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What Is York Castle?

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  • Written By: K. Kinsella
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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York castle is an historic site located in the northwest of England that dates back to the 11th century. Originally built as a fortress during the reign of the Norman King William the Conqueror, the castle is now a popular tourist destination. While British castles are typically single buildings, York castle consists of a complex of different structures that were built and redeveloped at various points over its thousand year history.

The city of York was first established as a major settlement during Roman times but it remained without a castle until after the Norman invaders overthrew England's Viking overlords. In 1068, King William ordered the construction of a series of fortresses across the north of England and these structures were designed to consolidate the French King's grip on the nation. Like many buildings at the time, York castle was initially built out of wood and within a year, work began on a second and larger structure in the castle complex. Both buildings were damaged by fire during a revolt and these structures were replaced with new buildings that were also largely constructed from timber. The wooden structures were destroyed by fire once again towards the end of the 12th century, when a mob of local peasants burned down the castle in an effort to kill a community or Jewish settlers who had taken refuge there.

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During the 13th century, King William II ordered the city's people to rebuild York castle with stone. Clifford's Tower, which still stands today, is part of the complex that was built during the reign of William II. It is named after a Norman traitor named Roger de Clifford who was hanged in its grounds during 1322. During the reign of King Henry VIII, the body of another infamous traitor named Robert Aske was displayed at Clifford's Tower as a warning to others who may have been planning to revolt against the crown. Thereafter, the buildings were quarried for a number of years before local civic leaders intervened and reconstruction work began that continued on and off over the course of the next 400 years.

During the 18th century, York castle was used as a prison and a century later, it was converted into a military barracks before being re-designated for use as an army prison. In 1935, the prison was closed and many of the structures on the site were demolished. Three years later, a museum opened on the site and visitors can now tour the remnants of the stone castle and the prison buildings.

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