After leaving Alnwick and Northumberland behind, we made our base in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, which allowed us to explore the surrounding area over the next few days. We spent a day exploring Goathland and Whitby, but also had an entire day set aside for the beautiful city of York. Within the city, we were lucky to stop at Clifford’s Tower, the most recognisable remains of York Castle.
The first thing you notice about Clifford’s Tower is that it is built up on a mound, technically called a motte. The motte is actually the oldest feature of the site, dating to the 1068 when William the Conqueror built a series of defences in response to the North’s rebellion against him. He actually built two mottes in York, the second was built slightly later and is known today as Baile Hill. Both sites would have originally housed castles, with keeps built upon the actual mottes. The original castles would have been made of wood, however, during the reign of King Henry III (1216-1272), a stone castle was built, including Clifford’s Tower we see today. It seems that the inner motte was the preferred choice, as Baile Hill fell into disuse after the completion of York Castle.
As part of York Castle, the wooden keep upon the motte was replaced with the distinctive four-lobed tower that remains today. The tower once had a central square tower that rose taller than the standing walls, but was cleared away in the early 18th century. The design of the tower is actually very unusual, and perhaps originated in France. However, the internal organisation of the keep would have been pretty standard; a ground floor containing service rooms, the first floor containing private rooms, and the second floor and roof for defence weapons. The first floors were actually fitted out for the King and Queen, and included what would have been a richly decorated chapel; you can still see the arched decorations of the chapel today. However, the tower was never used for royal occupation. The whole motte would have been surrounded by a moat, and connected to the rest of the castle by a stone bridge, occupying the grounds immediately by the tower.
The remainder of York Castle’s history reflects one of growth and stagnation. It seems that the castle fell often into neglect, but occasions of repair and renovation suggests that it wasn’t to be completely forgotten by the royal families on the throne. Perhaps the castle’s finest moments was between the 14th and 15th centuries, in which Clifford’s Tower was used as a treasury, exchequer, mint, goal, and seat of royal power. It was also during this period that the tower received its name after the Clifford family (previously it had been referred to as the Great Tower). However it’s not too clear just who the tower is named after; either Roger de Clifford, who was executed and hung from the tower in 1322, or his later descendants who actually acted as castle constables!
Clifford’s Tower was besieged during the English Civil War (1642-1651), but had evidently served its purpose as a garrison by 1684, when an “accidental” explosion destroyed the interior, leaving the empty shell we see today. Even after this point, the shell was used as a dovecote and even as part of a prison. In fact, Clifford’s Tower continued to be used as a prison until 1929. The remainder of the castle buildings were lost in the 18th and 19th centuries with the building of new prisons and courts, which remain today as museums. However, you can still find little indicators of the once-great castle in York, such as York’s Great Gate to the east of the tower, and towers behind the castle museum.
Despite the relatively minor importance of the castle, there is one very black page in the history of Clifford Tower itself. In 1190 anti-Semitism flared up in York, with the homes of prominent Jews destroyed and families killed. The Jews of York fled to Clifford’s Tower to take refuge, aided by the castle’s constable. They remained in the tower for several days. The danger to them was very real; Jews found outside of the castle walls during those few days were either forcibly baptised or killed. The constable had to leave the castle for a few days on business, but when he returned, the Jews feared that he had betrayed him, and wouldn’t allow him into the Tower. The constable went to see the town sheriff, who summoned troops to the castle. Unfortunately, a large, angry mob joined the group, probably reassuring the Jews stuck inside of their suspicions of the constable. After a long siege, a number of individuals inside the tower realised that there was no possible way to make it out alive, and agreed that suicide would be a better option. The head of families killed their wives and children, and the tower was set alight internally. The few who didn’t take part in the suicide and survived the fire were killed by the mob the next day. It is supposed that between 20-40 families, at least 150 people, lost their lives. The tower was later repaired in 1244, and the families slaughtered are remembered with a plaque outside the tower’s walls.
Tragic and regrettable history aside, it seems that 1244 wasn’t the only point in the Tower’s history in which it had to be seriously repaired. As York Castle would have once been surrounded by the rivers Ouse and Foss, forming natural barriers, flooding has been a persistent problem. In 1315, flooding caused the collapse of a large section of wall and softened the motte. More repairs were undertaken in the 1323 and 1325. The Tower experienced major subsidence between 1358-136, cracking from top to bottom in two places and the near-collapse of the east lobe. This required more renovations between 1360-1365. Major repairs were undertaken in the 18th and 19th century to prevent any further damage to the castle. Today, although structurally sound, the effects of the damage is obvious; a nasty scar down the east lobe where the major crack was repaired; the internal wall work is 60 cm (2 ft) lower than its original height; the outside wall is at least 1 m (3 ft) lower than the original; and the east lobe of the castle is noticeably sloped. In fact, the spiral staircase in the eastern lobe slopes to the side, making it a scary walk down!
Although still an empty shell today, I think Clifford’s Tower is well worth the visit if you happen to be in York. The Tower’s unique design is very striking, and its dramatic setting atop the motte instantly draws your attention to it. The top of the Tower is still accessible and offers breathtaking panorama views of the city. Admittedly, these are not as fantastic as those from the central tower at York Minster (highly recommended!), but the stairs here are much more easily managed (and not as scary!). Furthermore, you know you’re standing in a place deemed worthy by William the Conqueror himself, over nine hundred years before your time. That’s not something you experience everyday!