English Heritage Report

Report by Historyworks from the learning events  "UNDERSTANDING CLIFFORD'S TOWER AND THE 1190 MASSACRE IN CONTEXTS"

Here is a copy of the Report produced by Historyworks in 2015, free to download as a pdf

We were very pleased to have a full house of 150 attending at both of the learning events about Clifford’s Tower and the wider contexts of York Castle area - organized for the afternoons of Sunday 25th January and Tuesday 27th January 2015.  The talks were very informal but informative, and tea breaks gave opportunities to share information about York’s past & present.  We are also very grateful for those participants, over 170 who completed our online survey which helps gain a deeper insight into public attitudes towards York heritage issues and the presentation and understanding of Clifford's Tower and the longer story of a Jewish presence in york from the 1100s to now. 

There are photos of the tours of Clifford's Tower & York Castle area here:


To view thumbnails provided by Historyworks to help with understanding the long history of Clifford's Tower, do scroll to the sections below, summing up the current research, composed by team at Historyworks:

Overview: The Jewish Community of York

Jewish people first came to Britain in significant numbers from Normandy after 1066 and the invasion of William the Conqueror. A century after their arrival to fund and support the Crown's fiscal administration and power base in the north, the history of York's Jewish community was marred by massacre in 1190 when nearly all the families died in the Royal Castle Keep, most likely a timber structure, where presently there is a stone keep known as Clifford's Tower. The massacre of the Jewish community in York was related to anti-semitic attacks in London, Lincoln, Norwich following the coronation of Richard I, when there were arson attacks against many Jewish homes and Jews were killed in numbers. In York, it was estimated by chroniclers that 150 members of the Jewish community died when the keep was set fire and families there who had gone to the Castle as a place of Royal protection were killed.

However, a few members of the Jewish community survived, and with new arrivals from Europe, the population recovered, even in York, with some significant dwellings and a synagogue located on Coney Street, just five minutes walk from the Castle. Thus, by the middle of the 13th century many Jewish people had homes in the city, including Aaron of York, holding the position of Archpresbyter, the leader of the English Jewish community from 1236 to 1243. York continued therefore to be at the core of Jewish life in York up to the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290.

Jews did not come back to England until they were invited in 1656 by Cromwell, but it is unlikely that any Jews came to live in York until the late 19th century, and we have evidence of a small community of Jews working at an improvised synagogue for several generations above the Bowman family Joiners' shop on Aldwark. The younger generation of Jews in York today are mostly affiliated to the University, as students and researchers, administrators and manager. On the last census there were just over one thousand Jews counted in the census of 2001 but numbers are growing as the city and university develop, and there is even a Jewish community group meeting regularly on Friargate at the Quaker Centre, just steps away from the place of the massacre in 1190.

What is for sure, is that there are no generational blood links connecting the Jewish community in York today to the families who were massacred in 1190 in York Castle. However, there are commemorations at the site of Clifford's Tower, inaugurated with the plaque and service of reconciliation in 1978. 

There is a leaflet and audio tour linked below on youtube, started as a research project organised by Helen Weinstein as Founding Director of IPUP, working in partnership with the City Archaeologist, John Oxley. The project was assisted by IPUP Interns who are postgraduate students from the University of York: Jon Cook, Hannah Lyons, Daphne Mayer, Alex O'Donnell, Tom Sutton, Bill White, and Ben Wilkinson. You can access the early version of the project by youtube and by using the associated scripts, whose content was shaped by Helen Weinstein and John Oxley.

However, since then, the project has developed, and with the support of John Oxley at the City Council and Michael Woodward at York Museums Trust, it has been updated by Historyworks to be more suitable as a product for a mass audience, and delivered as an app. You can listen to the updated trail by clicking on the sections on audioboo, downloading the shorter scripts. The production by Historyworks was recorded by Jon Calver, narrated by Jonathan Cowap of BBC York, with the script updated by Helen Weinstein, edited by Sam Johnson, supported by script advisor John Oxley.

The Massacre of 1190

In the hours before and during 16th March 1190 nearly all of the Jewish population in York perished on the site of the Castle keep, a timber structure destroyed during the attack, probably about 15 to 20 foot below where the present stone structure of Clifford's Tower stands today atop the motte.

The massacre of the Jewish community, about 150 men, women, and children, is probably the most well known part of the history of York's Medieval Jewry.  However,  the York Massacre was in fact only one of a series of attack on communities of Jews across England. 

