History of Carlisle Castle

For 500 years, until the English and Scottish crowns were united in 1603, Carlisle Castle was the principal fortress of England’s north-western border with Scotland. A mighty stronghold in the frequent conflict between the two countries, and the base of the lord wardens attempting to control an unruly frontier, it has endured more sieges than any other castle in England.

Unlike most medieval castles, it has been continuously occupied since its foundation by William II in 1092. From the 18th century to the 1960s it was the headquarters of the Border Regiment, one of the oldest in the British army.

The Roman fort at Carlisle provided support for garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall
The Roman fort at Carlisle provided support for garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall

Roman Carlisle

In AD 72 a large Roman fort, built of turf and timber, was established on the site of the later castle. It later provided support for garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall and acted as a staging post for troops invading Scotland. The fort became the nucleus of a prosperous town named Luguvalium, which by the mid 2nd century was one of the most important military bases in Roman Britain.[1]

After the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, Carlisle may have been the administrative capital of the Romano-British kingdom of Rheged. An abbey was founded there in the 7th century, possibly by the Kings of Northumbria.

The keep, or great tower, is the largest and most impressive part of the castle. Together with the gatehouse, it is the earliest surviving part of the castle, although its interior has been significantly altered over the centuries, and the roof of the keep was lowered in the 16th century

The First Castle

The first castle at Carlisle was built over part of the first Roman fort by William II (‘William Rufus’; reigned 1087–1100) after he defeated the local warlord Dolfin in 1092.

The first castle may have been a ringwork – a simple enclosure of earth and timber, using the natural slope to the north, with a deep ditch cut as a defence to the south. Henry I (r.1100–35) visited Carlisle in 1122 and ordered that it be ‘fortified with a castle and towers’. This may represent the origin of the massive keep,[2] and these works were still in progress in 1130.[3]

After Henry I’s death in 1135, Carlisle was retaken by David I, King of Scotland (r.1124–53), who is said to have built ‘a very strong keep’ there. He may have been completing work begun by Henry I, which leaves the dating of Carlisle’s keep an open question.[4]

Henry II of England (r.1154–89) visited Carlisle in 1186 and made additions that possibly represented the earliest stage of the ‘palace’ complex in the inner ward.[5] In the early 13th century King John (r.1199–1216) may have been responsible for rebuilding the outer curtain wall and the inner ward wall in stone.[6]

Reconstruction of Carlisle Castle as it may have appeared in about 1400
© Historic England (illustration by Liam Wales)

Carlisle and the Border

Carlisle’s position on the border between England and Scotland made it a vital stronghold and border defence, and also vulnerable to crises in Anglo-Scots relations.

In 1296 Edward I (r.1272–1307) made Carlisle his headquarters for three months in the early stages of his war against the Scots.[7] The inner ward, which probably already housed a great hall and chamber, was enhanced to accommodate the court. In 1308 a residential tower, later known as Queen Mary’s Tower, was added to provide more fine accommodation.[8]

The Scots besieged the town and castle seven times between 1173 and 1461. One of the most determined sieges was that in 1315 by Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, following his victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn the previous year. The Scots failed to take the castle, however, and they retreated with the loss of only two English lives.[9]

The siege of 1461 was one of the bloodiest episodes of the Wars of the Roses, the struggle for the English throne between the Houses of Lancaster and York. A combined army of Lancastrians and Scots succeeded in taking the castle from the Yorkists through the early use (in a British context) of artillery. Despite this, the castle’s defences remained relatively little altered.

The half-moon battery and the Captain’s Tower behind. The battery originally stood high enough to enable soldiers to shoot out over the outer ward, but was levelled in the 19th century

The 15th and 16th Centuries

Carlisle played an important part in the turbulent history of the 15th and early 16th centuries, when the rule of law broke down over virtually the whole border region. On both sides, clan and family groups formed into armed bands of ‘reivers’, who regularly robbed and pillaged their neighbours.[10]

In an attempt to manage the problem, the English border region was divided into three ‘marches’, and lord wardens were appointed as the Crown’s chief representatives. Carlisle Castle was the seat of the Lord Warden of the West March. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III (r.1483–5), was among the notable figures who filled the role.[11]

After 1538 England’s diplomatic isolation was emphasised by Scotland’s renewed alliance with France. Henry VIII (r.1509–47) ordered a review of Carlisle’s defences.

