The History of Clifford’s Tower

‘The history of York’, declared King George VI, ‘is the history of England’, and in many ways the history of Clifford’s Tower is the history of York.

In 1068–9, William the Conqueror built two motte-and-bailey castles in York, to strengthen his military hold on the north. The mound of the second, now known as the ‘Old Baile’, can be seen clearly across the river from Clifford’s Tower.

But very soon afterwards both castles were burnt by a Danish fleet, supported by the people of York. William thereupon savagely laid waste wide areas of northern England as a warning and punishment, and rebuilt both castles. The mound on which Clifford’s Tower now stands became the core of the principal fortress, York Castle, defended – as can also clearly be seen from the tower – on one side by the River Ouse and on the other by the River Foss.

In the 11th and 12th centuries a timber tower sat on top of the earth mound, beside a larger bailey. In 1190 the Jewish community of York, besieged by a mob, committed mass suicide on this site, and the tower was burned down. 

The present stone tower was built between about 1245 and 1272 to update the defences of the castle. Its unusual four-lobed design resembles the castle of Etampes in France and the now destroyed Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire.

As the core of one of the most important fortresses in the north, the tower played a crucial role in later medieval history, when York Castle sometimes served as the seat of royal government and always as the administrative focus of Yorkshire.

Having witnessed the upheavals of the northern Pilgrimage of Grace against Henry VIII – after which, in 1537, the rebel leader Robert Aske was allegedly hanged from its walls in chains – the tower narrowly escaped demolition in Elizabethan times, when its keeper began to dismantle it in order to sell its materials, beginning inside the tower so as to avoid detection.

After playing its part in the Civil War siege of York in 1644, the tower continued to be intermittently garrisoned – much to the disgust of York’s citizens, who scornfully referred to it as ‘the Minced Pie’. The fire which destroyed its interior and ended its military career in 1684 may well have been an act of local sabotage, directed at Charles II’s violently unpopular garrison.

Apart from Clifford’s Tower, very little of the castle’s medieval stonework now survives, having been replaced during the 18th century and later by the fine buildings near the foot of the mound.

Between 1825 and 1935 the tower was incorporated into and partly concealed by the walls of York prison, but since their demolition Clifford’s Tower has again become visible and can be visited as one of the foremost attractions of York.