Clifford’s Tower

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:35 pm

Clifford's Tower, YorkHere is Clifford’s Tower, probably the most significant remaining part of the medieval castle of York.  Once at the centre of government for the north of England, Clifford’s Tower is looking a little worse for wear now, albeit something of a tourist landmark.  As castle keeps go, it’s not huge – just two levels – but the views from the top are terrific and it has a ghastly history.

Clifford’s Tower was the site, in March 1190, of the massacre of York’s entire Jewish population: 150 men, women and children.  Anti-Semitism, stirred up by crusading fervour, resulted in riots in many English towns – notably Stamford, Norwich and Lincoln – and at Westminster during the coronation of King Richard I.  A Friday night mob targeted Jews in York, killing some; the remaining Jews gathered together and sought refuge in the royal castle.  They were ushered in for safety, but, somehow, trust broke down.  Fearing betrayal, the Jews made for the wooden Norman keep, barricaded themselves in and locked the royal constable out.  Troops were mobilised, mingled with the baying crowd, and the situation became very ugly.  Thinking they faced enforced baptism and the renouncement of their faith, or death at the hands of the mob, most Jews chose suicide; the men killed their wives and children, then each other.  A fire broke out – we don’t know how – any survivors of the mass suicide either perished in the flames or at the hands of the rioters as they tried to escape.

Clifford's Tower, York, daffodils, Star of DavidJews were not permitted to own land in medieval England, but could accumulate more portable wealth which they were prepared to lend.  Gentiles, on the other hand, were advised that lending money with interest was a sin.  So, Jewish moneylenders fulfilled a useful, and mutually beneficial, purpose.  Amongst the mob’s leaders in York that night were men of property who had borrowed from Jews and who saw an opportunity to wipe out their debts.  The Jews were a target for mindless bigotry and violence anyway, because it was popular to blame them, an entire race, for killing Christ (a somewhat ironic accusation, surely?) – and because of simple racism.  In any event, the ringleaders of York’s rioters in this instance, led by one Richard Malebisse, destroyed all proof of any loans; and the dead weren’t in a position to argue about it.

Clifford's Tower, York, steps, black and whiteIn fact, the Jews were legally entitled to the king’s protection, but though 50 citizens of York were fined for their part in this horrendous incident, that was pretty much as far as it went.  In 1290, Edward I expelled ALL Jews from England and they were not permitted to return until readmitted by Oliver Cromwell, in 1656.

Today, daffodils on the mound of the tower are supposedly a reminder of the Star of David.  Surprisingly, it was only in 1978 that a plaque commemorating the massacre was installed by the mound.  An inscription in Hebrew from the Book of Isaiah says, “Let them give Glory unto the Lord and declare his praise in the Islands” – ‘islands’ in this context means Britain, sometimes referred to in Hebrew as the ‘Isles of the Sea’.

Clifford's Tower, interior, YorkshireThe Conqueror established the first Norman castle in York in 1068, to counter rebellion – the first of several Anglo-Danish revolts that would lead to William’s iniquitous ‘harrying of the north’ a year or so later.  In fact, he built two castles, both earth and timber affairs, either side of the Ouse.  What we now know as York Castle sits at the junction of the rivers Ouse and Foss; the other, known as Baile Hill, was on the west bank of the Ouse and is still visible as a mound under the city walls.  Eventually, the wood of York Castle gave way to stone and the current Clifford’s Tower, an unusual quadrilobate keep, dates from the late 13th century.  It was built on the orders of Henry III.

Clifford's Tower, views, York MinsterNo one’s really sure why it’s called ‘Clifford’s Tower’ – it was originally ‘the great tower’, or ‘the King’s Tower’.  Some believe it is named for the Clifford family, who claimed the post of constable to be hereditary; others believe it refers to the rebel Roger de Clifford, executed after the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 and whose body was displayed on a gibbet at the castle.  Among the other bloody events that took place here was the execution of lawyer, Robert Aske in 1537.  Poor Aske was one of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace, which opposed Henry VIII’s reformation; he was hung in chains from the walls of Clifford’s Tower where he starved to death.

York Castle Museum, Female Prison, Clifford's TowerYork was the effectively the Royalist capital in the north during the English Civil War and was besieged by Parliamentary forces in 1644.  Clifford’s Tower, refortified for defence, was damaged by cannon shot.  The city fell after Royalist defeat at the nearby Battle of Marston Moor on 2nd July that year and the castle was occupied by victorious Parliamentary troops.  The tower was repaired in 1652 and soldiers continued to be garrisoned there after the restoration of the monarchy.  For a time, the tower served as a prison – the Quaker George Fox was locked up there for two nights in 1665.  But the garrison had a reputation for degenerate behaviour and was unpopular with the locals, who wanted the tower demolished.   In 1684, an explosion and fire – possibly started deliberately – destroyed the interior and (allegedly) caused the red colouring of the stone you see today.  By 1699, it was roofless.  For a while, it was in private hands and became something of an ornamental feature in a garden.  The remaining castle was redeveloped in the 18th century with a court, administrative centre and female and debtors’ prisons.  In 1825, a large new Gothic-style York Prison was built within what had been the castle’s bailey wall and the ruins of Clifford’s Tower, purchased by the authorities, was largely obscured from public view by the prison walls until the prison was demolished in 1935.

Clifford's Tower, York Tourists have been visiting Clifford’s Tower since the early 20th century.  The area has been in use since Roman times, at least (there was a Roman cemetery on the site).  This ground could tell you so many stories.


8 thoughts on “Clifford’s Tower”

  1. Goodness me the tower really does have a gruesome history Mike! It’s an appalling fact that Jewish people have been persecuted forever really!

  2. I have read about the mass suicide/massacre of York’s Jewish population when I last visited York two years ago. The sad thing is, that a large part of humanity seems to have not developed much further since those centuries of racism and violence.

    Back to my last visit: My sister, niece and I came in for the day and had originally meant to visit Clifford’s Tower. We climbed the steep stairs up to the very top, only to find that, we were expected to pay a substantial fee in order to get inside the walls. Couldn’t they let us know that down at the bottom?! We were sure they lure people up to the top on purpose, calculating that once you’ve mastered the steep steps, you’d be unwilling to climb back down without actually having been inside. Well, we were not going to comply with their calculation, left without having gone in, and went to the museum (which I absolutely LOVE!).

    1. Hasn’t the civilised world actually come a very long way since those times? Sure, there are bigots here and elsewhere, entire countries and cultures that have questionable values and there is still misery in the world. But I wouldn’t underestimate the progress we have made. As for Clifford’s Tower, to be fair to English Heritage (who own and manage it), the current adult entry fee is £4.70 – which seems about average these days, I reckon. The Castle Museum, opposite, a whole different experience and one of the best museums in the land, charges visitors £10.00. Entry to York Minster starts at £10.00. One of the best free experiences in York is to walk round the city walls – which you’ve probably done.

  3. The story of the mass suicide in the tower certainly puts a damper on an otherwise beautiful morning here in Wisconsin. Killing in the name of Christ is always puzzling. Nice of Cromwell to let Jews back into the country, but with treatment like that, why would they want to return? Interesting about the ‘islands’ referring to Britain. Over here it seems popular for all of Scripture to be talking about America. Might the Clifford be the same as at Skipton Castle nearby? (It’s nearby in our miles). So much more to comment on, but I’ll leave space for someone else. Another great post, Mike.

A Bit About Britain welcomes visitors. What do you think?

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: