Three great attractions (four including the castle itself) all together. York Castle Museum, York Castle Prison and the Raindale Mill. York was a Viking capital in the 10th century, and continued as an important northern city in the 11th century. In 1068, on William the Conqueror's first northern expedition after the Norman Conquest, he built a number of castles across the north-east of England, including one at York. This first castle at York was a basic wooden motte and bailey castle built between the rivers Ouse and Foss on the site of the present-day York Castle. It was built in haste; contemporary accounts imply it was constructed in only eight days. As it was built in an urban environment, hundreds of houses had to be destroyed to make way for the development. William Malet, the sheriff of Yorkshire, was placed in charge of the castle and successfully defended it against an immediate uprising by the local population. In response to the worsening security situation, William conducted his second northern campaign in 1069. He built another castle in York, on what is now Baile Hill on the west bank of the Ouse opposite the first castle, in an effort to improve his control over the city. Later that year, a Danish Viking fleet sailed up to York along the Humber and the Ouse, and attacked both castles with the assistance of Cospatrick of Northumbria and a number of local rebels. The Normans, attempting to drive the rebels back, set fire to some of the city's houses. The fire grew out of control and also set fire to York Minster and, some argue, the castles as well. The castles were captured and partially dismantled, and Malet was taken hostage by the Danes. William conducted a widespread sequence of punitive operations across the north of England in the aftermath of the attacks in 1069 and 1070. This "Harrying of the North" restored sufficient order to allow the rebuilding of the two castles, again in wood. The bailey at York Castle was enlarged slightly in the process; buildings believed to have been inside the bailey at this time include "halls, kitchens, a chapel, barracks, stores, stables, forges [and] workshops". By the time Domesday Book was written in 1086, York Castle was also surrounded by a water-filled moat and a large artificial lake called the King's Pool, fed from the river Foss by a dam built for the purpose.
In 1190, York Castle was the location of one of the worst pogroms in England during the medieval period. The Normans had introduced the first Jewish communities into England, where some occupied a special economic role as moneylenders, an essential but otherwise banned activity. English Jews were subject to considerable religious prejudice and primarily worked from towns and cities in which there was a local royal castle that could provide them with protection in the event of attacks from the majority Christian population. Royal protection was usually granted as the Norman and Angevin kings had determined that Jewish property and debts owed to Jews ultimately belonged to the crown, reverting to the king on a Jew's death. Richard I was crowned King in 1189 and announced his intention to join the Crusades; this inflamed anti-Jewish sentiment. Rumours began to spread that the king had ordered that the English Jews be attacked. In York, tensions broke out into violence the following year. Richard de Malbis, who owed money to the powerful Jewish merchant Aaron of Lincoln, exploited an accidental house fire to incite a local mob to attack the home and family of a recently deceased Jewish employee of Aaron in York. Josce of York, the leader of the Jewish community, led the local Jewish families into the royal castle, where they took refuge in the wooden keep. The mob surrounded the castle, and when the constable left the castle to discuss the situation, the Jews, fearing the entry of the mob or being handed over to the sheriff, refused to allow him back in. The constable appealed to the sheriff, who called out his own men and laid siege to the keep. The siege continued until 16 March when the Jews' position became untenable. Their religious leader, Rabbi Yomtob, proposed an act of collective suicide to avoid being killed by the mob, and the castle was set on fire to prevent their bodies being mutilated after their deaths. Several Jews perished in the flames but the majority took their own lives rather than give themselves up to the mob. A few Jews did surrender, promising to convert to Christianity, but they were killed by the angry crowd. Around 150 Jews died in total in the massacre. The keep was rebuilt, again in wood, on the motte.
King John used York Castle extensively during his reign, using the keep as his personal quarters for his own security. During this period, the first records of the use of the castle as a jail appeared, with references to prisoners taken during John's Irish campaigns being held at York Castle. By the 13th century there was a well-established system of castle-guards in place, under which various lands around York were granted in return for the provision of knights and crossbowmen to assist in protecting the castle. Henry III also made extensive use of the castle, but during his visit at Christmas 1228 a gale destroyed the wooden keep on the motte. The keep was apparently not repaired, and a building for the king's use was built in the bailey instead. In 1244, when the Scots threatened to invade England, King Henry III visited the castle and ordered it to be rebuilt in white limestone, at a cost of about £2,600. The work was carried out between 1245 and 1270, and included the construction of a towered curtain wall, a gatehouse of considerable size with two large towers, two smaller gatehouses, a small watergate, a small gateway into the city, a chapel, and a new stone keep, first known as the King's, later Clifford's, Tower. Henry III extended the castle's role as a jail for holding a wide range of prisoners. The sheriff was responsible for the jail at this time, and his deputy usually took the role of a full-time jailer. Up to three hundred and ten prisoners were held in the castle at any one time. The conditions in which prisoners were held were "appalling", and led to the widespread loss of life amongst detainees. Prison escapes were relatively common, and many of them, such as the break-out by 28 prisoners in 1298, were successful. When the Military Order of the Knights Templar was dissolved in England in 1307, York Castle was used to hold many of the arrested knights.
By the reign of Henry VIII, the antiquary John Leland reported that the castle was in considerable disrepair; nonetheless the water defences remained intact, unlike those of many other castles of the period. As a result of the deterioration, Henry had to be advised that the king's councillors no longer had any official residence in which to stay and work when they were in York. The castle mint was shut down after the death of Edward VI in 1553, and the castle mills were given to a local charitable hospital in 1464. The hospital was then closed during the Reformation, and the mills passed into private ownership once again. The castle continued to be used as a jail, increasingly for local felons, and a location for political executions. By the 16th century it had become traditional to execute traitors by hanging them from the top of Clifford's Tower, rather than killing them at Micklegate Bar, the usual previous location for capital punishment in York. On St George's Day in 1684 at around 10 pm, an explosion in the magazine destroyed the interior of Clifford's Tower entirely. The official explanation was that the celebratory salute from the guns on the roof had set fire to parts of the woodwork, which later ignited the magazine. Most historians, however, believe the explosion was not accidental. At the time, it was common in the city to toast the potential demolition of the "Minced Pie", as the castle was known to locals; suspiciously, some members of the garrison had moved their personal belongings to safety just before the explosion, and no-one from the garrison was injured by the event. The heat of the fire turned the limestone of the tower to its current, slightly pink, colour. The now-ruined tower was returned fully to private ownership, eventually forming part of the lands of the neighbouring house and gardens belonging to Samuel Waud. By 1701, the conditions of the county jail had become scandalous and the decision was taken to redevelop the area occupied by the old bailey.
The museum itself was founded by Dr John L. Kirk in 1938, and is housed in prison buildings which were built on the site of the castle in the 18th century, the Debtors Prison (built in 1701–05 using stone from the ruins of the castle) and the Female Prison (built 1780–85). The museum contains the following galleries. Kirkgate – a recreated Victorian Street, named after the museum's founder – was redeveloped and expanded in 2012. Toy Stories – a history of children's toys. Recreated period rooms including a Victorian parlour and a 17th-century dining room. The Cells – a display about life in the prison – was opened in 2009 in the cells of the old Debtors Prison. The former Condemned Cell, possibly once occupied by Dick Turpin, can also be visited. 1914: When the World Changed Forever – opened in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. The main entrance area is fully accessible. The museum is divided in half, with both halves arranged over three floors, linked by several staircases. There are handrails on all the stairs and seating is available around the museum. The ground floor is fully accessible on one side of the building, which includes York Castle Prison and The Sixties exhibitions. The Victorian Street, which takes up the other side of the ground floor, is accessible via a wheelchair ramp. The upper floors of the historic buildings are unfortunately not wheelchair accessible, however the 1914 galleries are now fully wheelchair accessible thanks to a new lift installed as part of the major redevelopment work that has recently been completed. The excercise yard outside the back of the museum, close to the York Castle Prison area, is fully accessible. There are two main toilet facilities in the museum both on the ground floor. These can be found on the Victorian Street and also near the Prison Cells. There is one disabled toilet in this area with baby changing facilities. They often have people showing objects to the public and they can be in a number of spaces in the museum. They could be showing anything from armour to baby clothes! You may touch these objects. York Castle Museum works on a self-led basis and they do not have an audio guide to the museum. However, you can book a guided tour of Kirkgate or the prison for groups of ten or more which may help to enhance your visit.
Location : Eye of York, York YO1 9RY
Transport: York (National Rail) then bus. Bus routes : 3, 4, 37, 42-0, 42-1, 42-2, 142, 142 and MAX 415 close by.
Opening Times : Daily 09:30 to 17:00.
Tickets : Adults £9.09; Children Free.
Tel: 01904 687687