Carlisle Castle

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Carlisle Castle was first built during the reign of William II of England, the son of William the Conqueror who invaded England in 1066. At that time, Cumberland (the original name for north and west Cumbria) was still considered a part of Scotland. William II ordered the construction of a Norman style motte and bailey castle in Carlisle on the site of the old Roman fort of Luguvalium, dated by dendrochronology to 72AD, with the castle construction beginning in 1093. The need for a castle in Carlisle was to keep the northern border of England secured against the threat of invasion from Scotland. In 1122, Henry I of England ordered a stone castle to be constructed on the site. Thus a keep and city walls were constructed. The existing Keep dates from somewhere between 1122 and 1135.

The act of driving out the Scots from Cumberland led to many attempts to retake the lands. The result of this was that Carlisle and its castle would change hands many times for the next 700 years. The first attempt began during the troubled reign of Stephen of England.


On the 24th of May 1153 King David I of Scotland died at Carlisle Castle. His body was buried in Dunfermline Abbey, Fife, the resting place of his parents, King Malcolm III and Queen Margaret.

On 26 March 1296, John 'The Red' Comyn, since the fourth quarter of 1295 Lord of Annandale, led a Scottish host across the Solway to attack Carlisle. The then governor of the castle, one Robert de Brus, deposed Lord of Annandale, successfully withstood the attack, before forcing the raiders to retreat back through Annandale to Sweetheart Abbey.

From the mid-13th century until the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603, Carlisle Castle was the vital headquarters of the Western March, a buffer zone to protect the western portion of the Anglo-Scottish border.

Henry VIII converted the castle for artillery, employing the engineer Stefan von Haschenperg. For a few months in 1567, Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned within the castle, in the Warden's Tower. Later, the castle was besieged by the Parliamentary forces for eight months in 1644, during the English Civil War.

The most important battles for the city of Carlisle and its castle were during the Jacobite rising of 1745 against George II. The forces of Prince Charles Edward Stuart travelled south from Scotland into England reaching as far south as Derby. Carlisle and the castle were seized and fortified by the Jacobites. However they were driven north by the forces of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, the son of George II. Carlisle was recaptured, and the Jacobites were jailed and executed. That battle marked the end of the castle's fighting life, as defending the border between England and Scotland was not necessary with both countries again one in Great Britain.

After 1746, the castle became somewhat neglected, although some minor repairs were undertaken such as that of the drawbridge in 1783.

Some parts of the castle were then demolished for use as raw materials in the 19th century to create more or less what is visible to the visitor today.


Working notes:




•  On 13th April in 1596, Kinmont Willie was rescued from Carlisle Castle in a daring rescue mission led by the Bold Buccleuch.

•  Harraby is Carlisle's hanging place.

•  Sir William Douglas of Nithsdale (c. 1370 – 1391 AD) was a Scottish knight and Northern Crusader. He was an illegitimate son of Archibald the Grim, 3rd Earl of Douglas and an unknown mother.  A man of apparently dashing bearing, Douglas was with the Franco-Scots army when it unsuccessfully besieged Carlisle Castle in 1385, the defending Governor being Lord Clifford. He is recorded as there performing feats of valour and killing many Englishmen. According to Andrew of Wyntoun:

"A yhowng joly bachelere
Prysyd gretly wes off were,
For he wes evyr traveland
Qwhille be se and qwhille be land
To skathe his fays rycht besy
Swa that thai dred him grettumly" (Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland ix, c.21)

•  David I of Scotland died on 24 May 1153 at Carlisle on 24 May 1153, less than a year after the death of his only son and heir Henry, Earl of Northumberland.

•  The story of the Stewart queen’s imprisonment at Carlisle Castle, the first place to which she was taken after fleeing Scotland and crossing the Solway Firth into England.

Mary spent just eight weeks at Carlisle Castle, from 18 May to 13 July 1568, with Sir Francis Knollys as her custodian. Although Mary was permitted to take walks outside the castle walls with her ladies, and walk the stretch of castle walls that later became known as ‘the lady’s walk’, the other limitations placed upon her movements (such as the fact that she couldn’t travel elsewhere or receive guests without the permission of Elizabeth I) were a foreshadowing of the long years of imprisonment to come.

Mary was kept in Queen Mary’s Tower, which was largely demolished in 1834 due to its unsafe condition and is now a ruin. As the original Norman entrance this was one of the oldest parts of the castle. Mary arrived after a four-hour crossing of the Solway Firth with her retinue, and she expected that her stay at the castle would be a short one – believing she was simply awaiting the help of her cousin Elizabeth I who would help her to regain the throne. Sadly for Mary, this ill-advised plan was to lead to her being imprisoned for the rest of her life.

Although Mary wrote to a supporter soon after her arrival that she had been ‘right well received and honourably accompanied and treated’ whether or not she realised it at this point, she was a prisoner, and was being kept under armed guard. Sir Francis Knollys was sent north from London by Elizabeth I to be Mary’s keeper and although he described her as ‘pleasant’ he was under pressure not to allow his royal prisoner to escape.

Mary’s retinue included her faithful friend Mary Seton, who was able to help the queen to maintain her appearance. The cost of keeping the queen and her court at Carlisle was £56 a week, money which was payable by Elizabeth I. Mary’s accommodation was on the south-east corner of the inner ward in a building known as Warden’s Tower (and later, as Queen Mary’s Tower). Despite the conditions, Mary lived in much more sumptuous surroundings than the majority of Elizabeth’s subjects, and a 19th-century text confirmed that the tower was in a better state of repair than the rest of the castle, with richer architecture.

See  also:
  Douglases in Carlisle



Sources for this article include:
  • Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland

  • Any contributions will be gratefully accepted


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    Last modified: Tuesday, 01 February 2022