As landmarks go, Clifford’s Tower is pretty impressive.

The stone keep of York Castle, the building stands on a mound of earth known as a motte, giving it a superb vantage point over the surrounding town. Its French-style four-leaf-clover tower looks out across the 21st century city, offering panoramic views to thousands of visitors from across the world.

Originally built by William the Conquerer in the 1250s, during the reign of King Henry III, it is almost all that remains of York’s royal castle, the seat of power in the north. Subsequent kings held parliaments here, and further uses include a prison and a royal mint.

We joined a snake of tourists climbing a steep flight of steps towards its impressive entrance, decorated with the arms of Charles l and Henry Clifford, 5th Earl of Cumberland, who was constable of the castle.

The building is a shell, its reconstructed interior present only in the guide book. An inventory of the contents, compiled in the late 17th century lists among other items, more than 1,000 muskets, ammunition, and 16 guns.

From 17th century drawings it is known that a central square tower existed, taller than the outer walls, its roof serving as a gun platform during and after the Civil War.

The tower’s interior offers a taste of what it would have been like to be holed up there, either as a prisoner or as a citizen taking refuge - the structure was used for both purposes.

The darkest chapter in the history of York’s Jewish community took place in March 1190 when a wave of anti-Semitic riots culminated in the death of around 150 Jews - who had sought refuge there.

The Jews realised that they could not hold out against their attackers, so decided to meet their deaths by their own hands. They set fire to their possessions, which led to the destruction of the timber tower.

Walking around inside the tower, without internal walls, among a handful of other visitors, gives an idea as to how challenging it must have been for between 20 and 40 families - to shelter there while living in fear.

The planting of daffodils - whose six-pointed shape echoes the Star of David - on the tower mound, provides an annual memorial around the anniversary of the deaths. A plaque, installed in 1978, can be seen at the foot of the building.

Each spring , when the daffodils are in bloom, the tower looks stunning, surrounded by a sea of yellow.

Last year a blue plaque was unveiled at Clifford's Tower to Robert Aske who led a rebellion against Henry VIII.

Aske was the leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace - the northern rebellion against the king's dissolution of the monasteries - and in his efforts to restore Catholic monasteries and worship, he would challenge Henry VIII and, in 1537, died on the gallows at Clifford’s Tower.

Inside the tower - which is managed by English Heritage - there is an interesting scale model of the original building and how it would have looked as part of York Castle.

Visitors can climb to the top of the perimeter wall, where guards would once have patrolled. The walk is lower than the original, but protruding paving stones show where the old floor level would have been. Children love it up there, shooting imaginary enemies as they peer over.

Views extend across York’s medieval streets to York Minster and, in the distance the North York Moors.

For much of the 14th and 15th centuries, Clifford's Tower was used as treasury, exchequer, mint, jail and seat of royal power. The precise date for the establishment of a mint is unknown, but it is recorded as having been rebuilt in 1353 and 1423. The latter ties in with a record of London goldsmith and master of the King’s mint Bartholomew Seman being authorized to coin at York and Bristol.

During the Civil War (1642-9), the tower was held by the royalists while the city was under siege.

In 1684 the tower was reduced to a shell after a fire. Eventually, most of the castle buildings were swept away when a new prison and court were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, leaving Clifford's Tower as the principal surviving remnant of York Castle.

There’s a small shop inside the tower selling memorabilia. It is worth investing in a guide book, which contains a ‘tour’ of the building, pinpointing numbered sections, with an explanation.

Hot and cold drinks, sweets and chocolate are available from a vending machine, but there are no toilets at the attraction.

Clifford’s Tower stands in the historic heart of the city, close to the River Ouse and opposite the popular Castle Museum, making a combined visit easy.

*Clifford’s Tower, Tower Street, York YO1 9SA. W:‎

T: 01904 646940