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Carlisle Castle started out as a Roman garrison and fort from the first to the fourth centuries. This was still partly standing in 685, when St Cuthbert visited Carlisle. In 1092, William II (Rufus) went north to drive out Dolfin (son of Earl Gospatrick of Northumbria), and erected a castle. This may have been no more than a single rampart, but thirty years later, Carlisle's defences were refashioned in stone by Henry I. He ordered the works to be fortified with a castle and towers, and within a decade, the city walls were built and a beginning made on the stone keep. Both were completed by Kind David I during the long Scottish occupation of the northern counties. David was succeeded by Malcolm IV but in 1157, Carlisle and its region were returned to England. Henry II contributed to the fortress with a stone outer curtain, pierced by a new southern gate. After an aborted attempt by William the Lion to seize the castle, the citizens of Carlisle opened the gates to the rebels Scottish allies in 1216 in protest against their unpopular King John. Alexander II's assault on the castle resulted in the destruction of the south curtain , followed by the inner gate and the keep.
The peace which ensued after 1217 was broken by the Wars of Independence with a surprise attack on Carlisle on 26 March 1296. The following year, the Scots were back after William Wallace's defeat of the English forces at Stirling Bridge. Carlisle Castle became the depot for Edward I's invasion of South-West Scotland. His prisoners were locked up in the keep and the castle became the seat of royal government in 1306-07. The Great Hall was built and early in the next reign, the royal apartments were re-shaped. Improvements to the fortifications also followed. On 24 June 1314, Edward II's army was defeated by the Scots at Bannockburn. In July 1315, Kind Robert I was at Carlisle's gates but had to turn away due to bad weather.
Click here to see a reconstruction of the castle.
After the wars, Carlisle Castle lost its status as a forward depot but gained prominence in regional government. It became the headquarters of the Warden of the March, while continuing to accommodate Cumberland's sheriff. The outer gatehouse was rebuilt to provide suitable lodgings. The contract was granted to the mason John Lewyn who finished the work in 1383. After the siege of 1461 by dispossessed Lancastrians and Scots against the Yorkists, one of the bloodiest episode of the War of the Roses, Carlisle was given a purpose-built gun-tower.
The danger of a Franco-Scottish invasion then prompted Henry VIII to send Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk to inspect Carlisle. The latter revived a previous proposal to build a small citadel at the other end of the borough, instead of rebuilding the town walls. The work was given to a Moravian fortress-builder and engineer, Stefan von Haschenperg in 1541. He modernised the keep, replacing its medieval battlements with gun embrasures, backed the inner bailey walls, to the north and west, with ramparts wide enough to carry guns. He also built the Half-Moon Battery, a new stone bulwark, as additional protection for the Captain's Tower. However, Haschenperg's modernisations were costly and badly conceived, and he was dismissed from office in May 1543. In the meantime, the Scots had been defeated at Solway Moss and their artillery seized and included in the armoury of the castle. In 1547, its magazine exploded and cracked the keep.
Carlisle then regained fame by providing a prison for the fugitive Mary, Queen of Scots from 18 May to 13 July 1568. Francis Knollys was her reluctant custodian. "Surely", he said, "if I should declare the difficulties that we have passed before we could get her to remove, instead of a letter I should write a story, and that somewhat tragical." Knollys came to like and respect his prisoner, who lacking the comforts she was accustomed too, continued to plead to Elizabeth for help. She was allowed certain privileges under guard, such as riding, watching her retinue play football on the green, and promenade with her women outside the castle walls. The stretch between the south-east postern to the great gatehouse on the south came to be called "The Lady's Walk".
Queen Mary's Tower, in which Mary was imprisoned, was one of the oldest parts of the castle. Records show that it was the original Norman entrance into the castle. It was blocked when the outer gatehouse and Captain's Tower were built.
The accession of Mary's son, James I of England and VI of Scotland, was greeted with bonfires and rejoicings at Carlisle. There followed a period of genuine peace, but his son Charles I once again placed the city under threat. By 1642, the War of the Three Kingdoms had begun, and Carlisle Castle was re-fortified against a Scottish invasion. Carlisle held up against the siege for eight months until the king's defeat at Naseby on 14 June 1645. Covenanting Scots moved in and were ejected by their former allies, the Parliamentarians not long afterwards. The much acclaimed return of Charles II was followed by the reign of his catholic brother James II. James had to flee the kingdom on 11 December 1688, and his son James Edward, the "Old Pretender", started a new cause, Jacobitism. In 1715, the Scots pressed south leaving Carlisle untouched but, under James Edward's son, Charles Edward, the "Young Pretender" (Bonnie Prince Charlie), the Highland armies seized Carlisle in just six days. Charles Edward was forced to retreat to Scotland by the Hanoverian Cumberland the "Butcher", and the Jacobite rearguard was bombarded out of Carlisle Castle. Some were sent into exile while others were sent to the gallows.
From 1745 to 1959 when the depot closed, Carlisle Castle was home to the military. Today, it remains the headquarters of the King's Own Royal Border Regiment and houses the Regimental Museum.
Open all year except Christmas and New Year. Tel.: 01228 591922.