York Castle was a motte-and-bailey fortification raised shortly after the Norman Conquest and was augmented by a second structure, Baile Hill Castle, following William I's 'Harrying of the North'. Whilst the latter was abandoned in the early twelfth century, York Castle continued in use until the 1660s and its shell Keep, known as Clifford's Tower, still dominates the skyline to this day.



Following the Battle of Hastings (1066) and construction of castles at key nodal points, William I succeeded in establishing effective control over the south of England. However the north, particularly Northumbria (which stretched from the Humber to the Forth), was far from conquered. In 1068 William I visit York, which was effectively England's northern capital, and commenced construction of York Castle. It took the form of an earth and timber motte-and-bailey fortification situated to the south of the former Roman Legionary fortress on the strip of land between the convergence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss. The latter was diverted to provide a flooded moat around both the bailey and motte of the new castle.


Northern England soon proved troublesome to William. In Autumn of 1069, supported by a Danish fleet that had arrived in the Humber, York and the north rebelled against the Normans. The Royal garrison was besieged and, when they sallied out to burn down huge swathes of the city to deny its use to the attackers, the castle was stormed and they were lynched. William deployed a force to stabilise the situation and the subsequent 'Harrying of the North' caused wide scale devastation. York Castle was rebuilt and a second fortification - Baile Hill Castle - was constructed on the west side of the River Ouse. Commenced around 1069, this new fortification was an earth and timber motte-and-bailey castle of comparable size to the first. Collectively the two fortifications enabled complete control of the city and of movement along the River Ouse.


Both castles remained occupied throughout the remainder of the eleventh and the twelfth century but, despite the city walls being rebuilt in stone, the castles themselves remained timber constructions. York Castle was destroyed in March 1190 when it was set alight by York's Jewish community who were fearful of being lynched by a mob incited by local nobles. When siege apparatus was brought up, many of the Jews committed suicide and the survivors set the castle alight to cremate their bodies. The tower was completely destroyed prompting Richard I to order its immediate re-construction.


In 1244, following a visit by Henry III, York Castle was rebuilt in stone including a new shell Keep on top of the motte. Known today as Clifford's Tower, the design was heavily influenced by the French castle at Etampes. The walls of the castle bailey were also rebuilt in stone with work completed by 1272. The new castle was sufficiently complete to act as a stronghold for the King's treasury in 1298 during the First War of Scottish Independence. However, in 1315 it was severely damaged when flooding softened the motte and caused extensive cracking of the superstructure. Repairs were made but the damage remains visible to this day. On the other side of the River Ouse, Baile Hill Castle was not rebuilt and by the thirteenth century was merely a decaying wooden structure which had gone out of regular use. It was ceded by the Crown to the Archbishop of York on the proviso it would be re-commissioned in times of war. Later, parts of its ramparts and ditch were incorporated into the fourteenth century upgrade of the city walls.


York Castle continued as a centre of Royal administration throughout the latter medieval period but saw little military action. Even during the Wars of the Roses - where the decisive Battle of Towton (1461) was fought nearby - the castle was only on the fringe of events with the defeated Henry VI visiting it briefly before continuing his flight north. The castle was also neglected by the Tudor monarchs and this lack of oversight led to a Robert Redhead pillaging stone from the structure. He was only stopped after extensive protests were made by the city council. In July 1537 the body of Robert Aske, leader of the 'Pilgrimage of Grace' rebellion against Henry VIII, was displayed from Clifford's Tower.


During the Civil War the castle was garrisoned for the Royalists and hastily repaired. Henry Clifford, Earl of Cumberland and constable of the castle strengthened the tower to support heavy artillery whilst earth banks were erected to protect the medieval masonry of the bailey walls. The old castle at Baile Hill was also re-activated as a Royalist gun emplacement. York became the headquarters of the Royalist forces in the north and was duly besieged by a combined Parliamentary-Scottish army in April 1644. A Royalist force under Prince Rupert relieved the city in June 1644 but, after pursing the Parliamentarians, he was engaged and decisively defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor fought on 2 July 1644. York fell just two weeks later with the castle being occupied by Parliamentary forces until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.


A small Royal garrison returned to York Castle in 1660 but the fortification was out-dated and of little military use. After the Glorious Revolution of 1689 Clifford's Tower passed into private ownership although the bailey, which housed the court and gaol facilities, were retained by the Crown. The prison remained in use until 1929 and Clifford's Tower was returned to State care in 1915.





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What's There?

Clifford’s Tower is a major tourist attraction run by English Heritage and, on a clear day, offers spectacular views over the whole city. Some segments of the Castle Bailey curtain wall are also visible. At Baile Hill only the heavily overgrown motte is visible. Any visit to York should be combined with a walk around the largely complete (albeit extensively re-modelled) city walls.

York Castle Layout. The first castle was well sited between the Rivers Foss and Ouse. It re-directed the former to flood the moats around both the motte and the baileys for defensive purposes.

Clifford's Tower. The stone Keep is the most substantial surviving part of York Castle.

Clifford's Tower. The Tower derives its name from the hereditary constables of the castle, the Clifford family. The body of one of their number, Roger de Clifford, was hung from the tower following his 1322 rebellion against Edward II.

Bailey. A portion of York Castle's bailey curtain wall survives along with a (modified) flanking tower. The bailey itself is occupied by the excellent York Museum and the Crown Court structure.

Jews Massacre. A plaque can be seen outside of Clifford's Tower in remembrance of those who died during the medieval persecution of York's Jewish community. Henry II had actively encouraged Jews to settle in England as their religion allowed money-lending (Christians at this time were under extreme limitations in this regard). Many settled in major cities such as York but, when Henry II died in 1189, his son (Richard I) was less tolerant which prompted anti-Jewish rioting. Seizing the opportunity to clear their own debts, local landowners - led by Richard Malebisse -  whipped up anti-Semitism in York and in March 1190, fearing for their lives, the Jewish community fled to the castle. The subsequent siege resulted in many committing suicide with the survivors lynched by the mob.

Baile Hill Castle. The heavily overgrown motte is all that remains of York’s second castle. After its construction in 1069 it was of comparable size to York Castle on the other side of the River Ouse.

Baile Hill Castle. Baile Hill Castle was abandoned during the thirteenth century. Around 1322 the site was incorporated into the city walls.

Getting There

Clifford Tower is a major tourist attraction within York. Car parking is available immediately adjacent to the castle or throughout the city centre. Baile Hill is a short walk away over Skeldergate bridge onto Bishopgate Street.

Car Parking Option

Tower Street, YO1 9RZ

53.956312N 1.079926W

Clifford's Tower (York Castle)


53.955867N 1.080019W

Baile Hill Castle


53.953882N 1.083135W