it was clear that they cause was lost.
In 1745 a Jacobite army attacked England in support of Prince Charles Edward Stuart of Scotland, and captured the city.It was inevitable that the English would recapture Carlisle as the Jacobites lacked the resources to maintain their uprising. Only six months after taking the city the Jacobites found themselves besieged by an English army and after nine days they surrendered. The garrison of about 400 men were then held in the dark prison cells at the bottom of the keep where they were held until taken out for execution.
The large, gloomy rooms into which the unfortunate garrison were crammed accessible today, complete with the ‘licking stones’ where the doomed prisoner licked the damp walls in an attempt to slake their thirst. Today the castle, managed by English Heritage, is rich in historical detail. The huge keep contain staircases and rooms to be explored, and it is possible to get onto the roof via a steep set of wooden steps; it is worth it for the views.
The wide castle walls are topped by a row of cannon, and the castle also houses the museum of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. Historic reenactments are often held within the castle and it’s worth checking in advance to see what’s going on.