Carlisle Cathedral was built, starting in 1122 under King Henry I of England as an Augustinian Priory. Although there were many Augustinian churches built during this time, most of the large churches built were of the Benedictine order. William de Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury, was Augustinian and it was under him that Carlisle became a cathedral. Athelwold became the first Bishop of Carlisle in 1133. Carlisle Cathedral is the second smallest cathedral of the ancient cathedrals in England, the smallest being Oxford.
The original building was of Norman architectural style, possibly built over the foundation of an earlier church. The stone used is local Red Sandstone which now appears black on some of the exterior. Parts of the original Norman features are still seen in the south transept and the remaining two bays of the nave. Some of the piers lean at different angles now due to subsidence (sinking). In the 13th Century the choir was rebuilt in the Gothic style but the new work was greatly damaged by fire in 1292. The court of King Edward I visited Carlisle in 1307 giving incentive to remodel and renovate.
New work was started and by 1322 the eastern bay was completed with a beautiful glass and tracery window, the most noteworthy feature of the Cathedral. The tracery is done in the most complex English Gothic style, called Flowing Decorated Gothic. It is the largest such window in England, with dimensions of 51 feet high by 26 feet wide. The tracery still contains much of its medieval glass.
The choir roof is a fine wooden barrel vault that was added in the 14th Century and was restored and repainted in 1856. The eastern bays of the cathedral may have never received a stone vault because the central spire blew down and funds were needed to rebuild the damaged tower and north transept. This work was finished c. 1420. In the 15th and early 16th Centuries, the monastic buildings were refurbished. In 1536, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII, the building became a cathedral of the Church of England. During the English Civil War, part of the nave was demolished by the Scottish Presbyterian Army and the materials used to bolster Carlisle Castle.
The Cathedral library lost many of its medieval volumes during the Commonwealth period. They were destroyed and scattered. However, the library was re-founded in 1691, receiving donations from a former canon of the cathedral and a Bishop in 1702. The collection includes some acquired medieval manuscripts as well as some rare volumes. Between 1853 and 1870, the Cathedral was restored. Today the Cathedral is home to carvings, art and many treasures in addition to the library. Historical legend says the bowels of Richard the Lionhearted were interred in the Cathedral and in 1797, the author Sir Walter Scott was married there.