It was begun during the reign of King Henry I by the first Bishop of Carlisle, the Englishman Athelwold (1133-1155), who built a moderate-sized Norman minster of which the transepts and part of the nave still exist. The present cathedral has fine examples of stone tracery, mediæval stained glass, paintings and carvings. The building is made of red sandstone, which due to local weather at some places appears black.
Five of the seven bays of the cathedral were destroyed by the Scottish Presbyterian Army during the English Civil War to provide stone for the reinforcement of Carlisle Castle. Carlisle cathedral was restored in the 19th century by Ewan Christian. Due to extremes in wet and dry conditions at Carlisle, the ground on which the Cathedral is built is constantly moving. This is visible upon inspection of the pillars, which lean in all directions.
Robert William Billings published an analysis of Carlisle Cathedral which has been the subject of scholarly interpretation, particularly citing his geometric theory of analyis.
When the Augustinian priory and church of St. Mary, founded by Henry 1, became the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Carlisle in 1133, music quickly became a vital part of its life and worship, with four laymen and six boys forming the choir and assisting the canons with music.
400 years later the Cathedral Statutes of 1545 provided for four lay clerks and six choristers, "boys of tender age with sonorous voices and apt at chanting". The choral tradition, unique to Britain, continues to this day.
The Cathedral Choir now consists of 16 choristers and 6 lay clerks. The choristers were originally educated at the Cathedral's own choir school but this was closed in 1935 and nowadays the boys attend the Cathedral on five days a week, after school hours, and sing at six services a week thus ensuring the continuity of the long tradition of daily choral worship.
The boys are aged from 8-13 years and are recruited from local schools. They are selected at voice trials held during the year and receive a thorough musical training. They are awarded an annual bursary and pocket money.