Clifford’s Tower

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Clifford's Tower

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April, 2015

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Clifford’s Tower high on its motte dominates the southern end of the walled city of York.

The north was the centre of resistance to William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings. In an attempt to subdue the area and impose discipline, he built two castles on either side of the River Ouse. Clifford’s Tower still stands. All that is left of Baile Hill Castle on the west side of the river opposite, is a wooded mound next to the city walls.

The original castle was built of timber but was burnt to the ground twice before being replaced by a stone castle in the C13th. This was the site of one of York’s Bloodiest moments when 150 Jews were massacred here in 1190. The event is commemorated by a plaque on the side of the motte.

Tensions had been increasing between Christians and Jews in the C12th. Many people were in debt to the moneylenders and crusading propaganda was directed against the Jews as well as Muslims. The Jews had taken refuge inside the wooden castle from a rowdy mob and rather than renounce their faith, decided to committed mass suicide and set the wooden tower on fire.

The central tower was originally called the King’s Tower and is thought to have become Clifford’s Tower after Roger de Clifford was executed for treason by Edward II and hanged in chains from the walls.

The tower is an unusual quatrefoil design with four overlapping circles, a bit like a four leaved clover. It had two floors linked by spiral staircases in thickness of walls. It was originally surrounded by a moat and linked to the walled outer bailey by a drawbridge. This again was moated and had a massive gatehouse.
As well as housing the king when he visited York, the castle was the administrative centre for the north of England.

All that remains of the outer bailey wall is a short stretch by the Raindale watermill attached to the Castle Museum

In the C15th, the castle was also used as a jail for local felons and political prisoners. In 1596, the castle’s jailer Robert Redhead, began demolishing the tower and selling the stone for lime burning ‘for his own profit’. He was only stopped after prolonged protests by the city council.

The castle was in poor condition at the start of the Civil War and was reroofed and refloored at start of hostilities to provide storage rooms for ammunition and a gun platform on the roof. The gateway was reinforced and enlarged. Above the doorway are the arms of Charles I and the achievement of Henry Clifford, 5th Earl of Cumberland.

It was used as a garrison by Royalist troops until York fell to the Parliamentary Army and continued to be garrisoned until an explosion in 1684 destroyed the interior.

The interior is now an empty shell. The remains of fireplaces and latrines can still be seen in the walls. There is a small shop and display boards covering the history.

Spiral staircases (one way system) lead to the top of the walls. Above the gatehouse is the chapel, with blind arcading round the walls and a small aumbry cupboard. By the C14th this was also used as a store room, referred to as the Treasury.

The views from the wall walk round the top of Clifford’s Tower give marvellous views across the city of York on a clear day.

There isn’t a lot left to see inside Clifford’s Tower, although the views from the top are good. As with many other ruined castles, this is most impressive when see from outside.


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