Much of the layout and history of York originates from the Roman and Viking periods. One iconic feature of the city, however, is from the Norman period. The original mound that Clifford’s Tower stands on originally had a timber structure on the top. In 1068 William the Conqueror had this built as a statement of his power over the region. This original building stood for over a hundred years. This was destroyed in a fire during one of the worst events to happen on the site, the massacre of 150 Jews in 1190. The current tower is the remains of an unusual quadrilobate keep. This dates from the late 13th Century and was built on the orders of Henry III.
The tower became part of the York Castle, a fortified complex. The complex comprised castles, prisons, law courts and other buildings. York Castle in various guises stood over a nine hundred year period in the area on the south side of the River Foss.
Today you can climb to the top of the tower and enjoy panoramic views over the centre of York. These include York Minster and many of the city’s medieval churches and buildings. It is possible to see as far as the North Yorkshire Moors on a clear day.
In March 1190 the entire Jewish population of York was massacred in Clifford’s Tower. Anti-Semitism at the time resulted in a number of riots in York and other English towns. One Friday night a mob killed some Jews in York. The cities’ remaining Jews then sought protection in the Royal Castle. The Jews, afraid of betrayal decided to seek refuge inside the wooden keep and barricaded themselves inside.
In order to restore order, troops were mobilised who joined the mob outside the keep. The Jews inside thought they probably faced enforced baptism and would be made to renounce their faith. Worse still, death at the hands of the mob outside. Many of the Jews decided to commit suicide, the men killing their wives and children and then themselves. A fire then started inside, it’s not known if this was deliberate or not. Any survivors of the mass suicide perished in the fire or were killed by the rioting mob as they tried to escape.
In Medieval England Jews were the money lenders of the time. Many of the rioting mob were men who had borrowed money from the Jews. They saw this as an opportunity to wipe out their debts. The Jews were already a target for bigotry and violence. After the killing, about 50 citizens of York were fined for their part in this terrible crime, and tragically nothing else was ever done about it.
English Jews usually worked in towns where there was a Royal Castle that could provide protection from the majority Christian population. Royal protection was given as the Norman Kings had ruled that Jewish property and debts owed to Jews, ultimately belonged to the crown. These would become the property of the crown after the death of the Jew.
The daffodils that flower every spring on the mound of the tower are a reminder of the Star of David. A plaque that commemorates the massacre was erected by the mound in 1978. It has an inscription in Hebrew from the Book of Isaiah which says, “Let them give glory unto the Lord and declare his praise in the Islands”.
Between 1190 and 1194, the tower was repaired, and the mound raised to its present height. The second timber structure was destroyed by a gale in 1245. Henry III ordered the tower to be rebuilt and strengthened, this time in stone. The result was a tower 50ft high and 200 ft in diameter. The design is ‘quatrefoil’, which is four overlapping circles, looking like a four-leafed clover when viewed from above.
The tower was originally called ‘the great tower’ or ‘the King’s Tower’. Nobody is quite sure why the name changed to Clifford’s Tower. Possibly it refers to a rebel, Roger de Clifford, who was executed in 1322. His corpse was publically displayed at the castle.
During the English Civil War York was effectively the Royalist capital in the north. It was besieged by Parliamentary forces in 1644. During the siege, the tower was damaged by cannonballs. After the Royalist defeat at the nearby Battle of Marston Moor on 2nd July that year, York fell. The castle was then occupied by victorious Parliamentary troops.
The tower was repaired in 1652 and soldiers were garrisoned there, once the monarchy had been restored. The tower served as a prison for a time. The soldiers at the garrison gained a reputation for degenerate behaviour and it became very unpopular with the locals, who wanted the tower demolished. In 1684, an explosion and fire quite possibly started deliberately, destroyed the interior. By 1699, the roof had collapsed leaving just the walls. The remaining castle was redeveloped in the 18th Century with a court, administrative centre and female and debtors’ prisons.
In 1825, a new Gothic-style York Prison was built within what had been the castle’s bailey wall and the ruin of Clifford’s Tower, purchased by the authorities, was largely hidden from public view by the prison walls until the prison was demolished in 1935.
Clifford’s Tower – Today
The ruin of Clifford’s Tower has become a well-known tourist destination and national monument. Today the site is owned by English Heritage and open to the public. The other remaining buildings are now the York Castle Museum and the Crown Court. The tower is open most days and there is an entrance fee, although English Heritage members can enter for free. There is a large council-owned car park right next to Clifford’s Tower (Post Code YO1 9SA). This is usually very busy and expensive if you are parking all day. The best option if you are visiting York for the day is to use one of the Park-and-Ride services which operate from a number of locations around the York Outer Ring Road. The closest regular bus stops are Tower Street or Clifford Street.
Other things to do in York
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