Carlisle: The Unluckiest Cathedral

Carlisle Cathedral from the SE, before restoration. Engraving by John Coney, 1822
Carlisle has a cathedral? A real one? Yes, but its well-meaning architecture, along with a propensity for pratfalls, make it the Frank Spencer of the English medieval cathedrals. Its, at times, quite cringeworthy story is rather different to the other cathedrals of medieval England, which were rebuilt in the monumental Romanesque style shortly after the Norman Conquest either on top of an existing Saxon one (e.g., Winchester, Wells), or moved to a new site (e.g. Dorchester to Lincoln, Sherbourne to Salisbury). Carlisle was founded as an Augustinian Priory in 1122 by King Henry I, and was elevated to a cathedral a decade later to stabilise the English Church on the border with Scotland.

Loss of the nave, 1646

Truncated nave from SW

Okay, let’s get this one out the way first. Not only has Carlisle lost its cloisters, chapter house, and most of its other conventual gubbins, but the first thing you notice is that it lost its nave during the War of the Three Kingdoms after the siege of Carlisle of 1644-5. The town was garrisoned in 1646 by Lord General of the Army of the Covenant Alexander Leslie, and his army pulled down the west front, six bays of the nave and most of the conventual buildings in order to repair the castle and fortify the town. If Cromwell had not ordered them to surrender the garrisons after defeating the Scots at Preston, it is likely that Carlisle Cathedral would have ended up totally destitute like many Scottish cathedrals such as Elgin and St Andrews. The Parliamentarians may have desecrated Lichfield, but ironically it was an army on the Royalist side that ransacked Carlisle (The English Civil War as more complicated than you might think!).


Daniel King – an agent for Dugdale, author of the great Church history the Monasticon – has drawing allegedly showing its pre-occupation state with the nave complete, but King is perhaps one of the worst artists ever so it’s not really much use. I don’t even think it IS the south prospect like it says: the vessel on the left has the higher roof which would make it more likely to be the east end and thus the view would be the north prospect. It’s impossible to confirm because the windows are just generic and even on the drawing itself both arms have one more bay in the lower windows than they do in a clerestory which doesn’t make sense. I think this was done from an extremely hasty set of notes he made before he did a runner to avoid being beheaded by an angry Presbyterian.

But even before it had lost the nave, the Cathedral managed to make more than enough problems for itself.

Settlement of the original Romanesque building, 1120s-30s

As usual, the first problem was that which plagues so many English great churches: differential settlement.  It is quite spectacular how much the footings of the tower have slipped, particularly the west wall of the south transept, which look like it’s going concertina in on itself any minute.



Every arm from the crossing is distorted by the sinking piers, even the first bay of the nave has a spectacularly saggy gallery. So different are the levels of the two sides of the bay that when it came to putting the clerestorey on top, the builders did the laziest cop-out of fixing the two levels with a wonky sill. The shafts above the piers terminate below the gallery, advising they were planning on a high vault but gave up on the idea pretty sharpish. Aisle vaults were also abandoned. One suspects the Scots didn’t need to do that much to the nave to topple it.


Eccentricities in the Early English east end, 1220s-80s

Looking west from the presbytery to the crossing.

But subsidence was only the beginning of Carlisle’s woes. The decision was then made to greatly expand the east end with a Gothic replacement, not only longer, but wider. Conventual buildings obviated expanding south, so all the extra width was placed on the north side. Construction started in the 1220s with an aisled north transept and the north aisle wall so the old apse could remain in use for services on the south side until the new extension was almost finished. You can see the lop-sided legacy of this inside. The presbytery sits on top of the Romanesque south aisle wall, but is much wider than the old apse. This means that the crossing arch is not in the centre of the choir anymore, and you can see the old roofline where the old apse aisle used to be. Looks very odd.

We can work out where the apse extended to because of a wonky arch. The fenestration changes on the south aisle, suggesting that work stopped in order to demolish the apse, and then building resume in a different style, with stepped triple rather than double lancets.
Below are south bays 4, 5 and 6. 6 looks odd because it was the original end bay, so the sizes of the arches are uneven so that the right one is fatter to accomodate the east wall. Although bay 5 is a Victorian replacement of a late-medieval perpendicular window (see first picture in this post) with the north-aisle scheme, you can tell it’s probably correct because the right arch of bay 4 “weeps” right because the level of capitals of the triple lancets needs to be lower than the paired ones. Took me ages to work this out. The pedantry of medieval masons knows no bounds.


New E.E. east end burns down almost immediately, 1292


Presbytery arcade, carved capital, first quarter of the 14thc

So, the new choir was finished some time in the second half of the thirteenth century. Then in 1292 the roof caught fire and collapsed in on the furniture causing a lot of damage. As you can see from my above account of them, the aisle walls survived, but the central vessel was extremely badly damaged. Nearly all of the elevation needed to be completely remade: piers, triforium and clerestory. The results are a triumph. Although the east arm at Carlisle Cathedral is almost unknown in the literature, it’s a uniquely proportioned, wonderfully airy and light essay in English Gothic. The triple-window triforium is particularly memorable in the elevation, but most impressive are the capitals, which famously contain lots of animal tomfoolery and general foliage-bound jiggery-pokery.

Presbytery elevation, first quarter of 14thc (arcade arches and aisle walls 1220s)

But ho! What is this. The arches themselves have dogtooth, which is a 13thc motif! The aisle vaults also seem to be 13thc! Even if you don’t know much about architecture, you can usually be sure that the oldest bits are usually at the bottom. Here we have 13thc sandwiched between 14thc piers and a 14thc triforium! How can this be? The answer is that they must have retained all the voussoirs when they dismantled the elevations, and then reassembled them on top of brand new piers. Why waste good doogtooth? This is confirmed by the extra short bay they put on the end that lacks the dogtooth. The short bay also copies the the aisle dado arcading in a 14thc stylee. But as you’d expect in a building that reuses old fabric, there are pretty obvious mistakes here too.

Mess ups in the new presbytery

The short bays were added but the north one has a curious bit where the arch is too high so the triforium string course jumps up over it. Is it a mistake? Well, did they do it on the other side?


Welp nope they didn’t, mistake it is then

The east front, ready for glazing around 1340, so probably begun in the 1330s (except for the aisles, which were completed earlier) is one of the most spectacular essays in the Decorated Style on an English cathedral facade. It has pairs of niches on its big east buttresses, the top ones being ogee and gables as found in parish church Decorated such as Heckington in Lincolnshire. The composition is thrown off symmetry by the big stair turret on the north side – the principal access to the upper levels of the building – which is also elaborated with Dec flourishes such as blind tracery and a wave parapet.


One confusing thing in the new presbytery is this at the east end of each aisle. It’s a vault spring from the respond of the nave arcade that goes nowhere. Instead the vault springs from a corbel further up the east wall. What’s it about? Is it a plan to revault the whole aisle that was abandoned in favour of reusing the 13thc ribs? Is it, as Billings forwarded in 1840, because they realised would obscure the main arcade mouldings? (Seems a bit petty to me) Is it a flying rib? Clearly something’s not gone to plan because the south aisle has separate headstops for the wall transverse rib and the cross rib, while both those spring from the same corbel on the north, and the headstop holding the main arcade label is clearly visible on the north side but buried in the wall on the south.

If you understood all that, maybe you can help me understand what the hell all that’s about because quite frankly I’m stumped.

Tower falls down almost immediately after the east end is completed, 1380

N transept, choir entrance with masonry break from collapse of crossing tower

Anyway, no time for that because in 1380 the tower fell down *sad trombone*. Thank goodness it didn’t fall onto the just-rebuilt choir, that really would’ve been a Swamp Castle tragedy, but it did land on the north transept basically destroying all the Early English work there. You can see the remnants of the east arcade springing into the wall where the east chapels used to be. It was probably the tower collapse that left the voussoirs of the chapel entrance frighteningly slipped out of place.


N choir aisle entrance, from W, showing springing of N transept arcade

The opportunity was not taken to build a new tower that would line up with the new presbytery, probably because the idea of building a new, bigger tower was a stupid idea given all the subsidence. So they perched this thing with a funny diaphragm arch on the side where it fell down on top of the old low Romanesque crossing.

Rebuilt crossing from NE.


Nave, from the N aisle (From Winkles Cathedrals, 1836)

Then little mischief befell Carlisle until the aforementioned pesky Presbyterians. After their penny-pinching truncation of the nave for cheap stone, the remaining stump became St Mary’s parish church, and was cruelly given a ceiling, which I’d like to think was a joke on the vaulting shafts terminating at the gallery, but that’s probably unlikely. Preliminary restorations were carried out by Ewan Christian in 1852-6, and then Street cleared all the crap out of the nave in 1871-80. Sadly Stephen Dykes Bower filled it up with junk again in 1947. But despite being the cathedral missing off so many southern softies’ lists, you should go. It’s great. I bet you any money it’ll be bloody raining while you’re there though.


  1. For once, I think my avatar says it better than words ever could. Thank you for this marvelously entertaining and instructive post!

  2. This is hilarious in that way where History turns itself into a running gag and although it takes a few centuries to catch onto it, you suddenly start side-eyeing history to check its not trolling you…
    Thanks for putting this together, as a native Cumbrian who visited Carlisle a lot through my life, it’s a treat to see it crop up in all of its … eccentric glory!

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