Saturday, 13 September 2014

York's 'Forgotten Castle' - Baile Hill

E Ridsdale Tate Panorama of York
York Panorama: By E. Ridsdale Tate (Wikimedia)

Standing forlorn and neglected on the west side of the Ouse, 
looking enviously across to its more attractive sibling, Clifford's Tower,
 lies Old Baile: York's forgotten castle, now known as Baile Hill.

If you didn't know what you were looking at, it is easy to walk past this unassuming 8 metre mound, covered with trees, incorporated in to the City Walls, sandwiched between Baile Hill Road and Bishopgate Street, with its constant traffic, streaming over Skeldergate Bridge.

In the beautiful illustration above by E.Ridsdale Tate, it is easy to see the site of the two castles (Baile Hill is the mound on the left, Clifford's Tower to the right.)

Baile Hill from City Wall, York
Baile Hill from City Wall, York
Baile Hill, Entrance to City Walls, York
Baile Hill, Entrance to City Walls, York
In the small tower on the end of the City Wall, and the base of the mound, is an excellent information board, but many people walk or drive past oblivious, on their way to Baile Hill's much more photogenic sibling.

Both were originally timber motte and bailey castles, built by William the Conqueror between 1068 and 1069.

Baile Hill from Bishopgate Street, York
Baile Hill from Bishopgate Street, York

In 1069 there was a violent rebellion in the North of England in reaction to the Conqueror's Norman Invasion. William's response was swift, and brutal, and became known as the 'harrying of the North.' Much of the North of England was systematically ravaged and William is reputed to have ordered the death of every living thing between York and Durham. This obviously also took place in York, as the centre of the rebellion, and sixteen years later the Doomsday Chronicle reports that 940 of the City's 1400 houses remained derelict.

The two castles of York were built against this backdrop and were designed as part of a system of defences, and control, for York, the two castles protecting the City and controlling all passage North via the Ouse.

Model of Clifford's Tower, York
Model of Clifford's Tower, York

A motte and bailey design was based on a central, fortified mound, or motte, usually surrounded by an inner ditch. There was in turn an outer bailey, comprising of a timber palisade and ditch. Some of these early Norman timber castles were later rebuilt and modified in stone.

The motte of the Old Baile, as it was once known, was about 12 metres high and 66 metres in diameter, and surrounded by a large ditch. Steps would have lead up to the mound to a fortified wooden structure on top. The bailey was roughly polygonal and enclosed 500 square metres. Its perimeter also consisted of an earthen rampart and ditch, some of it incorporating the old Roman wall of Eboracum.

After the rebellion had died down, the Old Baile served as a defensive structure for a further 100 years, but gradually began to fall out of fashion in the late 1200s, no one knows exactly why, but one theory is that 'York Castle'/Clifford's Tower is better placed as a single defensive structure, being placed between the rivers Fosse and Ouse.

City Walls, York, from Baile Hill
View along outside of City Walls from Baile Hill

In about 1194, the castle was given to the Archbishop of York. This caused a dispute to arise with the people of York arguing that it was outside the City's ditches, whereas the Archbishop argued that it was the Mayor and citizens of York's responsibility to upkeep. This argument raged for over a hundred years until, in 1423 the Archbishop was sued and forced to repair the part of the City Walls known as the Old Baile. In 1466 the Archbishop gave the castle to the Mayor and people of York.

The Old Baile briefly saw military service again in 1644 during the English Civil War, when it was used by Royalist troops as a gun emplacement during the siege of York.

Meanwhile York Castle/Clifford's Tower had been rebuilt in stone and gradually developed and expanded over the years (which is another story.) 

The Old Baile went further into decline, including the mound being lowered in the 1800s to aid grazing in the area, a practise which had continued since the time of the Normans, when the enclosed space, or Bayle, was given over for this purpose, military musters, shrove Tuesday games and archery practise. 

The area was excavated in the 1970s, revealing the remains of the timber buildings and palisade, and then left to its own devices.

Baile Hill, York
On Baile Hill, inside the trees...

So if you're ever in York, and passing, please say hello to the Old Baile and its history. It is a great place to start a walk on the City Walls, and it is also possible to jump down from the wall and climb the mound, there to pause and reflect on the inequities of time, and to close one's eyes and try to sense the past of this sadly neglected part of York's history.

If you want to read more on the detail of the history of the Old Baile - see the links below, (particularly The Old Baile - British History Online

Baile Hill, York from below
Baile Hill, York from below

Thanks for reading!


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Sources and References:

City of York Information Board, Baile Hill

Further Information:


  1. What a fascinating piece.... I've often walked the walls... but either missed the interpetive board...or it wasn't there then.

    Living now, where three rivers join, the arrangement is identical. One good one remains in the centre of town where the vantage point covered the whole confluence.
    And the other two are now defunct.... one never got beyond the timber construction snd is a set of platforms.... the other is a ruin.
    Thanks for posting this.

    1. You're very welcome LaPre DelaForge - York is such a fascinating place if you love history. Where you live sounds very interesting too :)

  2. I need to check this out next time I'm there - thank you!

    1. Very welcome Mike. York is so very rich in interesting history, it's always a great place to visit :)