St Cuthbert’s Church in Carlisle has had a chequered history. These days its easy to miss tucked away as it is down a side lane between the House of Fraser and the Crown and Mitre. St Cuthbert preached in Carlisle but it didn’t stop the Vikings destroying the church that stood on the spot. It was William Rufus who ordered that the church should be rebuilt and it escaped the worst of the great fire of 1292 as well as the attentions of assorted besieging Scots. In 1644 when the Parliamentarians closed the cathedral and the parish church of St Mary’s which lays inside the cathedral the mayor made St Cuthbert’s the city’s Civic Church. It remains so to this day.
However, in 1777 it was decided that the church should be rebuilt, though the opening of the new church was delayed by a particularly bad storm in 1778 it took only two years to raise the money for the building and fitting out of the new church. Nothing remains of the medieval church apart from some fragments of glass.
The churchyard is an oasis of green in a city environment. Headstones have been placed against the churchyard walls so there is no indication of the spot where executed felons and Jacobites were laid to rest. There’s a further link to Carlisle’s troubled past as the last town besieged in England inside the church in the form of the royal coat of arms which were placed there in the aftermath of 1745 to remind the citizens of Carlisle where their loyalty lay.
Back outside, the graveyard is the final resting place for members of the Royalist garrison who died during the siege of 1644. The guide-book also makes reference to a highwayman and if that weren’t lively enough in December 1823 the body snatchers came calling in Carlisle. Graves were tampered with, two bodies went missing and one was discovered parcelled up ready for transportation.
Who would have thought there was so much history lurking in such a peaceful spot?
John Halton, or de Halton, was an Augustinian Canon in Carlisle. He was elected the ninth Bishop of Carlisle on 23 April 1292 making him bishop during the reigns of Edward I and then Edward II – and putting him on the front line for the First Scottish War of Independence.
As well as caring for the spiritual concerns of his flock- his Register of the incumbents of the diocese still exists- he was also a busy diplomat and entertainer of royalty. The Magna Britannia records him entertaining the king at Rose Castle (the principle residence until recently of the Bishops of Carlisle) in 1306 from 28 August until 10 September.
He was sent to Scotland in 1294 by the king and was a papal tax collector in Scotland (which possibly didn’t enhance his popularity with the locals and may account for why the Scots burned Rose Castle down at the first available opportunity – though obviously that’s my own personal spin on events). On a more factual level, he was Governor of Carlisle Castle at one point, so had custody of Scottish prisoners and hostages – little did he realise that five hundred years later there would be so many Scottish Jacobite captives in Carlisle that the cathedral would have to be used as a prison.
It was Halton together with the Archbishop of York who excommunicated Robert Bruce in 1305 after the killing of John Comyn and in 1306 he absolved everyone of their offences against the King’s enemies in Scotland which must have pleased the English borderers no end as they could then steal and kill with neither fear of hellfire and damnation nor, at the very least, a long time in Purgatory. For his pains he was involved in the Seige of Carlisle in 1314 when Edward Bruce attempted to take the city. He fled the border for large chunks of time enjoying the peace and quiet of Lincolnshire. He was one of the king’s representatives in the treaty signed between England and Scotland in 1320.
The following year he turned up at a meeting held by Thomas of Lancaster which was the first indication of the barons uprising against Edward II. There’s no evidence that Halton was involved any further but trouble and the bishop seemed to have gone hand in hand. He died in 1324 having lived through some turbulent times on the border.