York Castle and Clifford’s Tower: One of Englands Most Iconic Heritage Sites

by eHeritage Blogazine
December 9, 2021 | 9 min read

York Castle and Clifford’s Tower: One of Englands Most Iconic Heritage Sites

Clifford’s Tower in York is all that remains of the once mighty York Castle. Once a Royal stronghold in the North of England, Clifford’s Tower has a history dating back to the Norman Conquest. It is one of the most iconic Castles in England, and totally unique in design. So, why was it built and how does it fit in with the history of York?

Clifford's Tower lit up in the sunlight
Clifford’s Tower in York

Reminiscing about York Castle and Clifford’s Tower

I stand at the bottom of the great mound of earth, reminiscing about being here as a child. On a cold November day each year, I would gawp up at this magnificent stone keep, and be mesmerised by the plethora of colourful fireworks that would spew from of roofless shell. Bonfire nigh it York was just the best. The home of the main man Guy Fawkes himself, we always knew how to put on a firework display in York.

Sadly, no such celebration takes place anymore. On this occasion however, in January 2020, I stand here with my two year old daughter in my arms. Clifford’s tower is indeed a special place for me, and I can’t wait to get my daughter hooked on its history.

At two years old I doubt she is going to remember much. But, you’re never too young to enjoy a day out with your dad! My dad used to bring me here, and I will continue to do the same.

As we begin to ascend the steps that lead up the massive Norman motte, I can’t help but to feel frustrated by those people who insist on ignoring the ‘do not climb’ signs. Do they not realise this colossal man made hill dates back nearly 1000 years!?

Clifford’s Tower and the history of York Castle

Cliffords Tower is a castle keep in the heart of York, and other than a small section of wall behind the Crown Court building, is the only remaining part of York Castle. Named after the Clifford Family who were long time custodians of the castle, this northern fortress was constructed in the late 1060’s by William the Conqueror, following his invasion of England.

Norman Motte and Bailey Castle

Whilst a stone keep sits atop the motte today, back in the eleventh century a wooden tower would have stood in its place. This type of motte and bailey castle was synonymous with the Normans and the fortification York would have mimicked many Norman castles up and down the country. The castle at York was thus constructed of earth and timber and would have been completely surrounded by a moat. The original Motte was likely bit smaller than it is today and the castle complex would have comprised of an inner and out bailey, both surrounded by wooden walls.

A atmospheric black and white photograph of Clifford's Tower
Clifford’s Tower in York

The Jewish Massacre

One of the most tragic events to have occurred at the original castle happened in 1190, when around 150 jews committed mass suicide within the tower. This follow a period of anti-semitism whereby one of Yorks most prominent Jewish families was massacred in their home. Fearing for their lives, the remaining jewish population of York fled to the tower and barricaded themselves inside. What followed was utterly tragic, when fearing they were going to be murdered if they left, the incarcerated jews set fire to the wooden tower and burned themselves alive.

Converting the castle to stone

It is largely understood that under King johns reign of 1166 – 1216, many parts of the castle began to be reconstructed in stone. King John may have been more enthusiastic about his pride and joy fortress at Scarborough, but he did show some interest in York Castle, and can be attributed to building part of the castle walls, amongst other upgrades.

Cliffords Tower as we know it today

The imposing stone keep we know today as Clifford’s Tower, was the product of King Henry lll, who oversaw a major reconstruction of the castle in 1246. You would be right in thinking that the shape of Clifford’s Tower is quite unique. This iconic four leaf clover structure is likely inspired by French castle design and nothing else like this exists in the country. It is really quite a remarkable sight.

A model of how York Castle would have looked in the thirteenth Century
A reconstruction of how Clifford’s Tower might have looked in the Thirteenth Century

Later years

Throughout the later middle-ages, York Castle went through a number of changes. Initially used as a Northern Power base to keep the Scotts in check, the castle was later used to house important visitors to York. The tower itself has been used to house the royal mint, and has even served as the exchequer and treasury. Clifford’s Tower also saw action in the English Civil War when it was occupied by Royalist forces during the siege on York.

A castle in decline

Sadly, following the civil war York Castle fell into decline. Like many other fortifications in England, York Castle failed to serve as a military stronghold, and although it largely survived dismantlement, In 1684 a fire pretty much destroyed the tower, rendering it useless for military use. The rest of the castle was eventually broken up and sold off, and following the construction of the prison and court buildings in the Eighteenth Century, all that remained of the original castle was Cliffords tower and a small section of the original gatehouse – which is situated behind the Crown Court building.

