A History of Carlisle

By Tim Lambert

Roman Carlisle

Carlisle began as a Roman town called Luguvalium. The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD and about 78 AD the governor, Agricola, built a wooden fort on the site of Carlisle. Soon a civilian settlement grew up nearby. The soldiers in the fort provided a market for the townspeople’s goods. Roman Carlisle was called Luguvalium. In Roman Carlisle, there was probably a forum or marketplace with public buildings around it. There were public baths. In Roman times people went to the baths not just to get clean but also to socialize.

However, in the 4th century, Roman civilization declined. Troops were withdrawn from Hadrian’s wall in 399 AD and the last Roman soldiers left England in 407 AD. Soon afterward the Roman way of life broke down and most Roman towns were abandoned. Roman Carlisle was probably left empty or with very few people living inside its walls.

Carlisle from the 5th century to the 11th century

Carlisle may not have been abandoned completely. There may have been some farmers living inside the walls and farming the land outside. However, it seems certain that Carlisle ceased to be a town, and all its Roman buildings fell into ruins.

The Celts gave Carlisle its name. They called it Caer Luel, the fortified place belonging to Luel. St Cuthbert founded a monastery among the ruins of Carlisle in 685.

In 876 the Vikings captured Carlisle and sacked it. The monks moved away but some people probably continued to live within the walls of the old Roman town. The Vikings held Carlisle until the 10th century when the Saxons captured it. Carlisle was rebuilt and revived by King William Rufus in 1092. He built a wooden castle at Carlisle (In the 12th century it was rebuilt in stone). Rufus encouraged people to come and live in Carlisle.

Carlisle in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages Carlisle was a small town with a population of perhaps 1,500-2,000. It would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time, Carlisle was a fair-sized market town. However, Cumbria was a poor area of England with little trade and commerce in the region.

However, Carlisle was strategically important because of its position near the Scottish border. In the 12th century, stone walls were erected around the town. The castle was rebuilt in stone and strengthened in the mid-12th century. Nevertheless, from 1135-1154 Carlisle was in the hands of the Scots. The Scots laid siege to Carlisle for 3 months in 1173 but they were unable to take the town. The Scots returned in 1315 but again they were unable to capture Carlisle.

Meanwhile, in 1122, a priory (small monastery) was built in Carlisle. In 1133 Carlisle was made the seat of a bishop. In 1223 the friars arrived in Carlisle. The friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. There were 2 orders of friars in Carlisle, Dominicans (called blackfriars because of their black costumes) and Franciscans or grey friars.

Carlisle was given its first charter in 1158 (a charter was a document granting the townspeople certain rights). In Medieval Carlisle, the main industries were wool and leather. Wool was woven and dyed in the town. Leather was tanned. Wool and leather were exported to Ireland. Wine (the drink of the upper class) was imported into Carlisle from France.

Carlisle had a weekly market. It also had an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over Cumbria to buy and sell at a Carlisle fair. However, in 1292 Carlisle suffered a disastrous fire. Most of the buildings in Carlisle were of wood with thatched roofs so a fire was a constant danger. On the other hand, if buildings did burn they could be easily replaced.

In Carlisle, different trades were organised into guilds to safeguard their member’s interests. There were 8 of them, merchants, butchers, skinners, shoemakers, tanners, tailors, smiths, and weavers. In the early 15th century a guildhall was built where they could hold meetings.

The Sauceries probably got its name because the land there belonged to the man who made the king’s sauces. However, in 1349 the Black Death devastated the population of Carlisle. It did not recover fully until the 16th century.

Carlisle in the 16th century and the 17th century

In 1541 n closed the priory and the 2 friaries. He also rebuilt and strengthened the castle. Henry replaced the southern gate of Carlisle with a citadel with 2 towers. Like all Tudor towns, Carlisle suffered outbreaks of plague which decimated the population each time. There was a severe outbreak of plague in Carlisle in 1597. Even so, the population grew, and by 1600 Carlisle probably had about 2,500 inhabitants.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. Carlisle was staunchly loyal to the king. However, after the battle of Marston Moor in July Scottish soldiers (on parliament’s side) occupied all of northern England except Carlisle. The city was under siege from October 1644 to June 1645. Finally, Carlisle was starved into surrender. The soldiers then ransacked and vandalized the Cathedral.

