Welcome to Carlisle

Carlisle lies on the southern bank of the River Eden, in the county of Cumberland, England, around three hundred miles north of London. To the south is the Eden Valley and the North Pennines, about a mile north are the remains of the Hadrian’s Wall, the greatest architectural remnant from Roman Britain and one of the most important World Heritage Sites in England, and to the north is the Solway Firth and the border with Scotland. This ancient city’s proximity to Hadrian’s Wall and Scotland has influenced its history enormously: the town grew up as one of the northernmost outposts of the Roman empire and later as a disputed border town on a dangerous frontier between two perpetually warring kingdoms.


Borders defences at Carlisle Castle

When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD their organisational and military prowess could not be matched by the native Celts. Roman armies made rapid progress north, establishing a wooden fort in Carlisle c.78 AD. All the same, the mountainous terrain encountered by the Romans the further they drove north, the lack of valuable land and the presence of stubborn natives willing to fight for it, convinced the Roman authorities that a policy of containment would be better than a policy of conquest. As a result the remarkable Hadrian’s Wall, named after the Roman Emperor who instigated the project around 122 AD, was constructed between the Solway Firth in the west to the North Sea in the east.

Named Luguvallium by the Romans, the settlement at Carlisle most likely grew up as a means of supplying the wall’s nearby garrisons. Like other Roman towns it acquired a market place and various public buildings including a bathhouse. By the forth century AD the Roman empire was in decline. As a result the wall was abandoned in 399 AD, not long before the Romans finally abandoned the islands, in 407 AD.

The site was incorporated into the Celtic kingdom of the western Britons, who may have used Carlisle as a power base if not as a capital. In any case, the name of the town comes from this period: Caer Luel early Celtic for ‘fort of Luel.’

In the following centuries chieftains and their men fought it out for domination of the islands. In the 7th century the Celts lost Carlisle to the Saxons, who in turn lost out to the Vikings in 876. It changed hands again when reconquered by the Saxons in the 10th century. The irony was that all of this fighting was taking place for a town which had undoubtedly decreased in importance since the old frontier days.

At the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 Carlisle was part of the Kingdom of Scotland, but it soon after fell to the Normans. Carlisle was then reborn as a fortified border town: King William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, founded a fort here in 1092 to secure the region for the Norman-English kingdom. As a border town Carlisle would again begin to grow.

Although the town changed hands several times its growth was not seriously stunted. King Henry I’s project, begun in 1122, for the construction of perimeter walls for the castle was actually completed by King David I of Scotland who recaptured the town in 1135. It became a favoured residence of the Scottish King. When David died in Carlisle Castle in 1152 a resurgent England had little trouble in retaking the town.

Even during the Wars of Independence, when Scottish-English conflict took on a more vicious flavour, Carlisle seems to have prospered. Undoubtedly Carlisle suffered from a number of attacks and sieges, the most notable being that of King Robert the Bruce. Nonetheless, as a favoured seat of Edward I, who was brought north by his desire to conquer Scotland, it benefited more from royal patronage than it suffered from sieges. As a result, by the late fourteenth century the town was more populous than it would be again until the late nineteenth century and its other more emblematic building, Carlisle Cathedral, was well under way to completion.

The people of Carlisle probably breathed a sigh of relief when hostilities between Scotland and England finally lessened. However, as both English and Scottish governments took their eyes off their border regions borderland lords on both sides started a series of destructive mercenary raids into the opposing territories. The region became a lawless world and Carlisle, abandoned by the court and subject to raids, found itself in the thick of things.

All the same, Carlisle would occasionally pop up on the political centre stage, such as when the castle was used briefly as a prison for Mary Queen of Scots in the 16th century. It was also strategically important in the 18th century Jacobite wars and was held briefly by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men in 1745.

The final chapter in Carlisle’s history begins with the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Textiles, biscuit and brick making and printing created new jobs and helped swell the numbers in the town. In 1856 the arrival of the railway paved the way for rail yards. The town maintains its position on the major rail and road routes between Scotland and England. More recently the beauty of the ancient city and its remarkable history has become a draw for tourists.