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Yorkshire's Castles: York Castle

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Yorkshire's Castles
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Clifford's Tower, the remains of York Castle.

Despite York having arguably the finest circuit of mediæval walls1 surviving in England, little remains of York Castle itself. York Castle was an early motte-and-bailey castle built soon after the Norman Conquest.

Clifford's Tower

By far the most impressive and accessible part of York Castle is the clover-leaf keep that is now known as Clifford's Tower. It was originally called the King's Tower or High Tower, and stands on top of the motte of William The Conqueror's original wooden castle. The name 'Clifford's Tower' is believed to have come from Henry Clifford, last Earl of Cumberland, who was the last to garrison the castle and whose coat of arms, along with that of Charles II, can be seen above the entrance.

The castle was converted to stone in 1245, in the reign of Henry III. Work was organised by master mason Henry de Rayns and chief carpenter Simon of Northampton, who had also worked on Windsor Castle. The tower's design was inspired by the French castle of Etampes, and was two-storeyed and in the shape of a four-leafed clover. Between the south and east lobes lies the forebuilding which guarded the keep's entrance. It originally housed a portcullis as well as a strong door. The room above was the keep's small chapel, with the machinery to raise the portcullis originally in a room above (which no longer exists). The other three joins between the lobes had bartizans, small round battlemented towers above the wallwalks.

Although the keep is now open to the elements, it originally had a tall roof supported by a strong octagonal pillar in the centre of the tower. In 1315 the south lobe began to tilt due to faulty foundations, but this has been repaired over the centuries. The ground floor was mainly occupied by the guard room with two other rooms in the two lobes furthest from the entrance. The first floor contained the king's private rooms and housed the royal clerks and treasury officials when he was absent. There were also two latrines on this floor.

The Bailey

Below the tower lay the castle's bailey, little of which survives. The bailey was typical of a motte-and-bailey castle design, with a circular walled enclosure with two gateways on an island near where the river Foss meets the Ouse. It was 105 metres by 90 metres and enclosed by a 7.5-metre-high, two-metre-thick wall protected by six towers and two gatehouses, one north and one south.

The south-east side still survives along with the south corner tower, the foundation remains of the southern gatehouse and a tower further east.


York Castle.

York has long been an important town and city. It grew in importance during the Roman era - Emperor Constantius Chlorus not only visited York but died there in 306AD. York was later ruled by Anglian kings and in 866 was captured by the Vikings - Jorvic became the centre of a Viking kingdom. Although York was restored to English rule, in 1066 it was again threatened by Scandinavian raiders when Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, invaded the north of England by the Humber. The invaders defeated the local defenders at the battle of Gate Fulford two miles South of York, until their defeat by the English army led by Harold Godwinson at the battle of Stamford Bridge seven miles east of York.

The Castle's Early Years

After William The Bastard defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, the north of England was far from secure. York was one of the prime cities in England and a major concern for William. Early in 1068 Earl Cospatric of Northumbria rose against the Normans, this rebellion was soon crushed by William who proceeded to build castles, with Cospatric fleeing to Scotland.

In 1068 York castle was built as a simple wooden motte-and-bailey castle under the command of William Malet. It was soon attacked by the local population and to aid defence a second motte-and-bailey castle was built on the other side of the Ouse early in 1069 to strengthen William's grip in the north.

In 1069 a Danish fleet sailed up the Humber to York and, with local support and the aid of Earl Cospatric, attacked the castles. The Norman garrisons attempted to defend themselves by setting fire to the nearby houses, but this tactic soon threatened the wooden castles as much as the town and the castles were soon destroyed. This, coupled with similar rebellions in Durham and across the north of England made William thirsty for retribution.

Between 1069 and 1070, William the Bastard gave the order for the land in Yorkshire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and Durham to be destroyed, all buildings pulled down and all animals slaughtered. This, the Harrying Of The North, led to over 100,000 deaths across the North of England, many at York.

After these events, the new castle was rebuilt in wood as the area around York recovered. The original castle, known as the Old Baile, was also rebuilt but remained second in importance to the newer castle. In 1175 Henry II received the homage of William, King of the Scots, in York Castle.

The Jews of York

Under Henry II, York was settled by large numbers of Jews who soon became wealthy in York2. In 1189 Henry II died, and his successor Richard the Lionheart spent most of his reign away on crusades. The crusades stirred up riots against all non-Christians, including Jews. In 1189 riots against Jews occurred in London, King's Lynn, Norwich and in early 1190 the Jews in York feared for their lives.

Armed men broke into the house of one of the wealthiest Jews in York, Benedict of York, who had died after the London riots, looting the house and killing his widow and children. 150 of the Jews of York, fearing for their lives, asked for protection inside York Castle. They were allowed inside as the looting continued. After a stay of several days they refused the constable entry into the castle for fear that he would betray them to the mob. The constable then helped the mob break into his own castle in a siege that lasted ten days before the arrival of siege engines.

On the 16 March, 1190, knowing that their situation was hopeless, Rabbi Yomtob led his people to commit suicide rather than suffer the unpleasant deaths that awaited them. The castle was also set alight, possibly by the mob or by the Jews themselves to prevent their remains from being dismembered. Those who surrendered were massacred. Although the city of York was fined heavily for this act and the castle's constable and Sheriff of York dismissed, those responsible were never caught or punished.

