Carlisle Castle has been a working castle for over 900 years – and its strong keep has held many prisoners over the centuries, some of whom have left their mark. While you might have seen pictures of the intricate graffiti on the second floor, down in the dungeons the walls have been carved in a very different way.
Site Manager John Bonner takes us back to a summer nearly 300 years ago to explain the gruesome reason why they’re nicknamed the ‘licking stones’…
After the defeat of the Jacobites in 1746, a lot of prisoners were brought here by the Hanoverian government – the British government of the day – and were imprisoned in Carlisle Castle. At one time, there were over 300 prisoners kept here, but eventually most of them were sent south for trial and er… retribution. However, they kept 90 prisoners – most of them in the basement or the dungeons of the keep.
Throughout that very warm summer of 1746, 90 prisoners were kept crammed into that very small space in the dungeons – the trials only started in September 1746. There was very little water – but as you can probably tell standing in there, the walls are still damp.
There are natural sort of dips in the stone where the damp collected and, for sustenance, the prisoners were forced to lick the damp walls to stay alive… hence the term licking stones. They licked the stones to stay alive*.
We have a light in there now, but for the men kept in those cramped conditions it would have been dark. And the atmosphere! The smell alone must have been horrific. One or two prisoners actually did die in the dungeons and the bodies were removed.
Most of the prisoners were then either sent for trial, and tried for treason – which was, of course, a capital offence. And of course in those days hanging drawing and quartering was the punishment if found guilty. That did actually happen at Carlisle. About a third of the prisoners were executed for treason. A third were transported as slaves to the West Indies, which was as good as a death sentence, and another third (a lot of the lower ranking Jacobite prisoners) were actually allowed to leave or they were released.
I don’t know if it’s a romantic touch or not, as it must just have been a horrendously gruesome time to be here, but reputedly the folk song ‘Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond’ was written here at Carlisle Castle at that time – the ‘low road’ referenced is the grave.
See Carlisle Castle’s licking stones for yourself
They’re down in the dungeons of Carlisle Castle’s keep. If you want to find out more about the Jacobite rebellion, there’s a whole exhibition in the keep on the third floor.
Could you storm Carlisle Castle’s walls? Learn more about Carlisle’s turbulent history as the most besieged castle in the country at our interactive exhibition in the Old Militia store building.
Carlisle Castle is open 10:00 – 17:00, 7 days a week until 30 September – from October onwards it is open at weekends.
- English Heritage Members are free to enter.
- Joint ticket prices for Carlisle Castle and Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life are: Adult: £9.20, Concessions: £7.80, Child: £5.15, Family: £23.40 – entry tickets to just Carlisle Castle are also available.
(*You don’t still have to lick the walls today – we do sell bottled water in the shop if you’re thirsty!)