York Castle and the Mayflower Pilgrims

The ancient Roman city of York was a major site of political and religious influence in Northern England during the time period when the Separatists gathered for underground worship in the Scrooby Manor. By the dawn of the seventeenth century religious rebels were imprisoned there for challenging the authorities. York Castle is located only fifty miles to the north of Scrooby, along the Great North Road.

Author Sue Allan, the official historian of Scrooby Manor, informed me several Separatists the Scrooby group must surely have known, were confined in that prison. To the best of my knowledge, none of the future Mayflower passengers were among them; but concerns some of them might be, must have weighed heavily on them. Several of those sent to prison in York came from the neighboring community of Gainsborough. One of them, Gervase Nevil, was from Scrooby. Both men and women were sentenced to time at the York castle prison for their rebellion against the Established Church.

Searchers on the Prowl

Fears that church searchers would discover them and hand them over for sentencing and confinement to the York prison were realistic. Such concerns no doubt helped the Scrooby group strengthen their resolve to emigrate to the Lowlands. Their situation was certainly precarious, given they held their unauthorized services in property owned by the Archbishop of York. King James, head of the church, showed no tolerance for people who challenged what he and the bishops decreed should be the way church and government functioned. People who differed with his decrees risked losing their freedom and often their lives

Granddaughter Sarah at the York Castle diorama. 2017

Today the only remaining part of what was once a sprawling medieval castle complex is Clifford’s Tower. It is open to anyone who loves old castles, fascinating history and is willing to climb many steps. In 1068 William the Conqueror built the first rendition of the castle as a base for controlling Northern England.  He built it on a site first used by Roman soldiers in their push north to claim yet more land for the Roman Empire. Some of the original Roman wall around the city still stands near the York Castle.

Conflict and Tragedy

The castle built by William the Conqueror burned to the ground in the 1190 massacre of an estimated 150 Jews. When an angry mob attacked the Jews, they fled to the safety of the castle. This took place in the era of the Crusades. Tempers often flared with deadly consequences against Jewish people, as well as Muslims. Thanks to the twelfth century version of fake news and fear mongering propaganda, the Jews were vilified in part because so many non-Jewish people were deeply in debt to Jewish moneylenders. Nefarious, untrue, rumors circulated that King Richard ordered the massacre of Jews. In March of 1190 the mob set the castle on fire, killing everyone inside.  The full story is found on the British History website and History of York.

The Castle was rebuilt in the thirteenth century and included Clifford’s Tower. When completed the Castle became the site for trials each spring and summer. Prisoners awaiting their trials were kept in dungeons there. By the time the Mayflower Pilgrim story begins, the Castle was in a state of decay, but apparently the prison within it was still in use, as records confirm some of the Separatists were detained there.

Long History

For nearly a thousand years those charged with serious crimes have been confined within the York Castle complex. It wasn’t until 1780 that a new jail was built to detain female prisoners separately from men. Various historical records verify women were imprisoned here long before that. At the dawn of the twentieth century the facility was converted into a military prison, but that closed in 1929. The old Victorian prison was demolished at that time. The remaining facilities, known as the York Crown Court,  continue to be used to dispense justice for the Yorkshire area today.  It is still has holding cells for people accused of serious crimes.

Though the facilities are temporarily closed for tours, as are most public places during the Great Pause of 2020, people can learn more about this intriguing place at York Castle Museum.


Thank you for taking time to read more about the Pilgrim Journey. I hope this armchair tour of York, England inspires you until we can safely travel again when the COVID-19 situation calms down. Why not share it with a friend? Got this from a friend? You can sign up for your own free subscription at HowWiseThen. I am always looking for leads about good people making great contribution to our global village. If you have a suggestion to recommend for a future HowWiseThen blog, let me know.

I have a variety of ‘thank you’ resources waiting for you at my website.


  1. York is on my bucket list. I hope to get there while my son and his family are still living in London. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since I read the account of an uncle of my husband’s who visited there and was taken with its uniqueness and its history.

    Thank you for letting us see a glimpse through your eyes.

  2. We almost missed it in our eagerness to explore Scrooby. Fortunately for us, the host at our AirBnB encouraged us to go. It was well worth the time and effort.

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