Historic buildings

Things to do in Carlisle | Historic buildings

They’ve stood together for nearly 900 years in the heart of this medieval city. Now the castle and cathedral are ready to reveal the secrets of their turbulent history.

Work on Carlisle Cathedral began in 1122 during the reign of Henry I. Founded as an Augustinian Priory, it was elevated to the rank of cathedral 11 years later: one of just four Augustinian churches in Britain to receive this honour. It may not be the largest English cathedral (only Oxford is smaller), but what it lacks in size, Carlisle more than makes up for in gothic splendour.

The most notable feature is the spectacular East Window. At 51 feet high and 26 feet wide, it is the largest and most complex in England. The upper part of the window depicts the last judgement of Christ and contains much of the original medieval glass, now well over 650 years old. As you move towards the East Window, beneath the glorious barrelled ceiling, make sure to take in the cathedral’s misericords – elaborately carved tip-up seats designed to stop monks from falling asleep during long services – not that they were always successful. Look for the scorch marks on the pillars either side where the candles of snoozing worshippers got a little too close for comfort!

Carlisle’s two most notable buildings were built just thirty years apart, and their history is so closely intertwined that stones from the cathedral were regularly ‘borrowed’ to fortify its neighbour. Work on Carlisle Castle began under William II (son of William the Conqueror) in 1093 when Cumberland was still considered part of Scotland. As a crucial strategic lynchpin, the castle changed hands many times over the next 700 years through skirmishes, rebellions and even the English Civil War.

This rich history is brought vividly to life in the castle’s many interactive displays and exhibits. Discover the stories of kings, noblemen and the infamous Border Reivers. Visit the very turret where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned by her cousin Elizabeth I, and uncover the real story behind the mysterious medieval graffiti found deep within the castle keep. The castle is also home to Carlisle’s newest visitor attraction, Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life, which displays the uniforms, weapons, medals and equipment of Cumbria’s County Infantry Regiment. Admission is extra but joint tickets are available from the castle.

Carlisle Castle

Carlisle Cathedral

Video guide to historic buildings in Carlisle