The result was the largest campaign of building that the castle had seen since the 12th century, directed by a Moravian engineer, Stephan von Haschenperg.[12]  These works included the lowering of the keep and the construction of an artillery platform on its roof, the thickening of the inner ward walls, and the building of the half-moon battery.

The octagonal stair turret that once gave access to Queen Mary’s Tower. The tower itself was demolished in 1825

Famous Prisoners at Carlisle

When Mary, Queen of Scots (d.1587), fled from her rebellious subjects to England in May 1567, she was housed for some weeks in what was then known as the Warden’s Tower, in the south-east corner of the inner ward. This was the last time the castle was used as a royal residence. Supporting her little court there cost Elizabeth I (r.1558–1603) an average of £56 a week in food and wine.[13]

The castle was also used as a prison for border reivers. A famous incident involved the notorious William Armstrong of Kinmont (‘Kinmont Willie’). A large armed group of his friends broke into the castle using ladders and freed him on 13 April 1596.[14]


A coin struck in 1645 from plate commandeered from the townspeople of Carlisle, when the city was besieged by Scots and Parliamentarians during the Civil War
© Tullie House Museum, Carlisle

Civil War

Carlisle Castle should have become obsolete as a border fortress after the Union of the English and Scots Crowns in 1603. That it did not was due to the bitter opposition in Scotland to the religious policies of Charles I (r.1625–49), which contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642.

Garrisoned by the Royalists in 1642, Carlisle was one of the few places in the north that held out for the king after the defeat of his main northern army at Marston Moor, in July 1644. In October of that year a Parliamentarian army swiftly surrounded Carlisle with guns and earthworks, and settled down to starve the city out.

In spring 1645 English troops joined them, and their grip on the city became tighter. Food began to run out: all the horses were eaten, then the dogs and rats. After the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Naseby in June 1645, there seemed no more hope of relief, and on 25 June the city surrendered.


Plan of about 1746 of the siege of Carlisle by the Duke of Cumberland’s army on 21 December 1745. Following the siege, many Jacobite soldiers were imprisoned in Carlisle Castle, and nine were executed on 18 October 1746
© Cumbria County Council, Carlisle Library

Carlisle’s Last Siege

The city and castle returned once more to centre stage during the second Jacobite rising of 1745–6, which attempted to restore the exiled Stuarts to the throne. Prince Charles Edward Stuart (d.1788) led his army south, reaching Carlisle on 9 November 1745. The city and castle surrendered five days later.[15]

The Jacobite army marched south, but finding little support turned around at Derby. On 20 December, it retreated over the border into Scotland, leaving a garrison of 400 in Carlisle Castle to hold off the English pursuit led by the Duke of Cumberland.

The castle then endured its tenth and final siege, battered by the artillery of the duke’s army, and was taken on 30 December 1745. Several soldiers of the Jacobite garrison were imprisoned in the castle, and 31 were executed in public.[16]

Depot staff and soldiers of the Border Regiment at Carlisle Castle gate on 28 October 1911, the 100th anniversary of the British victory over France at the battle of Arroyo des Molinos in the Peninsular War
© Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life

From Garrison to Monument

After 1746 the castle sank into a state of somnolence and neglect. In the later 18th century French prisoners of war were held there. Minor repairs were carried out to the defences, including the drawbridge in 1783. 

From the 1820s the government’s fears of revolution led to the maintenance of garrisons in several provincial towns, and Carlisle Castle became an important army barracks. 

The first building to go up in the outer ward was Arroyo block, followed by Gallipoli block in 1829, initially built as a single-storey canteen and enlarged in 1876. A hospital was constructed in 1832, described as the ‘worst army hospital’ in Britain. This is now Arnhem block. 

The army continued to extend and develop the castle buildings well into the 20th century. The magazine and militia store were built in the inner ward, and Alma and Burma blocks and the headquarters of the Border Regiment in the outer ward.

These years of active military use saw many important historic features destroyed or altered beyond recognition. The original chamber block was turned into the building housing (until 2014) the military museum, and Queen Mary’s Tower was demolished in 1835. In 1959 the regimental depot moved out of the castle, though most of the outer ward buildings remained in military occupation.[17]

Since 2000 most of the remaining military functions have left the castle, but English Heritage still shares the site with a number of organisations, notably Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life

Find Out More

  • Plan your Visit to Carlisle Castle

    Explore the medieval castle rooms, discover a turbulent history with the exhibition, and walk some of the castle walls.


    Learn how the Earl of Carlisle’s career, in which Carlisle Castle featured prominently, reflects both the rewards and the risks of engagement with Anglo-Scottish border politics.


    Find out more about Mary Queen of Scot's journey to England before her 19-year long imprisonment at Carlisle Castle. 


    Read a description of the castle, whose grey and red sandstone buildings date from the 12th to the 19th centuries.


    Since the 12th century Carlisle Castle has been in almost continuous military use. Learn about the castle’s long history of change and adaptation.


    The guidebook contains a beautifully illustrated tour and history, complete with colour photographs, plans, reconstruction drawings and eyewitness accounts.

  • Research on Carlisle Castle

    Carlisle Castle’s history and architecture are better understood than those of most medieval English castles. Read a summary of our research. 

  • Download a Plan

    Download this PDF plan of Carlisle Castle to explore the site, from the keep to the outer gatehouse and the Captain’s Tower. 


    MR McCarthy, HRT Summerson and RG Annis, Carlisle Castle: A Survey and Documentary History, English Heritage Archaeological Report 18 (London, 1990), 8–9.
    Symeon of Durham, ‘Historia Regum’, quoted in RA Brown, HM Colvin and AJ Taylor, The History of the King’s Works, vol 2: The Middle Ages (London, 1963), 595.
    The National Archives, Pipe Roll 31 Henry I (1130–31), 140, records that work had begun on the castle and towers (accessed 5 Nov 2014).
    Brown et al, op cit; J Wilson (ed), The Victoria History of the County of Cumberland, 2 (London, 1905), 242–4 (accessed 31 Oct 2014).
    TNA, Pipe Roll 32 Henry II (1186–7), 97 (accessed 5 Nov 2014); Pipe Roll 33 Henry II (1187–8), 94; Pipe Roll 34 Henry II (1188–9), 190.
    McCarthy, Summerson and Annis, op cit, 118–26; Brown et al, op cit, 595–600.
    Brown et al, op cit, 596–7.
    Ibid, 597–8; McCarthy, Summerson and Annis, op cit, 96–101, 134, with reconstructed plans and section of the tower (101).
    McCarthy, Summerson and Annis, op cit, 137.
    GM Fraser, The Steel Bonnets: the Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers (London, 1971; accessed 31 Oct 2014).
    McCarthy, Summerson and Annis, op cit, 160–62; RL Storey, ‘The wardens of the marches of England towards Scotland, 1377–1489’, English Historical Review, 72: 285 (1957), 593–615 (subscription required; accessed 31 Oct 2014).
    BH St J O’Neil, ‘Stefan von Haschenperg, an engineer to King Henry VIII, and his work’, Archaeologia, 91 (1945), 137–55 (subscription required; accessed 31 Oct 2014).
    McCarthy, Summerson and Annis, op cit, 179.
    Fraser, op cit.
    G Smith, ‘Account of the rebels’ march into England and the loss of Carlisle’, Gentleman’s Magazine, 16 (May 1746), 233–5 (accessed 9 Dec 2021).
    GG Mounsey, Carlisle in 1745: Authentic Account of the Occupation of Carlisle in 1745 by Prince Charles Edward Stuart (London and Carlisle, 1846; accessed 31 Oct 2014); McCarthy, Summerson and Annis, op cit, 214–19.
    McCarthy, Summerson and Annis, op cit, 113–15.