Description of Carlisle Castle

Carlisle Castle occupies a triangular 1.6 hectare (4 acre) site on rising ground at the northern end of the historic city of Carlisle, from which it is separated by a modern dual carriageway. The castle is predominantly built of grey and red sandstone. The former tends to date from the first period of construction, in the mid- to late 12th century. The curtain walls, thought to be largely of the 12th century, enclose a large outer ward where several buildings are still in use. The oldest surviving parts are the outer gatehouse, the half-moon battery and the buildings of the inner ward.

Aerial view of Carlisle Castle from the south-east
Aerial view of Carlisle Castle from the south-east

Outer Ward

The outer ward is centred on a tarmac-covered parade ground that was, until the 1820s, covered with grass.

The huge courtyard would have given the castle the capacity to house a large garrison and its supplies, or to act as a forward base for an invasion of Scotland.

The two- and three-storey brick buildings that surround the parade ground date from the 19th and 20th centuries when the castle served as the main depot for the Border Regiment. The building names record the 19th- and 20th-century battles in which the regiment played a prominent part.

Outer Gatehouse (De Ireby’s Tower)

De Ireby’s Tower is the commonly used name for the castle’s outer gatehouse, in the centre of the south curtain wall. It was purpose built in 1378–82 to house the Sheriff of Cumberland and his ‘exchequer’, where the Crown’s revenues from the county were paid.

Its irregular shape probably reflects the plan of an earlier 12th-century gatehouse. The upper floor retains its 14th-century layout of a hall, formerly screened off at one end. Many of the building’s original floor and roof timbers survive.

In later centuries the gatehouse was much altered: in 1841 it served as a barracks, housing 29 men. After the garrison’s withdrawal, the 18th- and 19th-century joinery and fittings were stripped out, leaving the medieval masonry visible.

The Captain's Tower, viewed from the inner bailey
The Captain’s Tower, viewed from the inner bailey. The fine tracery above the gateway is a rare example of 14th-century decoration in the castle

Half-Moon Battery, Breastwork, Captain’s Tower and Inner Ditch

The half-moon battery, breastwork and inner ditch represent a second line of defence between the outer ward and the entrance to the inner ward. Dating from 1542, they are the work of a Moravian engineer, Stefan von Haschenperg, and part of a major campaign of works undertaken by Henry VIII to defend England against invasion.[1]

The gatehouse to the inner ward (the Captain’s Tower) and its curtain wall rise above a ditch, separating it from the outer ward. A revetment or breastwork carries the roadway to the Captain’s Tower.

Directly in front of it is the half-moon battery, a large, semicircular bastion with a passageway running around its perimeter. Eleven gun-ports look from the passageway into the ditch, to allow it to be covered by fire.

Inner Ward

Until the early 19th century the north wall of the inner ward was lined by medieval buildings forming a suite originally intended for royal occupation, the so-called ‘palace’. These were first built in the 12th century and remodelled in the late 13th century for Edward I. From about 1806 these were demolished and replaced or substantially rebuilt.

The southern corner of the inner ward is the site of the medieval Queen Mary’s Tower. The tower was demolished in 1834, though a passageway to a postern gate (the Dacre postern) and some of its footings survive.

The two-storey sandstone building backing on to the north-east curtain wall stands on the site of the 12th- and 13th-century great chamber. The present appearance of the building is due to a major early 19th-century reconstruction, when it was the officers’ mess. The building (which until 2014 housed the regimental museum) retains some medieval fabric, including blocked window openings, a historic fireplace and part of an octagonal stair turret with elaborate architectural ornament.

The powder magazine of about 1853, in the north corner of the inner ward, probably occupies the site of the medieval kitchen. The militia store of 1881 beside it stands on the site of the medieval great hall.

The east elevation of the keep
The east elevation of the keep


The keep, or great tower, is the focal point of Carlisle Castle, dominating the inner ward and commanding the stronghold’s skyline. Built of sandstone, it is a square ‘palace-keep’ of classic Anglo-Norman type, and is now four storeys high with a roof platform.[2]

The keep has been much altered, so its original form is not altogether clear, but it probably had three storeys with a countersunk roof concealed within the upper part of the walls. The foundations of an entrance forebuilding, demolished in the medieval period, were revealed by excavation in the 1930s on its eastern side.

The keep has a spine wall, dividing each floor into two main rooms, probably dating from von Haschenperg’s works in the 1540s. Originally there was probably one large room on each floor.[3]

The ground floor has an entrance lobby leading down to a narrow passageway, from which two vaulted rooms open, one of them divided by a cross-wall. These were used as a prison in the 18th century, and possibly earlier.

The third floor was inserted in the 16th century, and is roofed with brick vaults. The roof level was lowered in the 16th century to make the top of the building a more effective gun emplacement.

The so-called ‘Prisoners’ Carvings’ can be dated to about 1480 because they include the boar badge of Richard III and the white rose of the house of York
The so-called ‘Prisoners’ Carvings’ can be dated to about 1480 because they include the boar badge of Richard III and the white rose of the house of York

‘Prisoners' Carvings’

On the second floor of the keep is a remarkable group of carvings. Some of them are graffiti, being little more than scratches, but several are finely carved, and may be the work of a single hand.

They are in relief, slightly recessed into the stonework, in no particular pattern or order. They used to be referred to as ‘prisoners’ carvings’, but this area is not known to have been a prison, and they do not seem to make much sense in this light.

The heraldry, armoury, emblems of the House of York and the local Dacre and Percy families, and other details indicate a date in the 1480s. There are several religious badges, including a crucifixion, the ‘IHS’ or name of Christ, and a figure with a wheel, who may be St Katharine. The carvings seem more likely to be the work of members of the castle’s garrison or household, expressing loyalty to the lord warden and to the great local families.


1. BH StJ O’Neil, ‘Stefan von Haschenperg, an engineer to King Henry VIII, and his work’, Archaeologia, 91 (1945), 137–55 (accessed 31 October 2014; subscription required).
2. JAA Goodall, ‘The great tower of Carlisle Castle’, in Carlisle and Cumbria: Roman and Medieval Architecture, Art and Archaeology, ed M McCarthy and D Weston, British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 27 (Leeds, 2004), 39–62.
3. MR McCarthy, HRT Summerson and RG Annis, Carlisle Castle: a Survey and Documentary History, English Heritage Archaeological Report 18 (London, 1990), 75–8, 82; Goodall, op cit, 45.