York Castle in the 12th century

Clifford’s Tower

Somewhere in the midst of plotting Book II of Battle Scars, For King and Country, I had a brilliant idea: Stephan l’Aigle must deliver a message to the Sheriff of York.

If you’ve been to York, you’ll recognize Clifford’s Tower. It is one of the few visible remains of York Castle.

A menacing keep on a motte overlooking the city – great for scene-setting, right? From my 2010 visit there and earlier research, I knew the Tower’s significance to Richard I’s reign. But I didn’t recall specifics about the dates of construction of the structure, so I put my research hat back on to hunt down the facts.

Like the gatehouse at Nottingham Castle, which I’d posted about last year, I discovered the current stone structure we know as Clifford’s Tower wasn’t built until the second half of the 1200s. For King and Country is set in the years 1193-94. Stephan would have seen a timber keep called King’s Tower atop the motte. In fact, most of York Castle would have been timber. Surrounded by a moat on all sides, the motte and its castle were built by William the Conqueror in 1068-69, destroyed during an attack by the Danes and rebellious Northumbrians in 1069, and then rebuilt by William.

But Stephan wouldn’t have seen the keep built during William’s reign. He’d have seen newer construction. Over £207 in expenditures were recorded in the Pipe Rolls for 1191 to cover costs to replace the earlier keep and other buildings. They’d been set ablaze during the massacre of Jews there in March 1190. Excavations of the site in 1903 uncovered charred remains of the fire and revealed the artificially-created motte had been raised to its present level (approx. 50 feet high) when Henry III ordered the construction of the stone keep. Over £2000 were expended in that thirteen-year project between 1245-46 and 1258-59.

For reference, the average annual income of a 12th century baron was £100-200. £207 for repairs was a hefty sum!

Here’s a model of 14th century York Castle, which I just had to share because it is so cool!


Clifford’s Tower photo taken by me in 2010.

Cooper, T.P. (1911). The History of the Castle of York. London: Elliot Stock.

York Castle Stephen Montgomery created the original, hchc2009 edited the background [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)].


  1. annswinfen Avatar

    Do you know C J Sansom’s novel Sovereign, Char? York castle in Tudor times figures largely in the novel. I believe the wooden tower was deliberately set on fire, wasn’t it?, to kill the Jews.

    1. Char Avatar

      Thanks so much for stopping by & commenting, Ann. I haven’t heard of Sovereign, and may need to add it to my TBR list. The tower and other buildings, including one at the bottom of the motte known as the King’s house (per Cooper), were deliberately set on fire. Somewhere amongst my notes I recall reading that the Jews themselves set the blaze because though they’d committed suicide, they didn’t want their dead bodies mutilated by the angry mobs. I need to see if other sources indicate who actually set the fires unless one of my readers knows for sure!

      1. annswinfen Avatar

        I’m digging into my memory here, but I seem to remember that the Jews had taken refuge in the tower and it was set alight to kill them, but there may be more than one version of what happened. C J Sansom’s novels are splendid, featuring a lawyer called Matthew Shardlake, starting in the time of Thomas Cromwell. The most recent, Lamentation, ends with the death of Henry VIII. Highly recommended!

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