The diminutive Carlisle Cathedral is the most northerly of the medieval cathedrals and larger than only Derby Cathedral, the smallest.
Throughout the middle ages, the town of Carlisle was the site of constant border skirmishes between the Scots and the English, and the Cathedral suffered as a result. But the English Civil war did the most damage when the six most western bays of the Nave were dismantled, and the stone used to shore up nearby Carlisle Castle.
This leaves a rather odd configuration. The entrance to the church is through the South Transept rather than the western part of the Nave, as is usual; the much-truncated Nave is now the Chapel of the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. as you can see on the floorplan below.
Below we see the two remaining bays of the Nave to the left of the tower, with the South Transept jutting out to the right.
Red sandstone is quite soft, and ongoing repairs and maintenance are needed, as with the other cathedrals made of sandstone, Chester, Lichfield and Worcester. The doorway and face of the south transept were repaired in the 19th century, so the stone carving around the entrance shows few signs of wear.
Carlisle Cathedral lies on what was originally a Roman camp at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall (from where it’s alleged some of the stone for the original Cathedral was purloined), In 1102, when King Henry I granted lands for an Augustinian priory, and an Englishman, Athelwold, became the first prior. By 1122 the Norman church was complete. Athelwold became the first Bishop of Carlisle in 1133 when the church was raised in status to a Cathedral.
A century passed, and the cathedral priory community was joined by two friaries – a Dominican friary and a Franciscan friary, founded close to the Cathedral.
In 1218, the controversial Cistercian Abbot Hugh of Beaulieu (which the English pronounce bew-lee – go figure) arrived and rebuilt the east end of the church in Early English style. But a fire in 1292 gutted the church, leaving only the walls and aisles standing; construction had to begin again.
The choir was rebuilt in the Decorated style throughout much of the 14th century. The ceiling was completed around 1350, and the east window was glazed by 1380. As the Scots would say: “non so bad, aye?” The glass in the tracery is original, and the nine vertical panels are by Hardman & Co, founded in 1848 and one of the world’s leading manufacturers of stained glass.
Quite gorgeous, in fact! The late 15th-century canopies over the choir stalls are very elaborate.
The celestial blue vault rises high above the clerestory.
With painted bosses dotting the ridge.
But the best part is the misericords, always a favourite. Here are two of the forty-six (twenty-three on each side of the choir). Here we have a St Michael slaying the dragon.
And a typically humourous one of the wife beating her husband with a bottle; he has apparently just dropped the poker.
Similarly, the detail in the carvings on the pillar capitals displays humour. I’m not quite sure what that imp is up to, but likely no good.
And the Green Man peeking out from the leaves is a pagan symbol.
Looking from Eastern Window towards the Nave, you can see the organ tucked into an arch in the Crossing.
The pipes on the crossing side are not as nicely decorated, but they make lovely music.
The Salkeld Screen below sports the initials of Lancelot Salkeld, last Prior and first Dean of Carlisle (1541-1548) and the arms of Henry VIII.
It’s very much a renaissance piece in what is essentially a Roman and Gothic cathedral. Notable for its twelve heads, six on each side of the screen, most of whom are somewhat related to Henry VIII.
The Tait Memorial Window in the North Transept has a heartbreaking significance. Archibald Campbell Tait was Dean of Carlisle Cathedral from 1849 to 1856. He and his wife Catherine lost five of their daughters from scarlet fever during the 33 days between March 6 and April 8, 1856. Two other children escaped infection, and the couple went on to have two more children. Soon after the tragedy, Dean Tait was appointed Bishop of London; he and his family moved away from Carlisle.
Here we have the tomb of Francis Close, Dean of the Cathedral from 1856 to 1881, who followed Dean Archibald Cameron Tait.
The arches into the North and South Transepts with the hammer beam vaults.
Colourful bosses decorate the interior of the wooden vaults
The North Aisle behind the choir has a ribbed stone vault.
For the life of me, I can’t place where this door belongs in the Cathedral or the significance of the window, which is likely modern.
Outside in the Cathedral Close, the model of Carlisle Cathedral Priory shows how it would have looked in 1540 before the monastic buildings were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Remnants remain of the cloisters—those arches are solidly constructed and durable. The medieval Fratry Hall survives and now houses the superb library. Built in the 1500s as the priory refectory, it has served as
Since we visited, it has undergone an extensive renovation to turn it into a very usable space, with the undercroft now serving as a cafeteria and additional meeting space. The architectural firm, Fielden Fowles, has produced an excellent video on the project. It’s fabulous to see the time and attention devoted to the buildings on the Cathedral grounds; it gives the Fratry renewed purpose and welcomes the public, with the potential to earn some revenue simultaneously. Well done!
The Cathedral Close gardens are well-tended, and the whole area is charming.
I was amused to see that we were closely observed from one of the windows.
Though a small cathedral, Carlisle has stood the test of time under some trying circumstances.