Down on Foss Islands Road, jutting slightly out from the city walls, is a small construct hidden in plain sight. Many of us pass this building on a daily basis, and, despite it being a completely different colour to the brick surrounding it, it tends to be ignored as ‘just another old building in York’. In fact, The Red Tower, which it is named, has a torrid and bloodthirsty history.
Built in 1490, The Red Tower is so called for its red bricks, in contrast to the pale grey-white of the city walls it connects to (not for its bloody past, unfortunately.) It marks the Eastern-most point of York’s ancient defences, and originally was the end of the city walls, until it was continued at the now removed Layerthorpe Postern, forming a half-mile gap protected by The King’s Fishpool, an impassable bog, or swamp.
This swamp conjures images of fairytales more in keeping with modern fantasy narratives, as it is difficult to imagine anything not being pedestrianised, or simplified, in our modern world. It is evocative, as a nostalgic device, to imagine an ‘impassable swamp’, bringing us back to childhood and tales of knights and princesses. The fact that the swamp was artificially created as a protective measure, (and in the process eliminating more than a hundred acres of good farmland), only adds to the mystique of medieval York.
Plans for the tower were extremely unpopular with the masons who worked on the majority of the city walls, and they even sought to sabotage its construction. Head tiler for the tower, John Patrik, was forced to ask for protection from the city council, as the masons were hell-bent on halting progress on the tower, threatening the builders and tilers with mutilation, and breaking their tools, kilns and finished work. After a lengthy feud, however, in 1491, John Patrik was brutally murdered. Two leading masons, William Hindley and Christopher Homer, were charged with the crime, but were swiftly acquitted. They hid in the sanctuary of the Minster precinct and were never convicted.
The Red Tower is a Grade I listed building, and its controversy alone should secure it a place in the history books. Little is made on ‘walls walks’ or in guide books of the tower, which is a shame. Its unusual use of red brick, (incongruent to much of the city), its grisly backstory, and its unique history, lend it a apocryphal air; one that tourists would find interesting.
Not named until 1511, when it was supplied with artillery, the tower regularly fell into disrepair and was rebuilt numerous times over history, notably in 1541 and 1545. It was in ruins by 1736. It was hastily restored in 1800, when it became known as ‘Brimstone House’, as it was a gunpowder manufactory. The way that the tower appears today is a result of G F Jones’ restoration efforts in 1857-8, and a final refurbishment in 1958. Plans are currently in place to renovate the tower, and Friends of York Walls are staging a Red Tower Summer Fair on 21st July to generate interest for the project. Information can be found here.
The Red Tower is an attractive and historic building, with a colourful history, It has been left to degrade far too often over the centuries and is woefully in danger of being forgotten. For the moment, however, The Red Tower stands as testament to York’s status as an evolving, ever-changing, innovative city.