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A history of Carlisle Castle.

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Carlisle Castle

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The history of Carlisle Castle dates from the period of Roman occupation of Britain during the 1st and 4th centuries. On the site where the castle now stands was a Roman fort. The garrison served the western end of Hadrian’s Wall.

Eleventh century Cumbria was under Scottish control until William II, the Red or Rufus, arrived shortly after the Norman conquest. He began building an earthen-and-wood castle in 1092 and gave the surrounding Cumbrian land to English settlers.

Henry I visited Carlisle in 1122 and ordered a stronger castle and towers built so that the city would be better defended. However, a decade passed before the stone keep was actually begun. Then King David I of Scotland seized the Castle in 1135. During his ownership he completed the keep and the city walls. By 1157 Henry II had fought off the Scots and won Carlisle back. He added curtain walls as an additional layer of protection for the castle.

When Henry returned to the castle in 1186 he commissioned a new chamber for himself. The city of Carlisle, heavily taxed by King John in the early 13th century, sided with the rebellious barons and welcomed their Scottish allies led by Alexander II. They took the castle in 1216. The castle suffered considerable damage in the course of this and subsequent battles and at the time of Henry III, in the middle of the 13th century, it was back in English hands, though in ruins.

In 1294 war broke out between England and France. Edward I asked the Scots to give feudal service to England against France but, instead, they made an alliance with France, now known as the Auld Alliance. Robert Bruce, father of the future king of Scotland, who was at that time loyal to the King of England, was charged with guarding Carlisle. In 1296 Edward I invaded Scotland using Carlisle Castle as a base.

It was Edward I who ordered repairs to the castle. Edward built the Great Hall and refurbished the royal apartments. The castle was also the seat of government to the English Parliament during 1306 and 1307.

In 1315, King Robert I, known as Robert the Bruce, son of the earlier Robert Bruce, tried to capture Carlisle Castle as part of his attempt to be recognized as King of Scotland by the English Crown. He failed to attain the castle however due to extremely wet weather which created muddy fields and stopped his siege towers from approaching the walls.

Richard II carried out more construction and repair on the castle from 1378 to 1383.

In 1461, during the Wars of the Roses, Carlisle Castle came under siege by the Lancastrians

Carlisle Castle, a sapling in the foreground

Photo: PeteG

and their Scottish allies. It was defended by the forces of York.

A new gun tower was added by the future King Richard III who used the castle as a prison.

Between 1540 and 1543 Henry VIII modernized the keep, adding the Citadel, Half Moon battery and wider ramparts. It had been transformed into a gun fort but in 1547 its magazine exploded cracking the keep. Plans were made for demolition of the castle but they were never carried out.

Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in the castle, between 18 May to 13 July 1568, 2 months after her abdication of the Scottish throne. Mary’s Tower was named after her. At this time the castle and the town walls were partly ruined, but Queen Elizabeth I took steps to repair them.

In 1644, during the Civil War, the Castle suffered an 8 month siege by parliamentary forces. The garrison finally surrendered after Charles I was defeated at Naseby. The Scots moved into the castle but were thrown out by the English Parliamentarians. The castle was retaken by the King in 1648.

In 1745, the castle, which was weak and undermanned, was taken by Charles Edwart Stuart, affectionately known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, as part of the Second Jacobite Uprising. Charlie was forced to flee just three weeks later during the subsequent attack from The Duke of Cumberland and his men. They regained the castle and held the remaining Jacobites inside prisoner. A room on the first floor of the keep was used as a dungeon and the desperate prisoners were said to have licked stones to get moisture. The fighting at Carlisle proved to be the last on English soil.

Following the French Revolution discontent in the region grew and a permanent garrison was set up at Carlisle Castle. Military barracks and a large armoury were built to dissuade the people from mounting their own rebellion.

From 1873 to 1959, a depot for the King’s Border Regiment was housed in Mary’s Tower. Guns were mounted at the Castle for the last time during WWII.

The castle is now managed by English Heritage.

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