History of Clifford’s Tower
Clifford’s Tower is one of the best-loved landmarks in York. It is the largest remaining part of York Castle, once the centre of government for the north of England. The 11th-century timber tower on top of the earth mound was burned down in 1190, after York’s Jewish community, some 150 strong, was besieged here by a mob and committed mass suicide. The present 13th-century stone tower was probably used as a treasury and later as a prison.
The Norman Castle
Archaeological evidence shows that there was activity in this area in Roman times (with a Roman cemetery lying across the site) and perhaps even earlier, but it was William the Conqueror who first established a castle here. When he marched north in 1068 to suppress a rebellion against his rule, he built a series of castles as he went, including one here where Clifford’s Tower now stands.
The Norman motte-and-bailey castle saw several violent incidents during its earliest years, including further revolts and an attack by Danish invaders. As the political situation settled down in the 1070s, however, the damage of these early years was repaired, and the castle, built largely of earth and timber, probably survived relatively unaltered through most of the 12th century.
The Medieval Castle
The tower burnt down in 1190 was rebuilt very shortly afterwards. Further repairs and rebuilding, some in stone, took place in the castle during the early 13th century. Then in the middle years of that century, as war with Scotland loomed, King Henry III decided to build a completely new stone tower on the mound.
A writ of March 1245 may refer to the construction of the tower. It orders Master Henry the mason and Master Simon the carpenter to advise the sheriff on strengthening the castle’s defences. Master Henry is often identified as Henry of Reyns, master mason of the new abbey at Westminster. At the abbey, as at Clifford’s Tower, English architectural detailing was applied to a plan influenced by French prototypes.
Documentary sources show that construction was intermittent and the tower was probably not finished until the 1270s, possibly not until the 1290s.
Despite the regional and national importance of York, its royal castle did not generally act as a royal residence. Together with Clifford’s Tower it was instead used chiefly for administrative purposes, notably for imprisonment, for storage and for judicial sessions. Occasionally it acted as a home for the Exchequer and its various treasuries when wars against the Scots caused the government to relocate to the north of England. It also housed an important royal mint.
The castle’s buildings, particularly Clifford’s Tower, whose mound was scoured by floods of the river Fosse, fell more than once into disrepair. By 1360, several of the structural defects which are visible today had already appeared.
War and Explosion
After a brief period when Clifford’s Tower passed out of royal ownership, in 1643 it was occupied again by a royal garrison during the Civil War. The building was re-roofed and re-floored, apparently at the behest of Queen Henrietta Maria, creating storage rooms for ammunition and a gun platform on the roof. The forebuilding was largely reconstructed.
The city fell to Parliamentarians the following year. The tower continued to be occupied by a garrison of between 40 and 80 men and it may also have served occasionally as a prison. The Quaker George Fox was imprisoned here for two nights in 1665, on his way to Scarborough Castle.
The garrison’s dissolute behaviour caused discontent among the citizens of York, who called for the demolition of the tower, scathingly nicknamed ‘the Minced Pie’. On 23 April 1684 the interior was partly gutted by fire, allegedly as a result of the firing of a ceremonial salute for St George’s Day. Destruction was not total, though, and parts of the building remained in use for storage, while cannon were still positioned on the roof.
By 1699, however, when Clifford’s Tower was released to freeholders, sketches of the interior by Francis Place show that it was completely roofless.