Carlisle Cathedral

Carlisle Cathedral – This England – Summer 2024

As cathedrals go, Carlisle’s could be classified as compact. Some tourist guides may refer to it as the smallest of the Church of England’s ancient cathedrals, but it still has the capacity to astound and amaze.

Its foundations can be traced back to 1122, when it began life as the Augustinian Priory Church of St Mary, making Carlisle the only cathedral to have served as an Augustinian Priory prior to the Reformation.

It became a cathedral 11 years later, in 1133, when Henry I removed it from the Bishop of Glasgow’s diocese, and established the Diocese of Carlisle. Henry was attempting to assert his authority over the tumultuous English/Scottish border region, so creating a cathedral was seen as a ‘soft’ way of doing this.

A century later, the cathedral was joined by two additional friaries in the vicinity—a Dominican friary about 400 metres away (where the West Walls and Victoria Viaduct meet) and a Franciscan friary similarly distanced (in nearby Devonshire Street).

By the end of the 13th century, Edward I was King of England, and he’d successfully established English rule in Wales following his campaigns of 1277 and 1283. So when Margaret, known as the Maid of Norway, and the presumed heir to the Scottish crown, died unexpectedly in 1290, Edward I was called upon to help settle the succession dispute. However, he seized the opportunity and claimed feudal suzerainty over Scotland, much to the annoyance of the Scots.

This decision meant Edward I spent a lot of time in the north of England, holding Parliament in Carlisle, as well as living and worshipping in Carlisle Cathedral. Naturally, a refurbishment was deemed appropriate.

Work began creating a new choir, built in the Early English style of tall slender columns and pointed arches, which allowed for taller windows that let in more light. This was almost complete in 1292, when a huge fire tore through the city, completely destroying many buildings, and affecting many others, including the cathedral. Only the north and south aisles on either side of the choir were undamaged.

Edward I gave money and materials to help with the rebuilding, although he never saw the completed works. He died of dysentery, six miles away at Burgh By Sands on 7th July 1307.

Some of what visitors see today dates from Norman times and the 14th century, but the cathedral has also seen many changes over the centuries.

One of its jewels is the Great East window. Completed in 1350, this 51-feet tall by 26-feet wide ornate stained glass window dominates the altar. It’s the most complex Flowing Decorated Gothic style window of its type in England, having nine vertical sections, with glass imagery depicting the life of Jesus. While this glass was replaced in 1861, the glass in the top tracery section of the window, illustrating the last judgment of Christ, is believed to be the original 14th century material. It has been suggested that such is the height of the window, perhaps the older glass was out of the reach of stone-throwing Protestants during the Reformation.

Turn around from the East Window, and Carlisle’s other marvel is the barrel-vaulted Choir and Sanctuary ceiling. Its midnight blue background with golden stars is a heavenly vision in many ways.

The supporting roof timbers are the original 14th century beams, which were installed after the great fire, but the highly decorative design we see today is Victorian. It can’t have been easy working at a height of 72 feet above the floor. Refurbished by Owen Jones and Ewan Christian between 1853 and 1856, it follows the medieval decoration scheme and colours, but the detail of the stars and angels is down to Jones.

Jones was an architect and designer, and his understanding of colours and patterns made him one of the pioneers of what we know today as the modern colour theory. His design skills were sought after following his work on Joseph Paxton’s glass palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

A neck-saving mirror in the Sanctuary allows for a more comfortable appreciation of the ceiling’s intricate design. Each panel contains sixteen stars, although a passing cathedral guide suggested there is one panel with only fifteen stars, and challenged me to find it. I didn’t, but it sounds a fantastic way of keeping young children occupied.

There’s a face in the ceiling that’s easily spotted. In the central boss, two eyes, a nose, and a mouth look down upon today’s worshippers and visitors. Is this the face of St Mary, in recognition of the cathedral’s original beginnings?

There are 14 stone columns in the Choir and Sanctuary. The pair nearest the high altar are plain, but the remaining 12 each have a scene carved at their tops illustrating each month of the year.

But while these architectural wonders dominate the cathedral, there are several smaller gems here worth looking out for.

Each of the cathedral’s 46 choir stalls has an elaborately carved 15th century misericord. Made from Black Oak, these tip-up seats allowed a Canon to stand, sit, or perch while singing. Carved with a variety of mythical beasts and engravings, recent repairs have offered clues suggesting they were originally painted in gold. Scorch marks on the wooden spindles between each stall above infer that some Canons fell asleep during early morning or late night services, allowing their candles do some damage.

In the North aisle, on the back of the choir panels, is a series of fascinating painted panels. These were common in cathedrals before the Reformation, but were often whitewashed over afterwards. Carlisle’s panels were covered in this way, but the painstaking removal of the whitewash revealed one panel depicting each of the 12 apostles, and another three representing the lives of St Anthony of Egypt, who was the founder of monasticism, St Augustine of Hippo, considered the founder of Augustinian Canons, and St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, who visited Carlisle in 685 and 686.

In the cathedral’s Chapel of St Wilfrid stands the impressive Brougham Triptych. This is an elaborately complicated Flemish woodcarving dating from 1515, depicting the birth and Passion of Christ. There is so much detail, it would take hours to appreciate it all, but one detail frequently pointed out concerns an elderly gentleman wearing a pair of thick-lensed glasses carrying out a delicate medical procedure on a young child.

Something else separating the choir from the North aisle is the Salkeld Screen. Called so because it bears the initials of Lancelot Salkeld, Dean of Carlisle Cathedral from 1541, its Renaissance design comprises 12 heads, with six carved on each side.

The Treasury is a recent 20th century addition to the cathedral, and houses many items found during excavation works undertaken in 1988, prior to its building. It also houses a magnificent display of silverware, along with some Maundy money, and treasures from churches around the diocese.

Stepping into the Norman nave, two things become apparent. First, this west end is home to the regimental chapel of the Border Regiment, where the memorial books of soldiers who fell during the two World Wars are on display.

The second thought concerns the smallness of the nave. Wandering around, it feels about a third of the size of the Choir and Sanctuary. However, the original Norman cathedral was much bigger. All that survives today are about two of the original seven bays.

After the Reformation, some responsibility for the upkeep of the cathedral fell upon the local parishioners. Within 100 years, the Nave had fallen into a poor state of repair and may not even have had a roof. By 1637, the threat of a new Scottish invasion was so high, the remains of the nave were torn down and the stone used to reinforce Carlisle Castle, some 250 metres away. Ironically, the threat from the Scots was due to Charles I imposing his new Book of Common Prayer upon Scottish and English churches.

To get a true scale of Carlisle Cathedral’s original footprint, step outside and glance up at the 110-feet tower, which originally stood in the middle of the building.

The remains of the original Priory Canon’s Dormitory are still visible in the Cathedral grounds, with the refectory, or Fratry as it is known here, behind. Today, the Fratry’s undercroft is used as a cafe and the upper dining hall, where the Canons ate, is now the Cathedral Library.

At over 900 years old, it is unsurprising that this English cathedral so close to the Scottish border is tightly intertwined with the relationship between England and Scotland over the centuries. Carlisle Cathedral has witnessed much, including the incarceration of Jacobite prisoners in the Nave in 1745, and the marriage of Sir Walter Scott to Charlotte Carpenter on Christmas Eve in 1797.

Which just goes to show that the best things in life really do come in small packages.

(c) Simon Whaley