The Norman Walls

It took William I two years to move north after his victory at Hastings in October 1066 and his coronation as king on Christmas Day 1066.There was a strong anti-Norman feeling in the north and this was coming to a head around York during the summer of 1068.William moved quickly to try to squash this potential rebellion. He marched north. His advance caused such alarm that he entered the city unopposed. On his arrival he set about his normal activity in hostile territory. In York he built two castles, York Castle and Baile Hill.

York Castle

The original structure was built by William I in 1068 as a motte and bailey castle. It consists of a motte (a large mound of layers of rammed earth and clay, originally capped with a timber stockade enclosing a timber tower) and a bailey (a large flat open area surrounded by an embankment with a strong timber palisade at its crest and a ditch outside it). The castle was designed to overlook and overawe the local populace as well as deter any river-borne attacks.In fact, there seem to have been two separate baileys, one represented today by the block of land between the River Foss and Tower Street, the other between Tower Street, Castlegate and Clifford Street. The second bailey was given to the Franciscans to build their friary in the 13th century. The motte was later heightened.To give the castle extra strong defences William built a dam across the River Foss. This created a large shallow lake between Layerthorpe and Foss Bridge, called the King’s Fishpool. Designed to make approaches to the city from the east more difficult, this lake was a significant feature in York for the next 700 years.

The castle was built from earth and wood. This made it an easy target in 1069 when the whole structure was burnt down by the locals who engaged in a revolt against William. In 1190 it was burnt down again; this time by anti-Jewish rioters attempting to massacre a group of local Jews who had taken refuge there. The Jews, however, ‘chose to die at each others hands rather than be burnt to death. There is a memorial commemorating this tragedy at the foot of the mound.

The Prison

After the civil war in 1644, the castle became a prison. Two of the buildings that now occupy the medieval bailey site were built as prisons. The Debtors Prison (the central building) was built in 1701-5, and the Female Prison (to its left, when seen from the front) in 1780. The Assize Courts, where people were tried and, sometimes, condemned to death, were built in 1773-7. From 1802 the castle was the main place of execution in York. Before then people had been executed in public on the Knavesmire. Executions continued behind prison doors until 1896.

These buildings all survive today. The two prison buildings are now York Castle Museum, while people are still tried in the Assize Court building. Before they go in front of the court, prisoners are locked up in the original 1773 cells!

Clifford’s Tower

On top of the mound at Castle Hill are the remains of Cliffordd’s Tower. In 1245 King Henry III decided that the timber tower crowning the motte at York was outdated, and that his principal castle in the north of England should be brought up to date with a new stone keep. So, between 1245 and 1265, a new tower of unusual, four-lobe design was built in stone along with new bailey walls, towers, gates, bridges, two halls, a chapel, a kitchen and a prison. The name Clifford’s Tower was first recorded in 1596; before then it was called the great tower.

Between 1245 and 1445, the castle needed major repairs – the keep had cracked from top to bottom. By 1535 it was in ruins. It was repaired and soldiers stationed there during and after the Civil War in the 17th century. Major engineering works also took place in the early 20th century

The Old Baile

York was one of the few towns in England in which William the Conqueror built two castles. The second castle – the Old Baile – also had a motte and bailey, and faced York Castle from across the River Ouse. Its position allowed a chain to be hung across the river from one castle to the other if it was necessary to bar the river to invaders; the memory of the Norwegian King Harald Hardraada’s fleet coming up the river to attack York in 1066 must have been a vivid reminder that York’s watery front door had to be defended.

All that survives today is the motte and part of the rampart now incorporated into the city walls. Unlike the motte at Clifford’s Tower, this one has been partially investigated by archaeologists, who found traces of defences on top of the mound and of steps leading up to its summit.This castle was given to the Archbishop of York around 1194. This caused a dispute between the archbishop and the people of York. York’s citizens said it was outside the city’s ditches, but the archbishop argued that the defence of the Old Baile was the responsibility of the mayor and citizens of York. This argument was still going strong 100 years later. In 1423, the archbishop was sued, forcing him to repair the part of the city walls called the Old Baile. In 1466 the dispute was settled; the archbishop gave the castle to the mayor and people of York. They, in turn, leased the bailey for grazing animals; in 1609 the site was used for compulsory archery practice by the citizens.Between 1802 and 1807 a prison was built on the site of the castle. This was subsequently demolished in 1868.

The Walls

The outer ditches of the fortifications were re-dug during the Norman period in York, and the earth ramparts increased in height, though there is evidence, particularly north-east of the Multangular Tower, that this was not done in a single operation but in successive enlargements.The Normans used stone only for the gateways. The outer arch at Bootham Bar dates from c.1100 and those at Micklegate Bar and Walmgate Bar from the 12th century. Lounlithgate (‘the hidden or obscure gate’), on the site of the present Victoria Bar, and Monk Bar’s predecessor, may also have been built at this same time. The rest of the fortifications, including the castles, remained as structures of earth and timber. This was consistent with the defences of other towns in the 12th century. Norman military strategy was based on castles rather than defensive walls, and the period was one of relative stability.

Next: The Walls 1250 to 1600