Clifford’s Tower

Written By PhilG

York is a great place for a day trip or short stay. With lots of museums, restaurants, and pubs to explore.  

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1066 and William the Conqueror.

In 1066 the son of a Norwegian king called Harold Hardradi fought the English king, Harold Godwinson, at Stanford Bridge near York. On this occasion the English king won but the next month Harold Godwinson, the English king, was defeated by the Normans led by William, Duke of Normandy, at the battle of Hastings.

William, Duke of Normandy, was now William the Conqueror (of England).

In 1086 William the Conqueror came to York and had his men build a castle, when he was away the people revolted, so in 1069 he came back and built a second castle. William the Conqueror now had one castle on each side of the river Ouse, so he could control which ships came up the river from the sea.

These first two castles were built from wood.

From 1068 until the English Civil War (1642-1651) York castle was the main royal castle in Yorkshire. The Castle kept its garrison of solders until 1688.

The smaller castle built by William the Conqueror was on Baile hill just across the river Ouse.

Clifford’s Tower had its own moat, inside York Castle, and then a second, larger moat, surrounded the whole of York castle. The water for the moat came from the river Foss the smaller of York’s two rivers; the big river is called the river Ouse. A well was dug through the centre of the mound That Clifford’s tower stands on, down to water level.

Castles would include every thing needed for daily life and for administration of justice including barracks, stores, stables, forges, workshops, a prison and of course water supply. The castle also housed a
mint to issue silver pennies of the Norman kings.

The earth mound beneath Clifford’s Tower was built by William the Conqueror’s men; the castle he built in 1068 was wooden.

The stone tower was built by King Henry III.

The stone tower you see now was built by men working for King Henry III, between 1244 and 1264. Henry III, Edward I, Edward II, and Edward III stayed here.

How Clifford’s Tower got its name.

The tower is now called Clifford’s Tower but previously it was called Kings Tower or the High Tower.

So why do we call the tower Clifford’s Tower and not the Kings Tower or the castle keep? Clifford’s tower probably got its name in 1322 when Roger de Clifford, a political rebel was hung in chains from the top of the tower; it took him two weeks to die.

I’m told that the tower has been used as a cattle shed in the 18th century, the cows must have been much fitter then.

Originally Clifford’s tower had a wooden fence or palisade between the top of the earth mound and the tower wall.

Not a lot to see inside.

Inside the tower is just a shell but it originally had an upper floor containing the king’s private rooms, these rooms were used by royal clerks and treasury officials when the king wasn’t in York.

The tower wall was two feet higher until 1596 when Robert Redhead the prison gaoler started selling off the stone work and bits of the tower that he thought people wouldn’t notice.

You can walk around the top of the tower wall, you can see the Minster over the rooftops of the town as well as the river Ouse and Baile hill but it’s a long way down so you’ll have to be brave.

There’s not much to see inside the tower but when I went you could see thorough a doorway in to a small chapel that is half way down a spiral staircase, although you can see inside the room you can’t go inside.

The new roof and a hefty admission fee.

English Heritage, who maintain Clifford’s tower, have recently fitted a roof. Previously the tower was just a shell. They’ve also added a new walk way inside the tower. But as far as I know (I haven’t paid the £9 admission fee), there’s still not much to see inside, even for a York Explorer.

The Eye Of York.

In front of the Tower you see a grassy circle surrounded by a road this is known as the eye of York; the eye of York is surrounded by three large buildings, York Castle museum and the law courts, these buildings cover the area the castle was built on and some of the original castle wall can be seen behind the Castle Museum.

Protected by rivers.

The rivers Foss and Ouse converge near Clifford’s tower so anybody who wanted to attack the castle would have had only one direction to attack from and the castle garrison would be able to fight them off more easily.

The Harrying of the North.

In1069 the Danish invaded York again and the local population helped the Danes, who were the enemies of the Normans garrisoned in York Castle (the Normans were William the Conqueror’s men and William the Conqueror was now King of England).

The Danes and the local people (William the Conqueror’s enemies) set fire to nearby houses. This fire spread out of control. Then the Danes and the local people knocked down the wooden castle built by William the Conqueror.

William the Conqueror came to York but the city was now deserted. In a rage William sent his men on a killing spree known as the Harrying (or destruction) of the North. William’s men set out to slaughter every living thing between York and Durham they also destroyed the crops and burned buildings so that if anyone avoided the slaughter they would starve. This also made the north of England less attractive to foreign invaders.

The massacre of the Jews.

The massacre of the Jews and the burning of the wooden tower (this is the second time the wooden tower got burned down). Money lending, or usury, was forbidden to Christians, Jews however could and did lend money, and they lent it to powerful people and institutions.

Monasteries, Barons and Gentry became indebted to the Jews and the Jews could rely on protection from the king, or at least his royal castle, if things got rough.