Before the Civil War

By 1194, the king's tower of York was again rebuilt in wood at a cost of £200, with the motte raised in height by 13ft. King John stayed in the castle in 1200. In 1244, when England was threatened by a Scottish invasion, Henry III visited York Castle and ordered that it be rebuilt in stone. Master mason Henry de Rayns and chief carpenter Simon of Northampton, who had worked on Windsor Castle, were brought up to work on it, choosing the four-leaf clover design.

£2450 was spent on the castle over the next 20 years. In 1298 Edward I used the castle as a stronghold for the king's treasury in his campaign against the Scots, a role it played again in 1322 under Edward II and in 1361 under Edward III. King Edward II also stayed at the castle in 1312.

In 1315, floods had softened and washed away some of the soil at the base of the motte, causing subsidence. This again occurred more seriously in 1360 when Clifford's Tower itself cracked on the south lobe - the cracks are still visible today. In 1322 Roger de Clifford, a traitor, was hung from the tower in chains and his body left on display. In 1327 the castle was used as a residence for Isabella of France, mother of Edward III.

In 1333 Queen Philippa, Edward III's wife, was provided with an exchequer in the bailey. After the Battle of Towton, only 11 miles away from York, the defeated Lancastrians fled to York, closely followed by the victorious King Edward IV, who briefly stayed there. By 1484 the castle was in a poor state of repair. King Richard III ordered some of the castle to be demolished before being rebuilt but his death at Bosworth in 1485 meant that no work was carried out.

In the Tudor reign the castle was allowed to fall into further disrepair. In 1537 the body of Robert Aske, leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace, was hung in chains from the tower's summit. In 1596 the castle's gaoler began to demolish the castle and sell the stone. Protests from the citizens of York eventually prevented the castle's total destruction.

The Civil War

On the outbreak of Civil War in 1642 the castle and city of York was garrisoned by Royalists. Henry Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, repaired the castle, strengthening the walls to allow them to support heavy cannon. On 23 April, 1644 the city was besieged by the Scottish army in the south under the Earl of Leven and the Parliamentarians under Lord Fairfax in the east. Six weeks later, the Earl of Manchester led a further parliamentary army to the city, with the complete number of besiegers over 30,000. The city was under the command of William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle, with the castle under the command of by Colonel Sir John Cobb and a force of 200 men. The castle and city held out against the bombardment and attempts to undermine the walls and storm the gates until June, 1644.

On 5 June, Newcastle learned from messengers disguised as women that King Charles had ordered Prince Rupert to relieve York. On 1 July the castle and city of York was relieved by Prince Rupert who gained access to the city through a series of brilliant tactical manoeuvres, forcing the parliamentary force to retreat. However, Prince Rupert and his force were defeated at Marston Moor, six miles west of York, on 2 July, 1644 - the largest and bloodiest Civil War battle - and two weeks later, on 14 July, the city surrendered. The Royalist force was allowed to march away with full honours.

After the Civil War

The Civil War had taken its toll; in 1652 the tower was repaired after sustaining cannonball damage. It was used as a Parliamentary garrison until 1660, following the Restoration of Charles II. The bailey was gradually used to house gaol buildings while the tower continued to be a garrison. In 1682 there had been a debate on the future of the castle, when Lieutenant-General Sir Christopher Musgrave recommended the castle be modernised to modern artillery standards through the adoption of angle-bastions in the bailey, with the tower to remain, due to its command over the city. The scheme would have cost £30,000 but nothing was done.

On St George's Day, 1684, the tower exploded when the cannon on the roof were fired in a celebratory salute. This is believed to have been an act of sabotage as the locals were unhappy about the garrison's presence, so the castle's woodwork and powder room were set on fire. On the night of St George's Day, many locals toasted the roasting of the Mince Pie, which was what the castle had been nicknamed. After this, the tower was no longer used as a royal garrison and was sold off.

By 1727 it was part of the garden of Mr Samuel Ward's four-storey house.

The Bailey: The Gaol

The castle's bailey continued to be in use. In 1701 the County Gaol replaced the old prison, with much of the south wall and south gateway being demolished to accommodate it. It was a spacious Gaol and in 1774 John Howard, a prison reformer, praised it. In 1739 the highwayman Dick Turpin was imprisoned and executed at York. Between 1773 - 1777 the Assize Courts were built, with the matching Female Prison block built in 1780. In 1777 the castle courtyard was levelled and grassed over and, as the election of Members of Parliament for Yorkshire took place here, became known as the 'Eye of the Ridings'. After the Great Reform Act of 1832 cut down bribery and vote-rigging as well as removing rotten and pocket boroughs it became known as the Eye of York. The area was also used for public executions between 1802 - 1868, after which they took place behind the female prison.

As the population of York increased the amount of prison space needed also increased, when in 1825 the whole castle site was transformed into a prison. A new tower was built east of the motte with prison wings radiating from it, and a new 35ft high wall was built on the north side of the castle, complete with a new dark grey prison gatehouse. The prison was in use as the county gaol until 1900, and as a military prison until 1929. In 1935 many of the prison buildings were demolished, leaving the castle in the state it is now.

1Although Chester has the most complete circuit of mediæval walls in England, York having the second most complete with Southampton having the third, York's city walls are, for many people, the finest.2At the time it was illegal for Christians to be money-lenders and so Jews grew wealthy through having a monopoly on money-lending and usury (loaning money at extortionate interest rates) trades.

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