York Castle

York Castle, Clifford's Tower - Photo ©
Michael A.Linton, September 22nd, 2017

York Castle - Photo © Michael A.Linton, September 22nd, 2017

York Castle (of which Clifford's Tower is a part) is a fortification in the city of York, England. The principal remains of the 13th century - 14th century castle are the keep and some of the curtain wall. From its start in 1068 through the English Civil War, the castle had a particularly noteworthy history.


The original castle

In 1068, during the Norman Conquest of 10661069, William I had a basic wood motte and bailey castle built at York between the Rivers Ouse and Foss on the site of the present-day York Castle, and placed it under the command of William Malet. The local population soon harassed the castle and to aid in its defence and to strengthen his grip on the North of England, William had a second castle built in 1069 on what is now Baile Hill on the west bank of the Ouse. Later that year, a Danish Viking fleet sailed up the Humber and attacked the castles and the Normans occupying them with the assistance of Cospatrick and a number of locals. The Normans, as part of their attempt to defend themselves, set fire to the houses around the castles, with the unintended consequence that the castles too were destroyed.

Responding to widespread resistance, William ordered all the buildings to be pulled down and all the animals slaughtered in Yorkshire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and County Durham. This Harrying of the North between 1069 and 1070 may have caused over 100,000 human deaths.

The Normans then rebuilt the castles, again in wood. By 1175, King Henry II was able to receive the homage of King William of Scotland, in York Castle.

In 1190 the wooden tower of York Castle was the last refuge of the 150 Jewish residents in York. Richard de Malbis (Richard Malebisse) was a debtor of Aaron of Lincoln, an influential Jewish banker of the late 12th century. When a fire broke out in the city of York, de Malbis used the opportunity to incite a mob to attack the home of a recently deceased agent of Aaron of Lincoln named Benedict of York, killing his widow and children and burning the house. Josce of York (Joseph), the leader of the Jewish community of York, obtained the permission of the warden of York Castle to remove his wife and children and the rest of the Jews into the castle, where they probably took refuge in a tower that stood where Clifford's Tower now stands. The mob surrounded the castle and when the warden left the castle, the Jews, fearing the entry of the mob, would not readmit him. The warden appealed to the sheriff, who called out the county militia. The militia laid siege to the tower for several days till on 16 March 1190 the tower caught fire. Several Jews perished in the flames but the majority (including Josce of York and the learned rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny) took their own lives rather than give themselves up to the mob. Those who did surrender were killed, despite being offered clemency. At least 150 Jews died (although some authorities put the figure as high as 500). A plaque on the hill on which the tower stands reads:

On the night of Friday 16 March 1190 some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York, having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others, chose to die at each other's hands rather than renounce their faith.

The king's Lord Chancellor dismissed the sheriff and constable for failing to prevent the massacre and imposed a heavy fine on York's citizens. However, the ringleaders had fled and could not be brought to justice.

The rebuilt castle

By 1194, the motte was raised in height by 13ft and the castle was again rebuilt in wood at a cost of £200, and King John stayed there in 1200. Unfortunately, a gale in 1228 destroyed the tower on the motte.

In 1244, when the Scots threatened to invade England, King Henry III visited the castle and ordered it rebuilt in stone, at a cost of about ₤2,500. The work commenced in 1245, and took some 20 to 25 years as the bailey received a towered curtain wall and two gateways, and the builders crowned the existing motte with a stone keep, known as the King's Tower.

1298 King Edward I kept his Treasury at the castle while he campaigned against the Scots.

The castle played the same role in 1322 for King Edward II in his campaign against his rebellious barons. Following the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, some of the defeated rebel leaders, including Sir Roger Clifford, were executed at York. One source reports that they were executed and their bodies were hung in chains from the keep;[1]; this account does not mention the mode of execution. Another account refers to the mode of execution as "hanging in chains",[2] presumably after the fashion that Robert Aske (below) chose.

In 1327, Isabella of France, the less-than-faithful wife of the even less faithful bisexual King Edward II, and the mother of King Edward III, resided at the castle. Six years later, Queen Philippa, King Edward III's wife, had an exchequer in the bailey; she had married Edward III at York Minster, on 24 January 1328.

At the time the castle served as an administrative seat and for some years as the mint for the region, producing gold and silver coins from 1353 to 1546. By 1358, the heavy stone keep had subsided and the southeastern lobe cracked from top to bottom. In 1361, Edward III too kept his Treasury in the castle while campaigning.

After the Battle of Towton (1461), which took place about 11 miles from York, the defeated Lancastrians fled to the city. King Edward IV followed close behind and stayed briefly at the castle.

In 1484 the castle was in such a poor state of repair that King Richard III ordered parts demolished and replaced. However, he died at Bosworth and his instructions were not implemented.

In 1536, political leader Robert Aske was hanged above Clifford's Tower on the orders of King Henry VIII, following the failure of Aske's Pilgrimage of Grace protest against the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Also in the 16th century Robert Redhead, the tower keeper, sold some of the stonework. He managed to sell some ten layers before anyone noticed that the battlements and turrets were disappearing. He was hanged.

