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Pontefract Castle and surrounding area : A history

Pre Norman Pontefract

Even before the construction of the castle, Pontefract was an important part of what was to become Yorkshire. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Pontefract, known then as Tanshelf or 'Taddenessclyf', was a Royal residence. In 947 King Eadred held his witan, or council, in Pontefract, where Archbishop Wulfstan of York and other Northern magnates swore oaths of obedience to him. The remains of a Saxon church can also be found near Pontefract Castle. Evidence that Pontefract was a well-defended town has been discovered by the presence of a ditch that runs near the bottom of the keep. It believed that Pontefract's Norman motte-and-bailey castle adapted this Saxon defence in order to strengthen its position.

The Wooden Castle and its Lords

After the Norman Conquest Pontefract was the centre of an honour - or lordship - of 162 manors, a vast area designed by William The Bastard to give those in the North of England sufficient power and wealth to combat the threat of invasion from the Scots. Pontefract was given to Ilbert de Lacy in 1076 and by the time of the Domesday Book of 1086 the early, wooden motte-and-bailey castle had been constructed. After Ilbert de Lacy's death in 1093 his son Robert de Lacy inherited it. However in 1106 Roger was lost it at the hands of Henry I following a rebellion in which Henry's elder brother Robert - who had been on the Holy Land on a crusade - returned to England to unsuccessfully challenge for the throne.

Henry I then granted Pontefract to Hugh de Laval (who died in 1129) and, on his death, to William Maltravers, who was murdered in 1135. By this time King Stephen had claimed the throne and returned it to the de Lacy family, to Ilbert's son Ilbert de Lacy. On his death in 1131 his brother Henry de Lacy succeeded, and in 1152 Henry founded Kirkstall Abbey, near Leeds. It is believed that either he or his son Robert, who succeeded in 1177, began work on constructing the castle in stone, building the inner bailey and its square towers.

The Last de Lacys

On Robert de Lacy's death in 1194 the castle was inherited by his aunt's great-grandson Roger Fitz-Eustace, Constable of Cheshire, on the condition that he adopted the de Lacy name. Despite being inherited by Roger de Lacy the castle was not in his possession until 1199 on the death of Richard The Lionheart who had maintained it for his own use. Under the reign of King John, Robert de Lacy was commander of Chateau Gaillard between 1201 - 1204, and it is believed that on his return he began work on constructing Pontefract Castle's unique keep.

On Roger de Lacy's death in 1211 his son John de Lacy inherited the castle. John was one of the Barons that forced King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 and inherited the title Earl of Lincoln by marriage under Henry III.

On John's death in 1240 the castle was inherited by his son Edmund de Lacy who held the castle until 1258. Then his son Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, held the castle until his death in 1311.

Thomas Earl of Lancaster

When Henry de Lacy died in 1311 he had no male heirs to succeed him, his only child being his daughter Alice. Alice was married to Thomas Earl of Lancaster.

Thomas, Earl of Lancaster was the son of Henry III's second son Edmund Crouchback and Lord of nearby Pickering Castle. He was also King Edward II's cousin and through the inheritance of both the Earldom of Lancaster and the Honour of Pontefract was a very powerful man.

Thomas, Earl of Lancaster was initially one of Edward II's chief advisors but later opposed him, hating the King's favourite, Piers Gaveston. In 1312 Thomas, Earl of Lancaster was one of the barons who besieged Piers Gaveston in Scarborough Castle.

His marriage to Alice de Lacy was not a success. In 1317, John de Warenne of nearby Conisbrough and Sandal Castles allowed his squire to help Alice de Lacy escape from Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in revenge divorced Alice and then besieged Sandal and Conisbrough castles. Although Edward II ordered Thomas to end this private war Thomas captured and retained Conisbrough and Sandal Castle until his death.

In 1321 Thomas, Earl of Lancaster rose in open opposition to Edward II at the beginning of a five-year period of Civil War. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster was defeated in March 1322 at the Battle of Boroughbridge, imprisoned at Pontefract Castle and executed.

Henrys of Lancaster

On the death of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, Pontefract Castle and all the Lancaster lands were confiscated by Edward II. Having no heirs due to the failure of his marriage to Alice de Lacy, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster's brother Henry allied himself with Edward II's wife Isabella, daughter of Phillip IV of France, and in 1326 revolted against Edward II. Edward was captured at Kenilworth on 16 November and in September, 1327 was murdered at Berkeley Castle, with his son Edward III proclaimed king. As a reward for his service against Edward II, Henry regained the Lancaster estates.

On Henry's death in 1345 his son, Henry, inherited Pontefract Castle. He served faithfully during Edward III's wars in France and Scotland, and in 1351 was given the unprecedented honour of being made Duke of Lancaster, the first English Duke. On his death in 1361, as he had no male heirs, the castle passed to his daughter Blanche, who was married to Edward III's fourth son, John of Gaunt.

John of Gaunt

John of Gaunt - founder of the House of Lancaster that was to cause such problems during the Wars of the Roses - set about improving Pontefract Castle. In 1374 the keep was heightened and the curtain wall strengthened. During this time it is believed that Chaucer regularly visited Pontefract Castle.

As Edward III's eldest son, Edward The Black Prince, died in 1377, one year before Edward III, Edward III's grandson and second son of The Black Prince, Richard II, became king. Richard II was ten when he inherited the throne and throughout his reign John of Gaunt was the richest man in England. On the death of Blanche, John of Gaunt married Constance, heir and daughter of Peter I, King of Castile and Leon, and became King of Castile in his own right.

