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Carlisle, the Capital of Cumbria

Published
June 15, 2022
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HARD on the border with Scotland, Carlisle has a citadel, a castle, and a 900-year-old cathedral as well as the nearby scenic attractions of the Solway Coast and the Lake District.

Carlisle is also the capital of Cumbria, the most north-western historical region or ceremonial county of England.

The name Cumbria has the same origin as Cymru, the indigenous name for Wales. Some Cumbrian place names, such as Penrith, look Welsh. Other local place names are Norse or English. All sorts of people have lived there over the years.

The location of Carlisle, north of Keswick and the Lake District, and on the opposite coast to Newcastle upon Tyne. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top for this map and others to follow.

Carlisle was founded by the Romans as the walled city of Luguvalium, a name that was probably adapted from a Celtic name for the locality. The city has been a walled outpost of southern civilisations, first Roman and then English, ever since.

Hadrian’s Wall, the famous Roman rampart against the ancestors of the Scots, begins close to Carlisle, or Luguvalium as then was, and continues eastward to the vicinity of modern-day Newcastle upon Tyne.

As an English outpost, Carlisle is not far from the present-day border with Scotland, which starts just north of a border wilderness called the Solway Coast Area of Natural Beauty (AONB).

A closer view of Carlisle, the Solway coast, and the towns of Gretna and Gretna Green just over the Scottish border to the north. The distance from downtown Carlisle to Gretna Green is about 15 km. Map data ©2022 Google.

The Solway Coast is where Edward the First, known as ‘Longshanks’ and the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, the villain in Braveheart, expired of natural causes in 1307. The spot where old Longshanks breathed his last is marked by a monument erected in 1685: either a cause for solemnity or rejoicing, depending on what side of the border you view it from I suppose.

Monument to Edward I in the Solway Coast AONB. Photograph taken 19 June 2008 by Andrew Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Carlisle was destroyed by the Danes around the year 875 CE and seems to have lain derelict till after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The Normans began rebuilding the city as a fortified frontier town from 1092 onwards. Thereafter, the city would be besieged by the Scots on an amazing number of occasions and sometimes captured by them, though never permanently as it seems.

After the two kingdoms acquired the same monarch in 1603, the year in which James VII of Scotland became James I of England, it seemed that the folk of Carlisle could breathe easy at last.

Except that, they didn’t. An allied force of Roundheads and Scottish Covenanters besieged the city, at that time loyal to Charles I, for about nine months in 1644 and 1645. And Bonnie Prince Charlie had another go in 1745.

After the border finally became peaceful, Carlisle grew famous as a place from which English elopers could flee to Scotland to get married.

In the 1700s, England introduced laws that allowed disapproving parents to veto a marriage between under-21s and also required church authorities to approve of all weddings. But these laws did not apply in Scotland. So, all that an English Romeo and Juliet had to do was travel to Scotland and find two people who would witness their vows.

At one time, the most willing of these witnesses was the blacksmith in the Scottish village of Gretna Green, just 15 km from downtown Carlisle. Even Jane Austen writes about this in Pride and Prejudice: for better or worse, it was a notorious practice.

The ‘Marriage Room’ in the old blacksmith’s shop in Gretna Green, photo by Willem van de Pol, 1 July 1930. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

I really loved Carlisle, which is a bit off the beaten track in tourism terms and yet has all the right things, including surviving city walls on the western side of town.

The West Walls, I think

The West Walls Theatre

The city only has a population of a bit over one hundred thousand: but it is really historic. It has a castle and a cathedral. And its downtown is also dominated by a citadel with two towers to the west and east of English Street, respectively.

The East Tower of the Carlisle Citadel

These towers are at the southern end of the old city. They are on either side of what used to be the main gate in the city walls, the Bochard Gate.

The site of the former Bochard Gate, looking southward along English Street. The twin towers of the Citadel are to the left and the right; you can just see the battlements of the west tower peeping over at the right.

The towers were originally built in the time of Henry VIII to fend off the Scots. They were rebuilt in 1810, presumably as a defence against Napoleon.

Quirky buildings downtown

A narrow alleyway with a view either of the city walls or the Citadel

An information panel near Carlisle Castle

Here is a photo of the local Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, featuring the city’s coat of arms, a shield with a mural crown on top symbolising the walled city, and two red dragons (strictly, wyverns) on either side.

Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery

The museum website states that the red wyverns were added as a sign of Cumbria’s cultural links with Wales when the coat of arms was last updated in 1924.

The Coat of Arms of the City of Carlisle. British Crown Copyright via Wikimedia Commons, originally from civicheraldry.co.uk, and depicted for the purposes of illustration. The image has been slightly sharpened for this post.

The central part of the arms of Carlisle, which dates back to the Middle Ages, sports four red roses. They are often mistaken for the red rose of the House of Lancaster, the enemies of the House of York in the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses, in which the Yorkists wore a white rose. In fact, the red roses of Carlisle represent the Virgin Mary.

One of the bloodiest battles of the Wars of the Roses was the siege of Carlisle in 1461 by a combined army of Lancastrians and, as usual, the Scots. Red roses or not, Carlisle was a Yorkist town at the time.

One of the symbols of today’s England is the Tudor Rose, a red rose and a white rose joined together to symbolise the eventual peace.

Game of Thrones is loosely based on the Wars of the Roses. As to where the idea for the ice wall and the white walkers in Game of Thrones comes from, I will be talking about that in my next post!

A barber’s shop built into the brickwork

What is this old urn, I wonder?

Houses opposite the old urn

Another view of the same, historic area

And then I visited Carlisle Cathedral, founded originally as a Norman church in 1122 CE and added to, in different styles, since then, even as other parts of it were destroyed and ruined in various wars as well. The fact that the cathedral was founded in 1122 meant that was celebrating its 900th anniversary. This actually fell in early May it seems, about a month before I arrived.

Carlisle Cathedral information sign

Carlisle Cathedral

Carlisle Cathedral is famous for being partly in ruins, and partly not

Carlisle Cathedral information sign

Inside a part of the cathedral that isn’t ruined. As you can see by the somewhat heavy columns and rounded arches, characteristic of early Norman architecture, parts of the cathedral are very old and predate the full development of the later gothic style with its pointed arches (though the window is pointed) and generally more airy appearance.

The painted blue ceiling with gold stars is a “world-renowned feature.” The cathedral also has a very famous stained-glass window.

Part of the ceiling vault inside the cathedral, in one of the more gothic parts

Another part of the gothic ceiling vault

Another part of the cathedral’s exterior, in the older part I believe

The ‘Fratry’, where the monks used to dine, has just been restored in time for the 900th anniversary of the cathedral, and a new sandstone café pavilion added, tastefully done in a style that blends into the mediaeval architecture without looking completely fake.

Fratry information panel

The new café pavilion next to the Fratry

The abbey gatehouse next to the cathedral

An information panel for the abbey gatehouse

Old Victorian housing, or earlier, near the cathedral

Some of the ruined parts of the cathedral can be seen in the following video of mine, which starts off with scenes downtown in the vicinity of the citadel. The first two scenes are the same as in one of my social media posts. But there is also a third scene here, extending past the one-minute mark, which shows the ruins.

In my next post, I head up to Hadrian’s Wall.

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