Clifford’s Tower is one of York’s best-loved landmarks. It is the largest remaining part of York Castle, once the centre of government for the north of England. However, despite York’s national significance, its castle did not generally act as a royal residence and was chiefly used for administrative purposes, notably imprisonment, storage and judicial sessions.
Originally known as ‘the King’s Tower’, the origin of the name ‘Clifford’s Tower’, which was first recorded towards the end of the 1500s, is subject to speculation. Some believe that it is evidence that the Clifford family claimed they were hereditary constables of the tower. Others believe it refers to the rebel Roger de Clifford, who was executed after the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 and whose body was displayed on a gibbet at the castle.
Archeological evidence shows that there was activity in this area in Roman times, with a Roman cemetery lying across the site. However, 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, including one in York. The original, 11th century, tower was made of timber.
This castle later became the setting for one of the most notorious events in English history; the mass suicide and massacre in March 1190 of York’s jewish community. Tensions between Christians and Jews had been increasing throughout England during the 12th century, partly because many people were in debt to Jewish moneylenders and partly because crusading propaganda was directed not only against Muslims but also against Jews. Anti-Jewish riots in several cities followed the coronation of the crusader King Richard I in 1189, and a rumour was put about that he had ordered a massacre of the Jews. Approximately 150 people from the Jewish community were given protective custody in Clifford’s Tower. However, trust between the officials and the Jews broke down and the officials, finding themselves shut out from the tower, summoned reinforcements. The troops were joined by a large mob and the situation soon spun out of control. On the eve of the Sabbath before Passover, when the Jews realised there was no safe way out, a rabbi urged his fellow inmates to commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of the mob. Heads of households killed their own families before taking their own lives and the wooden tower was set on fire. According to several accounts, a number of Jews did survive and came out of the tower only to be captured and murdered. A plaque at the base of the mound, installed in 1978, commemorates these events.
The tower was rebuilt shortly after and further repairs took place in the 13th century. Later, in the mid 1200s as war loomed with Scotland, King Henry III ordered the construction of a new stone tower on the mound. Construction was intermittent and it is thought that the tower was not completed until the 1290s.
By the 1500s the tower had fallen into disrepair and by the end of the 17th century, when it was occupied by a royal garrison, records show that it was completely roofless. In the 18th century Clifford’s Tower was used as a garden folly and stable or cattle shed.
In the early 1900s, a radical campaign of repairs and investigations was undertaken and Clifford’s Tower was taken into state guardianship. Public access was improved and the stairway that visitors walk up today was created.
Today, Clifford’s Tower stands as a proud symbol of the power of England’s medieval kings and is a popular tourist site. It is open daily and visitors can climb the spiral staircases to enjoy panoramic views of the city of York from the open roof.
Opening hours: 8:00 to 16:00 until 24th of March and 8:00 to 18:00 from 25th of March. Closed on Christmas Eve, Boxing Day & New Year’s Day. Entrance is 4.20 GPB per adult and 2.50GPB for children.