In 1381 the Lollardy rebellions spread across England and John of Gaunt's Palace of the Savoy was destroyed. John of Gaunt was not on the best of terms with his nephew at this time and in 1382 garrisoned Pontefract Castle ready for war with his nephew. Fortunately during his lifetime this never came. John of Gaunt died in February 1399.

Henry Of Bolingbroke

John of Gaunt's son, Henry of Bolingbroke should have inherited the Honour of Pontefract and Dukedom of Lancaster on his father's death - yet Richard II had Henry banished and claimed all the Lancaster lands for himself.

In response, Henry Bolingbroke returned to England in July 1399. After gathering support from his castles at Pickering, Knaresborough and Pontefract, by August Henry had seized Chester. Henry then travelled with Richard II to London, where on 30 September a document was signed proclaiming that Richard had abdicated and proclaimed Henry as King Henry IV. Richard II was then held prisoner at Leeds Castle, Kent, before being moved to three castles in Yorkshire: Pickering Castle, Knaresborough Castle and finally Pontefract Castle. Richard II was murdered in Pontefract Castle in 1400.

The murder of King Richard II is described in William Shakespeare's Richard II Act 5 scenes 4 and 5:


Didst thou not mark the King, what words he spake?

"Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?"

...And speaking it, he wishtly looked on me,

As who should say "I would thou wert the man

That would divorce this terror from my heart",

Meaning the King at Pomfret. Come, let's go.

I am the King's friend, and will rid his foe.

Before The Civil War

On the accession of Henry IV, Pontefract became a royal castle and it is still sovereign property. Pontefract Castle was often used as a prison.

James I of Scotland was imprisoned at Pontefract Castle, as was Charles, Duc d'Orleans after the Battle of Agincourt. On Richard III's accession to the throne in 1483 he had Sir Richard Grey, Sir Thomas Vaughan and Earl Rivers carried to Pontefract Castle and executed.

This is described in Shakespeare's Richard III, Act 3 Scene 3 where Pontefract Castle is described as

"O Pomfret, Pomfret! O thou bloody prison,

Fatal and ominous to noble peers!

Within the guilty closure of thy walls,

Richard II here was hacked to death."


Pontefract also played a part in the The Wars Of The Roses, most noticeably during 1460 when a force from Pontefract Castle attacked Richard, Duke of York at his castle at Sandal at the Battle of Wakefield. Edward IV also stayed at Pontefract Castle on his way to the Battle of Towton nearby.

Under Henry IV and Henry VI the castle was gradually expanded and repaired, and from 1618 - 1620 Prince Charles, who was to become Charles I on the death of his father James I, also had it repaired.

The Civil War

When the Civil War broke out in 1642 Pontefract Castle supported the king. The initial years of the war took place outside the region, and it was not until Christmas Day 1644 that the castle was besieged. On 17 January Parliament began bombarding the castle with cannon. The bombardment concentrated on the south-west side. The bombardment lasted five days, during which the small piper tower was destroyed - yet the castle suffered no other damage. After a recorded 1,367 shots against the castle, the bombardment ceased except for a few stray shots on the 22 January.

The parliamentary army then attempted to mine beneath the castle walls. Although the castle's defenders dug countermines the mineshafts failed to penetrate the castle due to the solid rock on which it was built. On 1 March, 1645 the siege ended when Sir Marmaduke Langdale defeated the besieging army at the Battle of Chequerfield.

Despite this victory, on 11 March the parliamentary army returned to besiege the castle again. This time, the besieging army built an encircling series of earthwork forts and redoubts. The defenders were restricted to the castle and All Saints' Church nearby. A trench between the castle and church was built by the defenders, but eventually starvation inside the castle forced the royalist force inside to surrender on 19 June.

The castle remained in the hands of parliamentary troops for three years until 1648, when the Civil War flared up again. Under Colonel John Morris the castle was recaptured by royalists posing as bed collectors. The royalists in the castle took advantage of the distraction caused by Duke Hamilton's Scottish Presbyterian army by raiding as far as Lincolnshire, and Doncaster, where they killed Roundhead Colonel Rainsborough.

After the defeat of Duke Hamilton at the Battle of Preston the main parliamentary army under Cromwell and Major General Lambert arrived at Pontefract. Cromwell assessed the castle's defences and wrote:


[Pontefract Castle] is very well-known as one of the strongest inland garrisons in the kingdom; well-watered; situated on rock in every part of it; and therefore difficult to mine. The walls are very thick and high, with strong towers; and if battered, very difficult of access, by reason of the depth and steepness of the graft.

Once again the castle was surrounded by a ring of artillery positions and besieged for five months before the defenders were forced to surrender on 24 March, 1649, two months after Charles I was beheaded on 30 January, 1649.

Pontefract Castle was the last Royalist stronghold in England to surrender.

After The Civil War

Three days after the surrender of Pontefract Castle, parliament ordered its demolition. This cost only £800. The only part of the castle to survive was the barbican's guard house, which was used as a prison for debtors and French prisoners of war in 1673.

By 1720 the castle was hired to Dunhills in order to cultivate, harvest and store liquorice. Indeed, to this day Pontefract cakes (liquorice coins) bear a picture of Pontefract Castle. The castle was considered an unwanted part of the town and was almost used as a cemetery. It was not until 1881 that it became a park and had an open air museum of various unusual artefacts.

During the Second World War the castle was once more became part of the nation's defence when it was used as an anchorage for barrage balloons.


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Last Updated 24th March 2020