Clifford’s Tower unveiled

After a multi-million pound restoration project, our writer was one of the first visitors inside York’s notorious landmark


Clifford’s Tower in York will always be remembered as the site of one of the worst antisemitic attacks in British history — and as the 800-year-old landmark reopens following its £5 million transformation, a memorial to the massacre is still at the heart of the restored site.

Set atop a grassy mound, the 13th-century stone tower is all that remains of York Castle, from where the north of England was once ruled. Built on the site of an earlier timber Norman fort, first established here in 1068 by William the Conqueror, it has served as a medieval stronghold, an exchequer, a Civil War garrison, a gaol and an armoury.

But despite its important role in Britain’s past, for centuries it has largely been a shell, following a fire in 1684.

And while more visitors in recent years will be familiar with the wall walk around the roofless centre of the tower, there was little to see bar the chapel, some information boards and panoramic views toward York Minster, with the building left open to the elements.

The new facelift has changed that completely, thanks to the addition of a free-standing timber structure that simultaneously protects and enhances the tower by enclosing it.

Instead of having to rely on two sets of twisty stone steps which provide access to the narrow stone wall walk, visitors are now able to reach the wooden roof deck via a hanging walkway within the centre of the building.

It also provides a chance to see some features of the fire-damaged stone walls up close, visit the previously inaccessible first floor and really get a feel for the size of the structure, while a gap in the centre of the roof deck still allows for sunlight (and rain) to pour into the building, just as it has done for centuries.

Other restoration work included repointing the historic stonework, repairing the chapel roof and conserving the stone plaques above the entrance, which bear the coats of arms of Charles I and Henry Clifford, 5th Earl of Cumberland, after whose family the tower came to be named.

Visitors can also explore a medieval toilet built for Henry III — including flushing mechanism — for the first time since the 17th century.

However, the project involved more than conservation alone. English Heritage and their partners — Hugh Broughton Architects and Martin Ashley Architects — were also focused on ways to better share the tower’s history.

Now a series of information boards and audio exhibits help tell tales from 2,500BCE up to the present day, with each of the four lobes housing a section related to a particular period of the site’s past.

Throughout the building’s long and turbulent life, the most tragic chapter was the massacre and suicide of York’s Jews on March 16, 1190. Amid growing hostility, following the coronation of crusader King Richard I, York’s entire Jewish community was trapped inside by an angry mob.

Many took their own lives instead of being killed or forcibly baptised, while attempts to burn their possessions before their deaths led to a fire consuming the tower. The few who tried to flee the flames under the misled impression they’d have safe passage were murdered by the mob.

The horrors of that day are told by fictional character Elias, who gives a harrowing account of his family’s death at the tower — one of four audio stories narrated by local York residents, each representing a different chapter in the building’s history.

The events of 1190 are also commemorated with a plaque at the bottom of the mound, although perhaps the most emotive tribute can be seen each spring, around the anniversary of the massacre.

Then, the mound becomes a sea of yellow as thousands of daffodils bloom — their six-pointed shape echoing the Star of David — planted here in memory of the victims, ensuring they are never forgotten.

But the tragedy didn’t end Jewish life in York a new community was established within a few years, with Jewish life enduring in the city to the present day.

English Heritage consulted the York Liberal Jewish Community during the transformation, emphasising that this is not only a historical story about the Jews living in the city 850 years ago, but a valuable lesson to be learned about how people co-exist today.

Community co-founder Ben Rich said: “It is a useful way of reminding people of Britain’s and Yorkshire’s history, but the story of the Jews of York does not end with 1190. There is a thriving community here today and we want that to be as much of the story as what happened in Clifford’s Tower.”

Getting There

Tickets to Clifford’s Tower cost from £8.10 for adults, English Heritage members go free. #

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