The History of Carlisle
Carlisle for most of its history made the Wild West seem tame. The settlement was a constant bone of contention between England and Scotland, and before those kingdoms existed it was a bloody prize for the Saxons and the Norsemen . Even when the English and Scots made peace bandit families from either side of the border continued to raid the place and make life there precarious.
Before the Roman invasion the area where Carlisle developed was held by the Brigantes, the strongest of the Celtic tribes in Britain, though it is thought the town that became Carlisle was actually peopled by the Carvetii. By 72 AD the Roman invaders penetrated the region, and about 80 AD Governor of Britain Gnaeus Iulius Agricola established first a wooden fort then a stone-walled one at the settlement named Laguvalium. For another 50 years or so Laguvalium provided a base for raids northwards, being the target of retaliatory raids by the northern tribes in return, until Hadrian ordered the building of the great wall across the country in 122 AD. The fortress on the North bank of the Eden was called Petriana, and was the largest in the wall, thus Carlisle/Laguvalium thereafter enjoyed nearly 300 years of reasonable peace until the Romans left Britain at the start of the 5th century – they were probably still in Laguvalium in 399 AD.
After Rome’s departure the Celts of Strathclyde took control, which they held until the arrival of the Saxons in the 7th century, Carlisle being part of the sub-kingdom known as Rheged. The modern name of the settlement comes from the Celtic ‘caer’ meaning fortress and ‘Luel’, either a contraction of Laguvalium or a chieftain’s name. Under Saxon rule Carlisle saw the building of a monastery by St Cuthbert in 685, demonstrating that it was a place of importance.
Two centuries of stability ended when the Vikings sacked the town and slaughtered its inhabitants in 876, driving the monks away, ushering in a period when the town was all but abandoned.
In 945 the Norsemen were driven out by the Saxons, but Carlisle became a part of the nascent Scottish kingdom. Thus when the Normans invaded England Carlisle was for a time unaffected. In 1070, however, it fell to the Northumbrian Saxons. The Normans could not countenance such a Saxon survival on the edge of the kingdom, however, and in 1092 William Rufus captured it, strengthening his hold by building a new castle, though the Scots had a hand in it too, David I at one time making it a royal palace.
With the demise of Henry I in 1135 the civil war between the supporters of rival claimants Stephen and Matilda gave the Scots the opportunity to regain the town, which they duly did. It changed hands once more in 1157 when Henry II exercised his authority over all Cumbria, granting Carlisle its first charter the following year. The town was besieged by the Scots again in 1173, and the area as so often in its history was subject to raids.
Again in 1216, however, Carlisle fell gratefully into Scottish hands in the year of King John ’s death, his taxation supposedly having proved as ruinous as war for the town. Henry III of England repurchased the place from Alexander of Scotland.
Such instability did not help the town’s economy or culture, but nevertheless in 1122 a priory was built; in 1226 Dominican friars arrived; and guilds formed in this period to control and promote trade. In 1292 it was not war but fire that destroyed the town; and in 1349 along with the rest of Europe it was devastated by plague. In between the Scots tried their luck again in 1315, but their siege failed.
Edward I improved the fortifications of the town, and made it a military base for his endless campaigns against the Scots. Not unnaturally the town thus became the target of incursions by Scottish armies and by armed bands seeking to pillage all they could – the favour being returned by men of Cumberland.
Richard III as king, and before that as Duke of Gloucester, achieved an armed peace for a time, a situation spoiled by Henry VIII in 1509 when he chose to make war on the Scots, once more setting tit-for-tat raids in train. Henry dissolved the town’s religious houses, but did improve its fortifications with a citadel. In his son Edward ’s reign the necessity for peace with Scotland became evident, achieved with a treaty in 1552, and reinforced with a further agreement in Elizabeth I ’s reign in 1597. The castle previously proved useful to Elizabeth in 1568 when Mary Queen of Scots fled across the border and was imprisoned there. James I addressed the ongoing problem of Reiver raids by exiling some of the families involved to Ireland, a positive step if not definitive solution.
During the Civil War Carlisle was initially Royalist, but in June 1645 it fell not to the Roundheads but the as ever the Scots, after a long siege begun in 1644. The Stuart dynasty reared its head in the town again in 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie briefly took the place. Some rebels imprisoned in the castle dungeon were forced to lick water from the stones to survive. The brief siege by the Duke of Cumberland to retake the castle was the last on English soil.
After the ’45 Carlisle enjoyed economic development with continuing peace: textiles and tallow were significant industries. In 1838 the railways arrived, and eventually Carlisle became a major hub with many lines converging there from Newcastle , Maryport , Preston , Glasgow and elsewhere.
The Scots have not threatened for hundreds of years now, but Carlisle suffered a devastating natural disaster in 2005, when floods hit the place. The Castle still dominates the town, much restored by the Victorians ; and its twin monument the Cathedral , based on a priory built in 1122, is equally impressive; both are living history.