Once upon a time, there were two castles in York city: all because of York’s rebellious reputation.
In 1066, William the Conqueror easily managed to conquer England’s southern territories. However, North England was a tricker nut to crack. His minions reached the area in 1067 – and York was a focus for discontent against Norman rule.
So William deployed a successful formula – and decided to build castles to hold control over the people of York.
The most obvious of these two castles in York is colloquially known as ‘York Castle’. However, there’s little of the fortress still remaining. Virtually the only remnant is ‘Clifford’s Tower’, an intriguing, shell-like tower which stands proudly on a tall Motte in the heart of the city.
The ‘other’ castle is much harder to track down. It’s called Baile Hill and it’s hard to imagine, but this neglected little hillock used to equal the might of York Castle back in early Medieval times. It certainly invites investigation today.
Of course, these two castles in York aren’t everything the city has to offer. The town is a true goldmine for heritage lovers – in fact, I believe that it’s the prettiest city in the whole of the UK.
A Tale of Two Castles in York: How William the Conqueror ‘Harried the North’
The story behind the two castles in York is one of Norman military strategy. When William the Conqueror arrived in 1066, his conquest of England’s rugged Northern lands was much less straightforward than his capture of the South.
Southern England pretty much surrendered to Norman rule after the Battle of Berkhamstead (not Hastings!), in 1066. However, Northern England was culturally a very different beast.
The North spoke a distinct dialect of Old English; and the Northern people held long-term allegiance to King Edward the Confessor, who had never surrendered to Norman rule. (Conversely, Southern England saw nephew Edgar to be ‘their’ King – and Edgar had already capitulated to the Normans).
Resultantly, Northern England met the Normans with resistance. A grim winter of massacres and murders, from 1067 onwards, challenged William the Conqueror’s tenuous grip upon England.
In response, he fought fire with fire – literally embarking upon a scorched earth campaign, razing areas of dissent to the ground. His campaign of destruction is termed the ‘Harrying of the North’.
William knew that building castles was an invaluable technique to control a local population.
As a result, he built a first castle in York in 1068 – which was promptly besieged in February 1069. Undeterred, in March of that year, William himself rode up to ransack the town in revenge, and built another castle (Baile Hill).
These two castles in York were an unprecedented display of strength. William chose to flex his muscles by positioning each castle on either side of the river Ouse, demonstrating his dominance of the city.
It was, by no means, an easy conquest – but the foundations of York Minster, laid in 1070, proved that the Normans were here to stay.
The Secrets of Neglected Baile Hill Castle, York
Our two castles in York perch upon opposite sides of the river Ouse; with Clifford’s Tower standing sentinel on the Eastern side of the river: and Baile Hill tucked away on the Western side.
Work started on York Castle in 1068; and on Baile Hill in 1069. As Baile Hill is the lesser known of the two castles, it’s perhaps a good place to start.
Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible to discern that Baile Hill was a Medieval motte and bailey castle. All that’s really visible is an 8-metre high wooded hillock, which has been incorporated into York’s encircling city walls.
Comparative to other castles of the 1100s, however, Baile Hill would have been a reasonably large example of a Motte and Bailey.
The mound of the motte would have been about one-and-a-half-times as high as it stands today (it’s an artificial mound, and was lowered by hand in the 1800s to make farming easier). In addition, the castle had a large, polygonal bailey, stretching to about 500m² in size.
Back in 1069 – just less than a year after the castle was built – a group of wandering Danes joined in with an English rebellion against the Norman gentry.
This unleashed such unimaginable Norman fury that the Normans scorched most of the town – even including their own castles. Baile Hill was rebuilt over time, and was used defensively for the next 100 years.
The motte and bailey structure was the platform for numerous timber fortifications. Modern excavations have unearthed remnants of an old wooden tower; and the obligatory palisade fencing encircling the bailey.
In the late 1200s, the castle began to fall from fashion, and significantly less was invested into its construction and maintenance. It’s difficult to piece together exactly why Baile Hill shrivelled whilst the neighbouring York Castle blossomed.
