Clifford's Tower-the Eye of York, the eye of history

Advantages: Convenient location, informative historical site with magnificent views.

Disadvantages: No audio guide available. No disability and toilet facilities.

York is a unique historical city in north of England and has so many features to form its reputation as the crowned European Tourism City of 2007.

Clifford's Tower is also known as the Eye of York and is a popular site for tourists from around the world.


Clifford's Tower stands in the centre of York as a proud symbol of the power of England's medieval kings. It is located on top of a green, grassy hill and can be seen from a distance. Climbing 55 very steep steps and with a sweeping panorama of York, it isn't hard to understand why Clifford's Tower is called the Eye of York and played such an important role in the history of England.


Clifford's Tower takes its name from Roger de Clifford, who following the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322 was hung in chains from its battlements, when he was executed for treason against Edward II.

Originally there was a castle built by William the Conqueror in 1068 to subdue the rebels of the north. After twice being burned to the ground Henry III rebuilt a typical French castle in the 13th century. A Frenchman called Henry of Reyns may have designed Clifford's Tower and later was employed by the king to build the new Westminster Abbey.

There is a grisly story connected with Clifford's Tower concerning the Jewish community. There were riots against Jews of York in March 1190. Similar things happened in other European countries at the same time too. Many Jewish people took shelter inside a wooden tower on this site, but came under heavy attack from the citizens as well as a few local knights. Rather than be captured and killed or renounce their faith, on the night of Friday 16 March around 150 Jews and Jewesses set fire to the tower in an attempt to commit suicide. Those who survived were caught and massacred by the rioters. To commemorate the tragedy and learn lessons from history there is a big plaque at the foot of the tower. You can also see an information panel inside the walls telling more about the history.

What you can see

Clifford's Tower contained two floors linked by spiral staircases in the thickness of the walls, and some of the internal walls and the roof have been lost. However you can still see many things, such as a stone-cupboard, windows and original decoration.

1. The ground floor

The ground floor is pretty plain with a simple entrance and a small gift shop. However you will spend more time there studying all the information panels that tell the story of York Castle and Clifford's Tower. At the centre of the yard there is a scale model that shows how York Castle was built, who the officials in history were and how the castle protected York from the threat of the Scots and the Danes. In practice the castle was never attacked in the Middle Ages, but was fully equipped to defend itself if necessary.

2. The medieval chapel

This is located on the first floor and contains some of the best surviving medieval architecture in Clifford's Tower. On the left side you can clearly see the decorative arcading on the stone wall. However the thin columns of the stone wall are missing; just a stone wall-cupboard remains, which was used to contain the vessels for religious services. The fires that happened here have coloured the walls red. Some decorative work is also vaguely seen on the wall opposite the wooden door. The door is very low and narrow. The stone floor is uneven and the chapel size is less than 10 square meters. It has two windows on the left side and right side. The stone wall-cupboard on the left wall, as I mentioned above, is under one of the windows. The right side wall has a long, but narrow window, from which you can look directly at the main gate into the tower.

Historically the chapel was built for the king to take Mass, when he might be staying in York. However the king rarely visited it and the chapel was used for other functions. In 1362 it was used as a store room and was called 'The Treasury'.

3. Views from the top

One of the best things about Clifford's Tower is to climb the spiral steps to the top. Walking along the walls you can see almost all of York even more if the sky is clear, such as Fairfax, York Minster, York Castle Museum, the River Ouse and Rowntrees, a famous chocolate factory in the distance.

The best view is of York Minster. Two tall medieval Gothic towers are surrounded by low red houses. Without the busy traffic and Hilton Hotel beneath you may think you had come upon the setting for a film called The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Opening Time and Entrance Fee

Clifford's Tower is open daily except Christmas day and New Year's day. In summer time it opens from 10am to 5pm. In winter time it closes one hour earlier.

It's free for English Heritage members and York Pass holders. Normally there is a charge of £3.50 for adults, £1.80 for children and £8.80 for families.
My opinion

Before I visited Clifford's Tower I had read a few articles about it. When I was there I was still shocked by what I saw, in particular the sad story of the Jews. Compared to other castles I have visited in England the tower is small, but more touching. I felt my heart was in pain, and my soul was seen by those people who lost their lives there. Their eyes seemed to watch me. I feel ashamed I have known so little medieval history.

However I do think the tower is worth a couple of hours of your time when you visit York. Last but not least you can visit York Castle Museum, which is near to Clifford's Tower, and explore more of the great history of York city and England.

Summary: Medieval ruin, but still alive.