York Plaques

The Red Tower

Location of plaque: On the Red Tower, at the termination of the city wall at Foss Islands Road.

THE wording on the rather old and venerable plaque attached to the Red Tower is wonderful. "This Tower marks the termination of the City Wall, and at one time marked the commencement of an impassable swamp, which extended to Layerthorpe Postern," it informs the visitor.

An impassable swamp it was, too: one which dated back to the time of William the Conqueror. In 1068 he dammed the River Foss at Fishergate, raising the water level by about six feet, flooding the moat of his new castle (where Clifford's Tower now is) and creating a large lake known as the King's Fishpond. This provided a very effective defence. A much later 1610 map by John Speed shows the water spreading out over low ground to the east of the city and also some way up Tang Hall Beck, filling in the gap between the Red Tower and the resumption of the city wall at Jewbury.

The first substantial city defences to the east of the River Foss were earth ramparts and timber palisades built in the mid 1100s. The city's stone walls that we know today were built a couple of hundred years later, in the 14th century: a 1345 contract for the replacement of a timber palisade at Fishergate with a stone wall is kept in the city archive.

The Red Tower itself, however, dates from later still. Following the defeat and death of King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, there were rebellions against the new king, Henry VII. King Henry visited York several times, and ordered repairs and improvements to the city's defences. By 1490, work had begun on the Red Tower.

The tower owes its name to the fact it is the only brick-built tower to form part of the city walls. But the name is suitable. The decision to save money by building the tower out of brick rather than stone caused friction between two of York's most powerful guilds of craftsmen: the tilers (who were also bricklayers) and the masons. In 1491 a tiler, John Patrick, was murdered, and two masons, William Hindley and Christopher Horner, were charged with his murder. Neither man was convicted, however, probably reflecting the high status and influence of masons in the city compared with tilers. The tilers finished the Red Tower but no other brick towers were built.

The Red Tower was damaged by cannon fire in the Civil War during the Siege of York. It was repaired, but by the mid-1700s was part ruin, with one wall missing and no roof. It was reconstructed in 1857-8 by the architect George Fowler Jones.

More recently a community interest group was set up to run the tower following an open day there in 2014, and was granted a 30-year lease by City of York Council. Architects Holland Brown were commissioned to design a new interior, with a kitchen and WC on the ground floor and a meeting room above. The building won a York Design Award earlier this year.

The plaque on the outside of the building may or may not have been put up by York Civic Trust. No-one seems to know. But it is on the Trust's list of city plaques. Any information as to its origins would be welcome.

To read about the stories behind more Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk