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Anyone who doesn't know the area might be a little unsure what to expect of Carlisle Cathedral. A large church in an urban setting? The reality turned out to exceed our expectations by a very wide margin. Carlisle Cathedral is a building of great charm and interest, with a fascinating and very long history. And most surprising of all, although located in the heart of a modern city it stands within a precinct full of attractive buildings that serve to set the cathedral in context: albeit at the price of obscuring some of the best photographic angles!
Christianity in Carlisle has very ancient roots. The city was home to the largest of the forts along the line of Hadrian's Wall, and an important civilian settlement grew up around it. The Romans had embraced Christianity by the time of the collapse of this northern outpost of their empire, so it seems likely that there were churches here or hereabouts by the end of the 300s. Indeed, during work to excavate a treasury under the old nave in the 1980s, Roman foundations were found, which with the eye of faith could be seen as indicating a continuous history of Christian worship on this site stretching back over 1600 years.
In truth, however, although it seems certain that the settlement that later became Carlisle continued to thrive during what we choose to call the Dark Ages, there is nothing to indicated whether the residents continued to adhere to the Christian faith after the end of central Roman authority or whether there was a return to older practices and faiths. What we do know is that St Cuthbert is said to have visited Christians in Carlisle in 685, at which time there was a monastery operating amid the remains of the Roman town. The location is unknown, but given the tendency of later church builders to use early sites where known, it seems possible that it was on the site of today's cathedral.
It is not known at what point, if at all, the monastery visited by St Cuthbert ceased to function, but in 1102 it was effectively supplanted when King Henry I gave a grant of land in Carlisle for the establishment of a religious community. In 1122 King Henry invited the Augustinian order to take over the operation of the community he had established here and operate it as a priory, which was dedicated to St Mary.
The next change took place eleven years later, when in 1133 the priory church was designated as the cathedral serving the newly founded Diocese of Carlisle. Parts of the crossing, south transept and nave of today's church probably date back to this first cathedral. It seems likely that Henry's motives in creating a new diocese were as much to do with his efforts to stabilise the English side of the highly turbulent Scottish border than a result of any particular need to reorganise the church. In 1292 the cathedral was badly damaged when a fire deliberately started elsewhere in Carlisle by a disinherited son spread across much of the city. The repairs seem to have involved the obviously tricky process of replacing columns and piers supporting the relatively undamaged arcades above.
In the following century parts of the choir were rebuilt. This was completed by about 1380, just in time for the Norman tower to collapse onto the north transept. A new tower was erected by Bishop Strickland and completed by 1419. Later in the same century one of the continuing wonders of Carlisle Cathedral arrived with the installation of wooden stalls in the choir. These are truly beautiful. There are 24 stalls, one for each of the honorary canons, who included the bishop and dean of the day. Of particular note because they are so easy to overlook are the original medieval painted panels on the rear faces of the stalls, which can be viewed from the aisles. Such an expanse of original artwork of such great antiquity is simply breathtaking.
Further extensive work was undertaken on the cathedral between 1470 and 1528. The priory was dissolved in 1540 by the man once honoured by the Pope as "Defender of the Faith", Henry VIII, though the main building's wider role led to its designation the following year as a cathedral in the reformed Church of England. There is a bronze model of the pre-Reformation Carlisle Cathedral and its surroundings within the precinct, and it's easy to see that two victims of the dissolution were the east and west ranges of the priory's domestic buildings, which once linked the surviving fratry (originally the refectory) with the cathedral to form an enclosed square cloister. These were removed following the Parliamentary siege of Carlisle in 1644/5 to provide stone for repairs to the city.
Another loss since the Reformation has been the fairly modest spire shown on the model, topping off the tower. The third, and in some ways most striking, was the loss between 1649 and 1652 of all but two bays of a nave which once extended nearly as far west from the crossing as the choir and presbytery extend to its east. Again, the stone was deemed to be needed elsewhere in the city following the siege. One result of this is a curious patchwork effect to the stonework when the east end is viewed externally. A second is the odd internal effect of having a church with, in effect, only a vestigial nave.
More recent centuries have seen a continuous round of repair and restoration, with the occasional more fundamental change. The organ was added in 1856 and has been rebuilt twice since. The absolutely stunning "starry sky" ceiling in the choir and presbytery was restored and painted in 1856 and repainted in 1970. Equally stunning is the huge east window. This was added as part of the changes in the 1300s, and similarities with the stone tracery in the windows of York Minster and Selby Abbey suggest it may have been the work of Ivo de Raughton. The window was most recently restored in 1982.
From a Scottish point of view, an important event in the more recent history of the cathedral took place on Christmas Eve in 1797, when the author Walter Scott married Charlotte Carpenter here.
The main entrance to Carlisle Cathedral is in the end of the south transept. To reach it you must first enter the cathedral's precinct, either through the Prior Slee Gatehouse or through the gates near the south eastern corner of the cathedral. The precinct itself is well worth exploring. There are a number of large residences for canons, while one side of the site is delineated by the Deanery complete with the Prior's Tower.
The area of the precinct has traditionally been known as "The Abbey" despite the fact that it was an Augustinian priory rather than an abbey that stood here from 1122 to 1540. In the 1800s the dean of the day fought a losing battle to prevent the increasing noise and pollution drifting up from the engine sheds and railway sidings below the adjacent West Walls. A legal case ensued, but not only were the railways allowed to continue their operations on the dean's doorstep, their drivers thereafter always made a point of sounding their whistles when they passed.
The cathedral itself comprises an enchanting series of spaces. The overall size is rather smaller than you expect from an external viewing of the building, perhaps because such a large part of the nave was lost in the mid 1600s. In many ways this simply serves to add further interest, and as a result the main open space is the combined choir and presbytery, which continues from the organ loft to the high altar and east window. Aisles on the north and south sides expand the space.
The north transept houses a chapel which is home to the Brougham Triptych. This beautiful altarpiece was carved in Antwerp in the early 1500s, and was brought back to England from the Continent by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham.
At the end of the day, a church, even a cathedral, is about much more than the stone from which it is constructed, and more than the story of how it came to be. From a visitor's point of view, a large part of what makes any church succeed, or not, is the welcome it affords to those entering its doors, and the very intangible "feel" it has. Carlisle Cathedral sits in surroundings that are attractive and welcoming, and this translates into a church with a comfortable and pleasant feel. In part this must be due to something innate within the structure of the building itself: but it is also down to the friendly way visitors are received and welcomed by members of the church on arrival.