Much of York's layout is the result of Roman and Viking construction but one iconic feature is distinctly Norman. The original mound of Clifford's Tower, with a timber structure at the top, was constructed by William the Conqueror in 1068 as a statement of his power over the region. This building stood for just over a century before being burnt down in one of York’s bloodiest and tragic moments, when, in 1190, 150 Jews were massacred on the site.
Between 1190 and 1194, it was repaired at great expense, and the mound was raised to its present height. The second timber structure was destroyed (this time by a gale) in 1245. Under pressure from his wars with the Scots, Henry III ordered the tower to be rebuilt and strengthened, this time in stone. Master Simon of Northampton and Master Henry of Reynes, the senior carpenter and stonemason respectively in Windsor Castle, were sent up to York to consult on the new design of the castle.
The result was a tower some 50ft (15m) high and 200 ft (61m) in diameter. Its design is 'quatrefoil', with four overlapping circles, resembling a four leafed clover. This design pattern was unique in England and has led scholars to compare the tower with one built at about the same time, thirty miles south of Paris, the Chateau d’Etampes.
After being decimated by fire, wind, and even water (the castle sunk into the moat causing the walls to crack in the 1350s) the next challenge came from a very unlikely source - the castle’s jailer, Robert Redhead. In 1596 he began demolishing the tower and selling the stone as building material 'for his own profit'. He was only stopped after prolonged protests by the city council.
The tower's last military role began with the Civil War when, in 1642, it was again occupied by troops - first Royalists, then Parliamentarians. A garrison of soldiers stayed in the tower until it was burnt out in a fire in 1684.
It later became a garden ornament (albeit a large one) until it was incorporated into the extensions of the prison in 1825. Over the centuries the tower has regularly been threatened by demolition or neglect and yet still it stands, a proud, if somewhat decayed, monument to York’s turbulent and bloody past.
Why Clifford's Tower?
It isn't entirely clear when or why the Tower got its present name. Originally it was simply known as the King’s Tower, indeed the first recorded use of 'Clifford's Tower' is not until 1596. The name may well be a reference to the fact that Roger de Clifford was hanged at the tower in 1322 for opposing Edward II, or to the Clifford family’s claim that they were the hereditary constables of the tower.