1000 Years of Justice at York Castle

York Castle Prisoner 1871

Video produced for York Castle Prison exhibition.
York Castle Prison

York Castle has been a site of justice and incarceration for almost 1,000 years.  William the Conqueror built the first castle here in 1068 as a base to control the North of England – and we know from written references that it had a gaol.

In the 13th century the Castle was rebuilt in stone, including what we now call Clifford’s Tower.  From about 1300, the Assize courts for Yorkshire were held here every spring and summer.  Prisoners awaiting trial were held in the dungeons.

In 1700 the main buildings, except Clifford’s Tower, were swept away to make way for a grand new County Prison for the whole of Yorkshire.  It opened in 1705 and still stands today - it is known as the Debtor's Prison and is part of York Castle Museum.  This was one of Britain’s first multi-purpose prisons.  Criminals awaiting trial or punishment were kept on the ground floor with debtors in better quarters upstairs.  Men and women were held separately.

Two more buildings were added later: the Courthouse in 1777 and the Female Prison in 1780. 

In 1835 a third large prison was built, next to Clifford’s Tower, but has not survived.  In 1900 York Castle became a military prison.  It closed in 1929 and the local authority bought the complex.  The Victorian prison was demolished almost immediately and no trace of it is visible today.

The Castle is still a seat of justice; the 18th century Courthouse is now York Crown Court.  It still has holding cells and people accused of serious crimes are still tried there, as they have been for almost 1,000 years.


York Castle Prison - website run by York Castle Museum