The Crusader King - Coronation & Anti-Jewish Riots

The events of 1190 really began the previous year, at the accession of Richard I. Following the death of his father Henry II in July, Richard's Coronation was held on September 3rd, 1189.  An anti- Jewish riot broke out after a delegation of Jews who had travelled to London for the occasion attempted to enter the Palace of Westminster during the coronation banquet.  

Around 30 of the Jewish delegation died in the riots that followed the Coronation. Amongst those seriously injured was a wealthy moneylender from York called Benedict. The tension around the Coronation and the murder of Jews on the streets of London is put into a wider context of similar pogroms against Jews in Europe by Simon Schama (see Reading List below).

Despite the King's order that the Jewish community be left in peace, a series of further anti-Jewish riots spread across England in the Spring of 1190 following Richard I's departure from England on Crusade.  Christian prejudice against the Jewish community living amongst them had certainly been heightened by the Crusader preaching and whipped up in recent years by accusations of ritual child-murder.  See the helpful explanation of this traumatic allegation researched and written by Simon Schama (see Reading List below).

Although genuine bigotry was certainly one of the reasons behind attacks on the Jewish community, so too was the Jews' legal and economic position.  As major creditors of royal government, the Jews were granted legal exemptions and special royal protection. Wealthy, but vulnerable, the Jews of England were easy targets for local interests chafing against increasing royal control.

In March, the violence of anti-Jewish rioting spread to York, where royal control had recently been weakened following the replacement of the region's powerful sheriff.  A group of men had attacked the house of Benedict of York, killed those within, and set fire to the building.  Therefore, because the Jews were under Crown guarantees, most of the Jewish community of York took refuge in the Keep of the Royal Castle (a wooden building on the motte, probably about 15/20 foot below where the stone structure of Clifford's Tower was built and rebuilt between the 1200s and 1600s), where the Jews would have expected Royal protection by the King's agents.

More violence followed, and it seems that the key agent of the crown was abroad at the time, and this meant that protection from the constable or sheriff in York was delayed and a series of errors of judgement ensued.  An order was given that the Jews be ejected from the Keep by force. Although it was quickly rescinded, this order served to incite the mob who began to lay siege to the Castle.

By the evening of Passover on March the 16th, as siege engines stood closeby the York Castle walls, the Keep where the Jews were sheltering was set alight and most of the Jewish community died within the Keep or closeby. With royal agents absent at the crucial time of tension, local men of stature did not intervene to save the Jewish community, instead they showed their interest by going to the Minster where the documents of the funds owed to the Jews were kept, and had these burnt.

1190 - Contested Narratives

How the medieval Jews died is a matter of sensitivity in the Jewish community of York today, because the medieval accounts of the time were most often written with an anti-semitic agenda, and claiming that the Jewish men slayed their own families in a mass act of suicide was possibly a way of the chroniclers deflecting blame from their own Christian community.  However, whether by suicide or at the hands of others, it is indeed difficult to navigate the narrative accounts written for rhetorical affect, many of these accounts being written at a distance of time and place. But what is for sure was the fate of the Jewish community, because die they did whether murdered by fire, hand, implement.  

A new book of essays edited by Sarah Rees Jones & Sethina Watson (see below) considers the massacre as central to the narrative of English and Jewish history, exploring how a narrative of events about 1190 was built up, both at the time and in following years. 

1190 to 1290: The Fate of the Jewish Community in York

Remarkably, within decades of the massacre, Jews were resettled in York, and seem to have been for a short period in the 1220s to 1240s to have been more prosperous, numerous, successful as before the gruesome event of the 1190 massacre.  

King Edward's policy towards the Jews in England blew hot and cold throughout the period, with restrictive legislation and punitive fines, the community had already declined in the years leading up to the 1290 expulsion.

Therefore by 1290  when Edward I formally and finally expelled all Jews from his kingdom, a severe decline had set in.  At his accession in 1272, the population has been reckoned again to have numbered about 150 persons.

Web Links & Further Reading

    • Readers with a general interest in the history of England's Jews should begin with the excellent bibliography prepared by the Jewish Historical Society of England.