With the death of Henry II in 1189 England got a new king, Richard I (the Lion Hart). Things changed, Henry II encouraged Jews to trade in England, but when Richard the Lion Hart went on a crusade to reclaim the holy land people turned against not only Muslims, but conveniently, the people who they owed money, the Jews.

On Richard I’s coronation day there were riots in London and more followed in King’s Lynn, Norwich and York.

Benedict, a York Jew, was injured in the London riot; he tried to get back to his family in York but died in Northampton. Back in York an armed gang broke in to Benedict’s house, killed his widow and children then set the house roof on fire, after they had carried away his treasure.

York’s Jewish community decided to go to York Castle for protection The Sheriff, who was the king’s representative in York, decided to drive the Jews out of the wooden castle keep.

With the help Of Richard Malebysse (his name came from the Latin mala bestia meaning evil beast, and he lived up to his name). As the Jews of York were trapped in the castle keep, the citizens of York looted the Jews houses. After surviving for about ten days the Jews saw siege engines being brought to attack the castle and knew their time was up.

To avoid being murdered by the mob that was surrounding the castle, on the eve of the Sabbath before Passover, most of the Jews died at their own hands.

A few surrendered but were killed by “a gang of cruel butchers”.

The wooden tower or castle keep burned down, possibly set on fire by the Jews to cremate their bodies and prevent the mob dismembering them.

However the mob had more important business to attend. They went straight to the Minster where the bonds telling who owed what to the Jews were kept and they burned the bonds.

The date was 16 March 1190.

The ringleaders were powerful and although some were fined they were never really brought to justice.

By 1194 the wooden tower had been rebuilt.

In 1978 a plaque commemorating the event was placed at the foot of the mound that the castle was built on. The Jewish leaders were Josce and Rabi Yomtob.

The stone castle.

So how did York get a stone castle and the castle keep that we now call Clifford’s tower?

In 1244 King Henry III visited York; he was worried about the Scots attacking England so he sent his master mason and chief carpenter from Windsor castle, where they were they were working, to visit York and organize the rebuilding of York Castle in stone.

20 years later with just £2,450 spent York had a new stone castle complete with the tower you can visit to day.

Clifford’s tower is all that’s left of the castle.

As you know Clifford’s Tower is all that is left of the castle, but originally the castle covered the area around the eye of York including the Castle Museum and prison (law court).

Clifford’s Tower was surrounded by a mote, the castle and Clifford’s Tower were like two little islands surrounded by a mote and connected by a draw bridge.

Well protected.

If the enemy ever got over the mote surrounding the castle’s high walls and seven towers, or crossed one of the castles two draw bridges at the two castle gates, the people in the castle could run across a third draw bridge, inside the castle, and take refuge in the castle keep or stronghold, the place we call Clifford’s Tower.

The tower is on much higher ground and has much higher walls than the rest of the castle and in those days had a wooden fence between the top of the earth mound and the base of the tower, all of this was surrounded by water.

King Charles I Clifford’s Tower and The Siege of York.

The Siege of York, from April 23 to July 16 in 1644, is the biggest attack York has known (the other big assault on York was the bombing raids in the Second World War. York was under siege from people who wanted to get rid of the monarchy and replace it with a parliament.

You’ve probably heard of the cavaliers who were royalists and the round heads that supported parliament. During the English civil war, (1642-1651) in the year 1642, king Charles I lived in York for six months.

York was garrisoned by 4,000 of the king’s men and was under siege by 30,000 men who supported parliament. Prince Rupert, the king’s nephew, and his men came to the rescue and the round heads (the king’s enemies) ran away. But 8 miles from York at Marston Moor the royalist army, lead by Prince Rupert, was beaten by parliamentary troops. (I bet he wished he hadn’t chased them don’t you?) Oliver Cromwell fought against the king and was slightly injured in the battle. Oliver Cromwell’s men went back to York and the city fell on July 16 1644. Clifford’s Tower was one of many buildings that were damaged in the siege of York.

An accidental fire.

Having suffered flooding, the black death and being bombarded by cannon, the thing that sealed the fate of Clifford’s Tower was much more mundane, in 1684 someone had an accident when they were firing the cannons to celebrate St Georges Day, and in the night, the wood work caught fire, gunpowder stored in the tower exploded and that was the end of the towers military use.

So, what’s happened to the area since?

In 1825 a county prison was built on the land where York Castle once stood. Two other prisons already stood close by, a female prison was built 1780 and a debtor’s prison was built 1701-5. In 1929 the three prisons were closed.

Public executions.

From 1802-1868 public executions were held in front of the county goal close to Clifford’s Tower. Before 1802 executions were held on Knavesmire (now York race course). In 1813, 14 Luddites were hanged on the same day, a huge crowd gathered in the eye of York to watch.