Afterward, Carlisle was again struck by an outbreak of plague which killed many people. n Carlisle Cross was erected in 1682. Tullie House was built in 1689.

Carlisle in the 18th century

In the mid-18th century, Carlisle was no more than a medium-sized market town with a population of about 4,000. However, the situation began to change in the late 18th century. Trade had always been limited in Carlisle because it was in a poor area of England.

In 1745 the Jacobites under their leader Bonnie Prince Charlie marched south and after a short siege took Carlisle. However, they did not hold it for long. English forces soon recaptured Carlisle. They hanged several Jacobites.

In the later 18th century roads to and from Carlisle were improved which allowed the merchants of the town to sell their goods elsewhere and in the last years of the 18th century, the industrial revolution began to transform Carlisle. The wool industry began to boom. Meanwhile, St Cuthbert’s Church was built in 1778.

In the late 18th century life in Carlisle improved, at least for the well-off. In 1782 a dispensary opened where the poor could obtain free medicines. Carlisle gained its first bank in 1787 and its first newspaper in 1798. The novelist Sir Walter Scott married in Carlisle Cathedral in 1797.

Carlisle in the 19th century

In 1801 the population of Carlisle was 9,555. By the standards of the time, it was quite a large town. Carlisle grew rapidly and by 1851 it had a population of over 25,000. Scottish and Irish immigrants swelled the population. The textile industry boomed in Carlisle in the early 19th century although many of the weavers lived in poverty. However, in the late 19th century the textile industry declined. Other industries in Carlisle in the 19th century were biscuit-making, engineering, printing, and brick-making.

From 1804 the corporation lit and paved the streets. At first, Carlisle was lit by oil lamps but after 1819 it was lit by gas. Carlisle gained its first theatre in 1813 and between 1811 and 1815 parts of the town walls were demolished. Lowther Street was laid out on the site of the east wall. An infirmary was built in Lancaster in 1841.

However, like all towns in the early 19th century, Carlisle was dirty and unsanitary. There were outbreaks of cholera in 1832 and 1848.

Nevertheless, life in 19th century Carlisle gradually improved. In 1848 a company began to supply piped water (to those who could afford it). In the 1870s sewers were dug under Carlisle and the first telephone exchange in Carlisle opened in 1885.

The Covered Market was built in 1889. Carlisle council obtained Tullie House in 1890 and built extensions to house a museum and library. In 1893 a park was opened called the Peoples Park. It was later extended and renamed The Bitts. In 1899 electricity was generated in Carlisle for the first time and the town gained electric light.

In 1823 a canal was dug from Carlisle to Port Carlisle. However, it was filled in 30 years later. In 1856 a railway was built to replace it. A railway connected Carlisle to Newcastle in 1838. Another railway was built to Maryport in 1845. Another connected Carlisle to Lancaster in 1846. Citadel Station was built in 1848.

Carlisle in the 20th century

By 1901 the population of Carlisle was over 45,000. In 1900 electric trams began to run in the streets of Carlisle. They were replaced by buses in 1931. Carlisle gained its first cinema in 1906. In 1912 the boundaries of Carlisle were extended to include Stanwix and Botcherby. In the 1920s and 1930s, Raffles Estate was built.

In the early 20th century the textile industry continued to decline. Other industries in Carlisle in the 20th century included biscuits and railway engineering.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the first council houses were built in Carlisle and Carlisle Civic Offices were built in 1964. Radio Carlisle (later renamed Radio Cumbria) began broadcasting in 1973 and in 1974 a ring road was built around Carlisle. In the early and mid-1980s, The Lanes were rebuilt. Shops replaced old houses. A new library opened in 1986. Carlisle city centre was pedestrianized in 1989.

Carlisle Castle

Carlisle in the 21st century

On 8 January 2005 Carlisle suffered from severe floods. Much of the city center was submerged and 110,000 people had their power cut. Worse, 3 people died and millions of pounds worth of damage was done. Yet Carlisle recovered.

Today Carlisle is a flourishing town. In 2023 the population of Carlisle was 108,000.