    • Robin R. Mundilll, The King's Jews. Money, Massacre, and Exodus in Medieval England, (Bloomsbury, 7 June 2010) is an excellent synthesis of research on the history of medieval Jews of England weaving manuscript and secondary sources to present a very readable overivew for the general reader of how Jews lived and worked alongside their Medieval Christian neighbours.
    • Most recent set of scholarly essays has been published by Boydell & Brewer edited by Sarah Rees Jones & Sethina Watson, Christians & Jews in Angevin England (19 April 2013)

    • P. M. Tillott (ed), A History of the County of York: The City of York (1961) pp. 47-49.Available online to subscribers and members of subscribed institutions at the IHR's British History Online Pages

    • Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews. Finding the Words 1000BCE-1492CE(Bodley Head, 2013) pp 292-326, provides a useful context of the hostile enviornment for Jews in Europe and the pogroms flaring up across European centres where Jews were living and working in the years prior to the 1190 pogrom in York and elsewhere in the UK.
  • R. B Dobson, "The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of March 1190", Borthwick papers 45 (York: St. Anthony's Press, 1974, revised ed. 1996).

  • R. B Dobson, "The Decline and Expulsion of the Medieval Jews in York,"Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society 26 (1979): pp. 34-52.

On traumatic pasts:

  • LaCapra, D. 2004 History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory (Ithaca), 106-144
  • Logan, W. & K. Reeves (eds.) 2009 Places of pain and shame: dealing with 'difficult heritage' (London)
  • Pickering, P. & Tyrell, A. (eds.) 2004 Contested Sites: Commemoration, Memorial and Popular Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain (Aldershot)

Audioboo & Scripts: York Jewish History Trail by Historyworks

In 2014, the York Jewish History Trail was revised by Historyworks following new research. This involved the updating of the script by the Historyworks team, Helen Weinstein and Sam Johnson, along with a new recording of the audio by Jon Calver. The updated script was narrated by Jonathan Cowap of BBC Radio York, with support from script advisor John Oxley.  Please credit the team that devised the Jewish History Trail, in particular Helen Weinstein (Director of Historyworks) & John Oxley, (the City Archaeologist, York City Council) if you wish to publish the script, app, map, audio, photography for circulation & sharing on websites and social media.


The Medieval Castle

The tower we recognize today was built in the second half of the 13th century, following the destruction of the castle during the massacre in 1190, and a further collapse of a wooden tower in 1228. In 1237 a house was built in front of the gaol for King Henry III to reside in. Under orders from the king in 1245 a rebuilding of the tower in stone began. However, this was a slow and stalled process as it took 17 years until the castle reached near completion in 1262.

York’s significance in the north of England meant that the newly strengthened castle was not used as a royal residence but as a stronghold, reinforcing the fortification of the city. This is evident as the castle complex comprised of a gaol, a mint, and law-courts, in which functions of central government, including the Exchequer, were temporarily housed in the castle during periods of intense Anglo-Scottish warfare.
The law-courts and the prison remained at the castle until the 20th century, and the Magistrate Court is still on-site.

Naming Clifford's Tower

The rebuilt tower, combined with the castle complex in York, symbolised royal power and authority and its function as a gaol may have led to the naming of the tower.

The first instance of ‘Clifford’s Tower’ being used can be found in documents detailing a scandal involving the castle gaoler, a Robert Redhead. Redhead was accused of attempting to demolish derelict parts of the tower in 1596 and sell the stone for lime-burning.

Despite the mention of the name in 1596, the name is believed to originate from much earlier. The castle is believed to have a rather unfortunate namesake: the rebel baron Roger de Clifford. Clifford, forced to surrender at the battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322, was held captive in York, hanged, and his corpse displayed and hung in chains on a gibbet at the castle.

Reformation Repression: The Pilgrimage of Grace

In the autumn of 1536 the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising took place. The protesters, revolting against Henry VIII’s fracture with the Catholic Church and dissolution of the monasteries, were led by the infamous Robert Aske. Aske was a barrister from a Yorkshire family who soon rose to the forefront of the uprising.

At it's strongest, the resistance was comprised of approximately 40,000 armed rebels. Following a number of successful campaigns, Aske sought to negotiate and reason with the King, discussing the motivations of the protesters. The King granted Aske safe passage as long as the rebels were stood down, but as he returned to Yorkshire violence broke out again and the King ordered the seizure and imprisonment of Aske in the Tower of London.

In the following weeks, 216  of the rebel leaders were rounded up and executed. In keeping with the Castle’s history as a site for displays of monarchal power, Aske was tried and convicted of High Treason, brought to York, and on the 12th July 1537 he was hanged in chains, and displayed “from the height of the Castle Dungeon” as a warning to other would-be rebels.

