The urban castle is a different breed to the rural one. It’s been assaulted not by weapons, but by its surroundings and that includes how society changes around it. Ruins have a beauty about them and with light and shadows, they transform the hard rock into architectural sculptures. However, castles were built for a less attractive purpose – to intimidate and demonstrate power.
York castle dates back Viking times and to the Norman Conquest. Build just two years after 1066, it remained as a wooden structure for a surprisingly long time, quite often burning down, including when the Vikings made one last ditched attempt at their own conquest in 1069. The current keep wasn’t built until 1228, when a gale blew down the keep on the motte. The heart of the castle turned to stone – Clifford’s Tower.
It looks like a four leaf clover with its round corners – known as a quatrefoil. The walls were over nine feet thick at their widest. Formidable in scale, it housed the sheriffs appointed to keep order in Yorkshire. Over time, additional buildings were enclosed in its outer walls including a mint to produce coins for northern England. It also served as prison.
That role as a prison continued for centuries. Even after Clifford’s tower was blown apart by an explosion in the magazine in 1684, the rest of the castle served as a county jail – right in the heart of the city. In the 19th century, new prisons were constructed using the stone from the castle ruins to house debtors in one wing and women prisoners in another. Now part of the Castle Museum, it’s still possible to visit the old cells and read about the sad lives of the prisoners.
As for Clifford Tower it remains standing as an empty shell on top of the motte in the midst of a car park. It gives little indication to its past or the time it witnessed the mass suicide of 150 Jews. In 1190, while still a wooden keep, the castle provided sanctuary to Jewish families seeking shelter from rising tensions. At the time of the crusades and with King Richard abroad, rumours spread that the king wanted the Jews attacked. A mob surrounded the keep, and the terrified occupants handed over the sheriff, who promptly turned around and lay siege to the castle. Rather than face the mob, the desperate Jews committed suicide, barring a few who opted to convert to Christianity. The mob killed them too.
So while I admire the grandness of these great forts, I have to remember castles were often bringers of violence and destruction, utilised in many conflicts, and cruel prisons in time of peace and war.