Carlisle Castle: The Most Besieged Castle in Britain
Said to be “the most besieged place in the British Isles,” Carlisle Castle was built towards the end of the 11th century in the border city of Carlisle in the north of England. The site has seen a lot of action over the centuries, having previously been occupied by a Roman fort and particularly due to its location on the English border with Scotland. Carlisle Castle is also the last castle in England to suffer a siege, being besieged for the last time during the 18th century. Today, Carlisle Castle is not only a historical monument, but also home to a museum.
Detail from a royal charter commemorates successful resistance during the siege of Carlisle Castle by Robert I of Scotland in 1315. (Public domain)
Carlisle Castle and its Importance Since Roman Times
The site of Carlisle Castle was occupied as early as the 1st century AD, during the Roman period. In 72 AD, the Romans built a turf and timber fort at the site. The fort provided support for the garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall and provided a base for the Romans to launch their invasions of Scotland. By the middle of the following century, Carlisle, or Luguvalium as it was then known, grew into one of the most important military bases in Roman Britain.
In 1092 William II, the second Norman ruler of England, defeated Dolfin, a Northumbrian warlord, and constructed a castle over the remains of the Roman fort at Carlisle. It is commonly thought that the first Carlisle Castle was a motte-and-bailey castle, which the Normans were accustomed to building. In 1122, William’s successor, Henry I, visited Carlisle, and ordered a stone castle to be built on the site.
- The Fascinating History of Medieval Castles: From Emergence to Obsoletion
- The Mighty Wall of Hadrian, Emperor of Rome
Entrance gatehouse and impressive Keep of Carlisle Castle (ATGimages / Adobe Stock)
It has been speculated that this may have been the origin of the castle’s formidable keep. In any case, the construction of Carlisle Castle was still in progress in 1130. When Henry died in 1135, Carlisle was captured by David I, the King of Scotland. Henry’s work may have been completed by David, as the latter is recorded to have built a keep at Carlisle.
Like the Romans before them, the English kings recognized the strategic importance of Carlisle, and regarded the castle as a vital stronghold for the defense of the kingdom’s northern borders against the Scots. Therefore, subsequent English kings made additions to the castle or rebuilt parts of it. John I, for example, is thought to have rebuilt the outer curtain walls, and the walls of the inner ward in stone.
Mary Queen of Scots stayed at Carlisle Castle for several weeks in 1567 after her forced abdication from the Scottish throne. (Public domain)
Carlisle Castle as a Base Camp for Battling Scotland
Carlisle Castle was not merely used for defensive purposes, but also for offensive ones. In 1296, Edward I made Carlisle his base for the invasion of Scotland. In order to accommodate the king and his court, the inner ward was enhanced. In 1308, the year after Edward’s death, a residential tower, which provided more comfortable accommodation, was added to the castle. This tower became known as Queen Mary’s Tower, as the queen was housed there for several weeks in 1567, after she fled from her rebellious Scottish subjects to England. This, however, was the last time Carlisle Castle was used as a royal residence.
The Union of the Crowns, which occurred in 1603, meant that England and Scotland were now under the same ruler, and defensive structures along the border of England and Scotland, like Carlisle Castle, would have become obsolete. Nevertheless, peace did not last for long. In 1642, the English Civil War broke out, in part caused by the opposition of the Scots towards the religious policy of Charles I. When the war broke out, Carlisle Castle was garrisoned by Royalist forces. Carlisle was besieged in October 1644, and its defenders finally surrendered in June 1645.
Engraving of Carlisle Castle from the 1700s. (Public domain)
Carlisle Castle During the Jacobite Rising
Carlisle Castle enjoyed a period of peace in the subsequent century. In 1745, however, the second Jacobite rising broke out. In that year, the Jacobites, led by Prince Charles Edward Stuart, marched southwards, and arrived at Carlisle on the 9th of November. Five days later, the city surrendered to the Jacobites. When the Jacobites retreated back into Scotland on the 20 th of December 1745, they left a garrison of 400 men in Carlisle Castle. The castle suffered its last siege in that year, and was captured by the English on the 30th of December.
- Tintagel Castle: Arthurian Legend Mixes with True History
- Ancient Engineering: The Art of Siege Warfare
Although this was the last time Carlisle Castle was besieged, to some extent it retained its military function in the centuries that followed. During the 1820s, for instance, Carlisle Castle became an important military barrack. More recently, during the 20th century, the castle’s outer ward served as the headquarters of the Border Regiment. Since 2000, however, Carlisle Castle had become more of a tourist attraction.
Nevertheless, the role of the military in the history of Carlisle Castle is commemorated in Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life, which is housed in the castle. Apart from this museum, Carlisle Castle is also a monument open to the public. Tickets are required for entry into Carlisle Castle, except for English Heritage members, who may visit the castle for free. Facilities at the castle include parking, toilets, a souvenir shop, and a picnic area.
Top image: Carlisle Castle is known as the most besieged castle in Britain. Source: stocksolutions
/ Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
Bibby, M. & Craig-Johnson, E. 2021. “Carlisle Castle, Cumbria” in Historic UK. Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Carlisle-Castle/
No name. 2019. “Carlisle Castle and Carlisle City Walls” in CastlesFortsBattles.co.uk. Available at: http://www.castlesfortsbattles.co.uk/north_west/carlisle_castle.html
English Heritage. 2021. “Carlisle Castle” in English Heritage. Available at: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/carlisle-castle/
BBC Cumbria. 2014. “Carlisle Castle” in BBC. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/cumbria/enjoy_cumbria/heritage/castles/carlisle_castle.shtml
Visit Cumbria. 2021. “Carlisle Castle” in Visit Cumbria. Available at: https://www.visitcumbria.com/car/carlisle-castle/