Robert Redhead - The Dismantling Gaoler

By 1596 the tower was unused and growing increasingly dilapidated. The poor state of the tower was partly due to the tower's gaoler, Robert Redhead.

Redhead had been steadily dismantling sections of the uppermost part of the tower and flanking wall to assist in the construction of a cockpit for the sport of cock-fighting. This behaviour outraged the locals and a petition forced Robert to stop.

However, later that year rumours began to spread about Robert and a group of accomplices who, under the guise of using the stone for repairs to other sections of the complex, were selling the stone for lime-burning. 

In 1597, Redhead and his men were caught throwing stone from the top of the tower and rollign them down the mound. Other accusations suggested that Redhead was also using rabbits to undermine the interior. As we can still see a tower today it is clear that Redhead was finally prevented from further demolitioning the structure. 

Garrison in the Civil War

In the early stages of the English Civil War in 1642, King Charles I, fearing hostilities in London, travelled to York, bringing with him his court.  For the six months following his move, York was capital of the kingdom. This led to the strengthening of the city’s defenses, with the walls being repaired and sentry boxes were built. 

On August 16, the king left the city but York remained a royalist base in the North. In March of the following year, the queen, Henrietta Maria, visited York with accompanying forces and cannons aiming to maintain order in the North, once again making York a royal garrison. At the request of Queen Henrietta Maria, the building was re-roofed and floored, creating storage rooms for ammunition, and a gun-platform on the roof. The queen left York for Oxford in June 1643 with weapons and 4,500 men.

The conflict reached York the following April and despite the defensive structural work, the city fell to Parliamentarians in 1644 after numerous assaults. In 1646, the House of Commons agreed that the tower should remain occupied by a garrison. This comprised of between 40 and 80 men and was primarily used as an armoury, as records tell us that between 1650 and 1652 there were 3,000 muskets and cannnon transported to the tower.

Imprisonment of Quaker George Fox

The tower had, since it’s rebuilding between 1270 and 1290, been used as a prison, containing high-ranking prisoners and political hostages in its history.  

Despite its growing dilapidation and ruinous conditions, in 1665 the Tower held the notable Quaker, George Fox, for two nights before he was transported to Scarborough Castle after spending four years of imprisonment in Dewsbury.

Fox, a campaigner against dogmatic religious and political authorities, was the founder of the Society of Friends. His ardent views resulted in his expulsion from York Minster in 1651 for preaching against the traditional church.

Fire and Neglect

By the late 17th century the Tower was becoming increasingly derelict due to the neglect and degenerate behaviour of the garrison. In 1683 a survey of the tower and castle's defensive capabilities. The result of this survey suggested that the tower and castle should be degarrisoned, an opinion that was shared by the local population who drunk toasts to 'the demolition of the Minced Pie', which is how the tower had come to be known.

It is thought that this escalated in April 1684 when the firing of a ceremonial salute for Saint George’s Day from the top of the tower resulted in a fire that destroyed part of the building and possibly the roof, as a contemporary sketch of the interior by Francis Place displays a completely roofless tower.

Although the tower was not totally ruinous, its structure was increasingly compromised and by the early 18th century it was released to freeholders and no longer housed ammunition but instead provided shelter for cattle. It was a distinctly different building to what it had once been, and newly built courthouses and gaol buildings in the 1820s and 30s only excluded it further, enclosing it within the castle complex and obscuring it from view.


Executions and Prison Complex

The York Tyburn was an area to the south of the city, now part of York Racecourse, that functioned as one of four execution sites in York. For four centuries it hosted public executions, claiming the lives of many notable criminals, including the infamous highwayman, Richard “Dick” Turpin.

Turpin had been travelling under the assumed name of John Palmer when he was arrested at a Yorkshire inn for burglary, horse theft, and murder. He had aroused suspicion when local magistrates questioned how he made his money. Then, once imprisoned at York Castle, he wrote a letter to his brother and was identified as Turpin by his handwriting. He was found guilty and executed at the Knavesmire on 7th APril, 1739.

Executions took place at these sites until 1801 when a Tyburn, or gallows, was permanently erected at the Castle Prison. From this date onwards all executions were administered by the Castle Prison on their grounds and accessible to the public.

The lay-out of the castle complex at that time consisted of the Eye of York, a grassed area surrounded by three buildings. These buildings were the Assize Courts of 1773-77, a Female Prison that was constructed between 1780 and 1783, and the Debtors’ Prison, built between 1701 and 1705 and described by Daniel Defoe as "the most stately and complete of any in the kingdom, if not in Europe".