The seventeenth century

When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, the Royalists under Henry Clifford, the last Earl of Cumberland, took possession of the castle and city of York and garrisoned them. Clifford repaired the castle and strengthen the walls to permit them to support cannon. Baile Hill, which was 20 feet high and had been incorporated into the city walls, also became a gun emplacement.

On 23 April 1644 anti-Royalist forces commenced a siege of the city. A Scottish army under Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven came from the south, while a Parliamentary force under Ferdinando Fairfax, 2nd Lord Fairfax of Cameron, came from the east. Six weeks later, Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester, brought a third contingent to York, bringing the number of anti-Royalist forces to over 30,000 men. During the siege, William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, commanded the city, while Colonel Sir John Cobb and 200 men held the castle. Despite bombardment, attempts to undermine the walls, and attacks on the gates, the castle and city held out thorough May and June.

On 5 June, messengers, disguised as women, brought news to Cavendish that Prince Rupert was on his way to relieve the city. Through adroit maneuvering, Rupert was able to force the besiegers to withdraw, lifting the siege on 1 July. However, the next day Parliamentary forces defeated Rupert at Marston Moor, six miles west of York, in what was the largest and bloodiest battle of the war. On 14 July the city and castle surrendered to the Parliamentary forces, who permitted the Royalists to march out with full honours. The Roundheads then slighted the castle.

After the restoration of Charles II, the Castle received some rebuilding, including the installation of heraldic panels over the entry that contain the King's arms and those of the Clifford family. Henry Clifford, the last Earl of Cumberland, was the last to garrison the castle. This is a more probable source of the name, Clifford's Tower than the execution of Sir Robert Clifford.

On St. George's Day (23 April) 1684, at around 10pm, an explosion in the magazine (artillery) reduced the tower to its exterior walls. There is some reason to believe the explosion was not accidental. At the time, it was common in the city to toast the wished-for demolition of the "Minced Pie", as the castle was known, and not only did the explosion not kill anyone, but the garrison had previously removed their belongings. The ruined tower subsequently became an ornamental feature in the grounds of a large house that had been built to the north-east.

On 22 November 1688, Thomas Osborne, 1st Duke of Leeds, commonly known as Danby, and his followers seized York Castle, declared themselves for the Prince of Orange. They took Sir John Reresby, whom Charles II had in 1683 appointed governor of York, prisoner, but subsequently paroled him.

The eighteenth century

In the 18th century, three new buildings forming a U shape were erected to the south of Clifford's Tower. These were the County Gaol (1701-5, by William Wakefield) on the south side, the Assize Courts (1773-7, by John Carr) on the west side, and the Female Prison (1780-3, after Carr) on the east side. The Assize Courts building now houses York Crown Court, while the Female Prison and the County Gaol, which later became the Debtors' Prison, now house the Castle Museum. The circular grassed area between these buildings is known as Castle Green, or the Eye of York.

The nineteenth century and later

In 1825, Clifford's Tower and the large house to its north-east were purchased and new prison buildings were constructed, including walls, a gatehouse and an extra prison block. The whole castle area served as a prison from 1835 to 1929. In 1935, all these new buildings were swept away.

English Heritage now owns Clifford's Tower. Recently, commercial interests have sought to introduce retail development to the area surrounding it. Citizens, visitors, academics, environmentalists, local businesspeople and Jewish groups have opposed the development with some success, winning a lengthy and bitter Public Inquiry in 2003.

Description of the castle

The castle of 1068 was originally designed as a motte and bailey fortification. The major campaign of work from 1245 to the 1270s resulted in the crescent shaped bailey area being enclosed by a high stone wall with regularly spaced cylindrical towers. There was a gate on the town side, adjacent to the motte. Another gate on the opposite side of the bailey, the foundations of which one can still see, gave access to the open country south of the castle. Historians believe the bailey included two halls, a chapel, a kitchen and a prison.

Clifford's Tower is a keep of unusual design. The structure is a quatrefoil plan, much like a four-leafed clover, and consisted of two stories. A central stone pillar, of which traces remain, supported the first floor. A square turret on the south side between two of the lobes protected the entrance. There are defensive turrets between the other lobes. The tower is believed to be an experiment in improving flanking fire by reducing dead ground visible from the summit of the keep. Historians suspect that the builders of Clifford's Tower based it on a French model, as one can find a nearly identical example to York at Étampes, France. Very few examples of this multilobed type of castle tower exist; one local example is the keep of Pontefract Castle (now badly damaged).

For the construction, King Henry III employed master mason Henry de Rayns, who organized the work, and chief carpenter Simon of Northampton, both of whom had had major roles in the building of Windsor Castle. (Interestingly, Master Henry had worked at Paris, which is near Etampes Castle.)


  1. ^ T. Whellan & Co. 1857. History and Topography of the City of York; and the North Ridng of Yorkshire.
  2. ^ K.R. Booth. 1990. York: The History and Heritage of a City. (Barrie & Jenkins).


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