Different theories have been put forward to explain Baile Hill’s comparative decline. Perhaps the most convincing explanation was geography: York Castle had a significant defensive advantage, positioned between the rivers Ouse and Foss. There’s also some evidence that Henry III simply preferred York Castle.
Either way, Baile Hill castle was all but disused by 1300.
The castle remains were later incorporated into York’s encircling walls, and the road that’s nowadays named ‘Baile Hill’ actually follows the old castle ditches. Many visitors will come across this old castle whilst walking the city walls; but most will just walk on by, not stopping to appreciate the ‘other’ one of the two castles in York.
The Four-Leaved Clover of Clifford’s Tower – The Last Surviving Part of York Castle
Clifford’s Tower is the second of our castles in York: the much more visible sibling of long-neglected Baile Hill.
The Tower – which is now managed and operated by English Heritage – is the only significant remnant of old York Castle, which used to stand on this spot.
There’s not much of medieval York Castle which has survived to today.
Aside from Clifford’s Tower, the only surviving Medieval remnants are two towers and part of the original curtain-wall, which were incorporated into the walls of the modern York Castle Museum.
You’ll find these alongside an old mill-and-water-wheel upon the River Foss, which is presently being restored by the museum management.
As for York Castle Museum, it’s slightly deceptively named – it’s a museum of everyday British life. It’s housed in two c18th prison buildings, which were built upon the site where York Castle originally stood.
York Castle was built a year before Baile Hill, in about 1068. Even in its early days, it would have been a significantly-sized Motte hillock – around 25m tall, and crowned with an impressive timber tower.
In common with Baile Hill, York Castle was virtually entirely destroyed just two years after its inception (again by the marauding Danes), and was subsequently rebuilt in the following years.
However, whilst Baile Hill faded into slow oblivion in the years up to 1300, York Castle grew to national importance.
Because of York’s close proximity to turbulent Scotland, and due to King Henry III’s increasingly shaky grip upon power within c13th England, York Castle was picked by the King to become a outpost of strength at the Northern proximities of his territory.
He spent huge amounts of money rebuilding the castle in stone – and his expensive project began in 1243; and finished in 1270.
Clifford’s Tower (or the King’s Tower, as it was then known) was completed in 1262 at significant expense. Its curious design – rather like the four leaves on a lucky clover – have puzzled scholars for some time, as it displays an ingenuity that was quite out of step with the other elements of York Castle.
Only one other of the castles in York surroundings – nearby Pontefract – is said to have had a similar four-leaved keep; but it’s long since been destroyed.
In the 1320s, as a result of continuing squabbles with Scotland, Edward III moved his administration – and even the royal mint! – up to York Castle.
Although the castle didn’t remain for long as the seat of national politics, it evolved into a centre for local government for the whole of the North of England.
Sadly, over time, the main parts of York Castle became derelict, and virtually abandoned by the early c16th. The only conceivable use for such a ruinous fortress was as a prison: and Clifford’s Tower was used as a garrison and even an army detention barracks, up until the late c19th.
Numerous other prison buildings were constructed on the old York Castle site; and today, the Museum is housed, in part, in the old female prison built in 1780.
Of course, of the entire fortress, nowadays only Clifford’s Tower itself remains – an impressive testament to the resilience of these great castles in York.
Visiting York and Its Castles
Today, Clifford’s Tower is maintained under the careful eye of English Heritage, and the castle affords quite beautiful views across the whole of York – even if there’s not particularly much to see inside.
Even so, there’s lots to do in the surrounding town. York is a haven for history-buffs, as it’s encircled by 2.5miles of thick city walls, which were born of Roman times and perfected in the Medieval period.
York Minster is a magnificent gothic cathedral, unrivalled in size anywhere else in Europe. There’s also the highly-hyped Jorvik Viking Centre, which is a hands-on, and highly smelly, expose of Viking York. (TripAdvisor Affiliate link).
The rest of the city is endlessly charming, filled with black and white buildings and narrow Medieval passages, which are evocatively named ‘snickelways’.
If you enjoyed reading this page, don’t leave just yet – there’re lots more! I think you might enjoy reading about another castle close to York – Pontefract Castle, which was one of the most feared castles in England. Alternatively, I’ve written about lots of other castles in England.