The most notable execution that took place in the castle complex was that of Mary Bateman, also known as "The Yorkshire Witch". Convicted of murder by poisoning in May 1808, Mary was hanged on March 20th, 1809, and her body was displayed in public. Thousands of people paid to view her corpse and the proceeds of this public display were given to charity, with strips of her skin sold as charms to ward off evil.


The Eye of York: Political centre

York's location meant that it became a main political centre for the three Ridings and the site of political hustings, electing members of parliament for York.  It was for this reason that it was given the title, the Eye of the Ridings, which would eventually become more popularly know to us as the Eye of York or Castle Green.

It was first created in 1777 when the castle courtyard was grassed over to form the oval lawn that exists today. It's relevance as a political centre, flanked by the castle complex, is identifiable by the notable events that took place there.

It was here that the politician William Wilberforce delivered a powerful and influential speech at the Yorkshire county meeting in 1784. Aged just 24, Wilberforce spoke for over an hour to those gathered at the site. James Boswell, the Scottish writer described the event: “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew and grew, until the shrimp became a whale”. The following day, Wilberforce returned to the Eye of the Ridings and was elected MP for Yorkshire.

On 16th October 1832, Richard Oastler, a leading man in the fight for a ten hour day for children employed in factory work, organised a march to the political centre of York. His campaign and letter to the Leeds Mercury calling for a ten hour day generated enormous support from people across the region. Over 20,000 people from the towns and villages of the West Riding made their way towards the Eye of the Ridings in protest of the ill treatment and disgraceful working conditions that children endured.

Execution of Luddites in 1813

In January 1813, a number of Luddites, men who had been protesting the introduction of labour-replacing machinery, were imprisoned, tried, and executed at York Castle.

The trials took place between 2nd and 16th January, and the first executions on Friday 8th January. The men that were executed on that day were George Mellor, William Thorpe and Thomas Smith. These were the first of 17 men to be hanged in the castle complex. The bodies of these men were taken to the County Hospital for dissection and the body parts dispersed.

Further executions were carried out in two lots, with fourteen men hanged on Saturday 16th January. Unlike Mellor, Thorpe, and Smith, the bodies of these men were given to the families to be carried on carts in a procession back to their homesteads in the Pennines. 7 other men had their death penalties commuted to transportation.

Ruined and Restored

From the 17th century to the 19th century, the structural integrity of Clifford’s Tower steadily declined. Then, in 1902, a renewed campaign of repairs and research was undertaken by renowned civil engineer Basil Mott. His work on the tower included a partial reconstruction of the mound, underpinning the south-east lobe with buried concrete ‘flying buttresses’ to keep the tower walls upright. It was during Mott’s works that the most detailed archaeological investigation to-date was carried out on the internal structure of the mound that surrounds and supports the tower. 

On 30 March 1915, Clifford’s Tower was taken into state guardianship and by 1935 it had been repaired with the addition of greater pubic access. The prison buildings dating from the 19th century, including the wall enclosing the mound, were demolished and the lower parts of the slope restored to what is belived to be their original medieval profile. A new stairway leading up to the tower was also included, replacing a spiral path.  

The illustration shows the massive house for the prison governor,  prior to its demolition in 1935. Clifford's Tower can be seen behind. In 1900 the male prison was made available to the War office for use as a military prison. This was closed in 1929 and ceased to be a prison at all in 1932. The building materials from the demolition were available for purchase.  Stones from the walls were probably added to the mound because it is in this era that the mound changed shape, increasing in size.

First World War Enemy Aliens Encampment

Although the tower was not in good repair from the 1680s onwards it may have sometimes been used as a prison, with the room above the gateway (the chapel) offering cell accommodation where perhaps the Quaker George Fox was imprisoned in the "high dungeon".

But what is for certain, is that with the building of the prisons in the surrounding complex of the Castle, the larger footprint of the Castle still interned prisoners. In 1900 the 'male' prison was made available to the War Office for use as a military prison which explains the photograph of tented prisoners. During the First World War when this picture was taken, the Eye-of-York, the grassed area of land in front of the tower, was used as an interment camp for people considered by the government to be “enemy aliens”.

Do read more about the 'Enemy Alien' encampment at Castle Green & listen to the BBC Radio Feature produced by Historyworks here:



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