Clifford’s Tower in York, with its long history, is a site where many events have been staged and, in recent times, have provided suitable subjects for The Yorkshire Post photographers. One image from 2003 shows a Viking wedding taking place in the tower.
My personal picture favourite, given my fascination for Belgian surrealist René Magritte’s work, shows an art installation called Umbrella Sky. The work was made up of 45 coloured umbrellas suspended within the historic walls.
William the Conqueror established two motte-and-bailey castles in York following his march north in 1068-9 to thwart rebellions against his rule. The one we now know as York Castle is located at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss. It housed a raised area, with a timber structure at the top, where Clifford’s Tower now stands. The mound of the second castle, known as the “Old Baile”, may be identified when looking from Clifford’s Tower across the river. Both locations saw violent attacks in their early years by Danish invaders.
At the York Castle site in 1190, one of the worst anti-Semitic massacres of the Middle Ages occurred, wiping out York’s entire Jewish community. A year earlier following the coronation of crusader Richard I, there were anti-Jewish riots in a number of areas in the country. Allegedly, tensions had been increasing because many people were in debt to Jewish money lenders.
Contemporary reports state that 150 Jewish men, women and children were given protective custody in the tower of the royal castle. When communication between royal officials and Jews broke down, orders were made to retake control. Troops were joined by an angry mob made up of anti-Jewish individuals and others eager to relinquish their debts.
Realising there was no escape from the castle, a rabbi urged everyone with him to take their own lives instead of falling into the hands of a mob and be murdered or forcibly baptised. The timber keep was also set on fire. Some members of the Jewish community survived, appearing from the tower under an amnesty, but were slaughtered.
The destroyed tower was rebuilt between 1190 and 1194 and the mound raised to its existing height. This second timber tower was destroyed during a gale in 1245 and, under pressure from the war- mongering Scots, King Henry III built and strengthened a new stone tower on the mound that was completed around the 1290s. Clifford’s Tower was built on a four-leaved clover plan. It stands some 50ft high and is 200ft in diameter. The tower formed part of York’s defences that included an almost complete circuit of stone walls with bar gates and a number of towers.
The name derivation of Clifford’s Tower is vague. Originally named “the great tower” or “the King’s tower”, some argue it is a reference to Roger de Clifford being hanged at the tower in 1322 after the Battle of Boroughbridge or to the Clifford family’s claim that they were the hereditary constables of the tower.
Although important, York’s royal castle did not provide accommodation for royalty. Instead, along with Clifford’s Tower, it was chiefly used for administrative purposes: to house prisoners, a mint, storage and for judicial sessions. By 1360, parts of the castle were falling into disrepair and over the ensuing centuries other incidents stand out in its history.
Robert Aske, one of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace against the dissolution of the monasteries, was found guilty of treason, and hanged in chains ‘“on the height of the castle dungeon” on July 12, 1537.
In 1596, a public scandal arose when the castle’s jailer, Robert Redhead, was accused, by the aldermen of York, of trying to demolish the tower and offering the stone for sale for lime-burning.
During the civil wars (1642-1651) the tower, re-roofed and re-floored, was occupied first by Royalists – York was an important Northern stronghold – and then by Parliamentarians after their victory at the nearby Battle of Marston Moor on July 2, 1654. The tower underwent repairs in 1652, and continued to house soldiers after the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. Serving also as a prison, the tower incarcerated George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, for two nights in 1665 whilst on his way to Scarborough Castle.
With the castle gaining an unpopular reputation, many locals wanted the tower demolishing, scathingly nicknaming it “the Minced Pie”. Then, on April 23, 1684, an explosion and fire partly gutted the tower’s interior but afterwards parts still remained in use.
Imprisoned in the tower before being executed on April 7, 1739 was Dick Turpin who had been captured under the alias “Palmer”. His handwriting in a letter sent from the tower had revealed his true identity.
For a period, the tower was in private hands, becoming a strange ornamental feature in a garden. During the 18th century developments took place in the remaining castle area, with a large prison being erected in 1825.
At the beginning of the 20th century thorough repairs and investigations were undertaken at Clifford’s Tower by engineer Basil Mott. The tower was taken into state guardianship on March 30, 1915. In 1935 the surviving 19th century prison buildings were demolished.
The imposing Clifford’s Tower is now under the control of English Heritage. From the open-air wall walk, once used as a vantage point for castle guards, stunning panoramic views can be enjoyed over old York. Remains of the curtain wall and several mural towers may also be seen along the southern parts of the site.