A birds eye view of the York Castle Prison and Court building
Much of the original castle walls were taken down to make way for court buildings and the prison. A small section still remains behind the Crown Court to the right of the image. This served as the original gatehouse.

Touring Clifford’s Tower and admiring the views

Initial frustrations aside, I showed my English Heritage membership card and we made our way through the small reception hall and into the keeps vast open space. Sadly, none of the original interior walls exist today, but this means you can really appreciate the massive scale of the place.

An internal shot of the iconic four lobed design of Clifford's Tower
Noting of the internal structure remains today

Back in the castles heyday, the tower would have housed two floors, and each of the four lobes would have contained different rooms serving different functions.

I took notice of a large fireplace situated within one of the lobes, and pondered who might have stood here in the past, warming their hands on a cold winters day.

Other than the small gift shop, and a scale model reconstruction of the castle, the ground floor is completely devoid of any obstructions. Actually, this means you can really take a step back and appreciate the internal features of the structure. I took notice of a large fireplace situated within one of the lobes, and pondered who might have stood there in the past, warming their hands on a cold winters day.

An ancient fireplace at Clifford's Tower
An ancient fireplace at Clifford’s Tower

Evidence of the fire that destroyed the tower in the Seventeenth Century can still be seen today in the pinkish colouration of the brickwork. Little things like this are always fascinating to me as it really brings the history of a place to life!

Reddened stone work at Clifford's Tower is a permanent reminder of the fire that largely destroyed it
Evidence of the fire that destroyed Clifford’s Tower can still be seen in the pinkish discolouration.

Before I knew it, Oaklie had gravitated to a box containing toy swords and shield. I couldn’t resist the urge to dress her up like a knights templar, and to be fair she seemed to really enjoy it!

The entrance lobby is situated within the bottom of a tower that also serves as a spiral staircase servicing the first floor.

Just before you emerge on to the first floor walkway there is an enclosed room which once served as an intricately decorated chapel. I seem to recall being able to enter this chamber in the past, but sadly on this occasion it was closed off.

the only evidence of the upper floor ever existing can be found in the windows and latrines that line the external walls.

Finding ourselves on the first floor walkway, I found it hard to imagine how the upper floor would have once looked. Although this once contained the Royal apartments, today there is no floor at all and the only evidence of the upper floor ever existing can be found in the windows and latrines that line the external walls.

The views from the first floor walkway however are exceptional. Other than scaling York Minster, the views from the top of Clifford’s tower are some of the best in York. You can see right the way across the city. The weather wasn’t particularly great on our visit but we still had excellent views over the law courts, Fairfax House and Old Bailie Hill. From up here you can also really appreciate the shape and structure of the tower.

A view of York from the Clifford's Tower wall walk
The views from the Walk way at Clifford’s Tower are exceptional.

Final words

Clifford’s Tower is onc of those places you really have to visit at least once in your life. The tower is such an iconic historic building and is an integral part of the history of York. If you want to learn more about York’s history, then a visit to Clifford’s Tower should be at the top of your list of places to visit. Clifford’s Tower has truly evolved with the city it serves and encapsulates the history of York perfectly.

It’s easy to assume that Clifford’s Tower does not represent good value for money. Indeed, there is not a massive amount of things to within the tower, and unlike many other historic sites, it perhaps isn’t the best venue for families with very young children. It would certainly be difficult to spend more than a few hours visiting Clifford’s Tower. What you do get for your entry fee however, is access to one of England’s most incredible and iconic historic sites.

There is nothing else like Clifford’s Tower anywhere in the Country. The design of the keep is completely stunning and offers a totally unique visitor experience. I really cant emphasise enough how much I love this incredible historic site. So, Should you visit Clifford’s Tower? Damn right you should!

Clifford’s Tower in York is owned and managed by English Heritage. You can click here to visit their website.

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I’m Mikey Holden. I have a real passion for historical places. I’ve always loved visiting colossal houses and castles, daydreaming about the schemes that have been thought up within their walls, keen to discover the stories waiting to be told. I am a heritage travel blogger with a simple mission: To discover, explore and photograph historical places in Yorkshire and beyond.

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