Pontefract (or Pomfret) Castle is a castle ruin in the town of Pontefract, in West Yorkshire, England. King Richard II is thought to have died there. It was the site of a series of famous sieges during the 17th-century English Civil War. At the end of the 11th century, the modern township of Pontefract consisted of two distinct and separate localities known as Tanshelf and Kirkby. The 11th-century historian, Orderic Vitalis, recorded that, in 1069, William the Conqueror travelled across Yorkshire to put down an uprising which had sacked York, but that, upon his journey to the city, he discovered that the crossing of the River Aire at what is modern-day Pontefract had been blockaded by a group of local Anglo-Scandinavian insurgents, who had broken the bridge and held the opposite bank in force.
Such a crossing point would have been important in the town's early days, providing access between Pontefract and other settlements to the north and east, such as York. Historians believe that, in all probability, it is this historical event which gives the township of Pontefract its modern name. The name "Pontefract" originates from the Latin for "broken bridge", formed of the elements pons ('bridge') and fractus ('broken'). Pontefract was not recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book, but it was noted as Pontefracto in 1090, four years after the Domesday survey.
*** – History – ***
The castle, on a rock to the east of the town above All Saints' Church, was constructed in approximately 1070 by Ilbert de Lacy on land which had been granted to him by William the Conqueror as a reward for his support during the Norman Conquest. There is, however, evidence of earlier occupation of the site. Initially the castle was a wooden structure which was replaced with stone over time. The Domesday Survey of 1086 recorded "Ilbert's Castle" which probably referred to Pontefract Castle.
Robert de Lacy failed to support King Henry I during his power struggle with his brother, and the King confiscated the castle from the family during the 12th century. Roger de Lacy paid King Richard I 3,000 marks for the Honour of Pontefract, but the King retained possession of the castle. His successor, King John gave Lacy the castle in 1199, the year he ascended the throne. Roger died in 1213 and was succeeded by his eldest son, John. However, the King took possession of Castle Donington and Pontefract Castle. The de Lacys lived in the castle until the early 14th century. It was under the tenure of the de Lacys that the magnificent multilobate donjon was built.
In 1311 the castle passed by marriage to the estates of the House of Lancaster. Thomas, Earl of Lancaster (1278–1322) was beheaded outside the castle walls six days after his defeat at the Battle of Boroughbridge, a sentence placed on him by King Edward II himself in the great hall. This resulted in the earl becoming a martyr with his tomb at Pontefract Priory becoming a shrine. It next went to Henry, Duke of Lancaster and subsequently to John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward III. He made the castle his personal residence, spending vast amounts of money improving it.
*** – Richard II – ***
In the closing years of the 14th century, Richard II had banished John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford from the country and with the death of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster in 1399, much of Bolingbroke's patrimony was being given away by Richard II to his favourites. The castle at Pontefract was among such properties under threat which roused Bolingbroke to return to England to claim his rights to the Duchy of Lancaster and the properties of his father.
Act 2, scene 1, of Shakespeare's play Richard II relates Bolingbroke’s homecoming in the words of Northumberland in the speech of the eight tall ships:-
Richard II was captured by Henry Bolingbroke's supporters in August 1399 and initially imprisoned in the Tower of London. Sometime before Christmas that year he was moved to Pontefract Castle (via Knaresborough) where he remained under guard until his death, perhaps on 14 February 1400. William Shakespeare's play Richard III mentions this incident:
*** – Later History – ***
In 1536, the castle's guardian, Thomas Darcy, 1st Baron Darcy de Darcy handed over the castle to the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace, a Catholic rebellion from northern England against the rule of King Henry VIII. Lord Darcy was executed for this alleged "surrender," which the king viewed as an act of treason.
In 1541, during a royal tour of the provinces, it was alleged that King Henry's fifth wife, Queen Catherine Howard, committed her first act of adultery with Sir Thomas Culpeper at Pontefract Castle, a crime for which she was apprehended and executed without trial. Mary, Queen of Scots was lodged at the castle on 28 January 1569, travelling between Wetherby and Rotherham.
Royalists controlled Pontefract Castle at the start of the English Civil War. The first of three sieges began in December 1644 and continued until the following March when Marmaduke Langdale, 1st Baron Langdale of Holme arrived with Royalist reinforcements and the Parliamentarian army retreated. During the siege, mining and artillery caused damage and the Piper Tower collapsed as a result.
The second siege began on 21 March 1645, shortly after the end of the first siege, and the garrison surrendered in July after hearing the news of Charles I's defeat at the Battle of Naseby. Parliament garrisoned the castle until June 1648 when Royalists sneaked into the castle and took control. Pontefract Castle was an important base for the Royalists, and raiding parties harried Parliamentarians in the area.
Oliver Cromwell led the final siege of Pontefract Castle in November 1648. Charles I was executed in January, and Pontefract's garrison came to an agreement and Colonel Morrice handed over the castle to Major General John Lambert on 24 March 1649.
Following requests from the townspeople, the grand jury at York, and Major General Lambert, on 27 March Parliament gave orders that Pontefract Castle should be "totally demolished and levelled to the ground" and materials from the castle would be sold off. Piecemeal dismantling after the main organised activity of slighting may have further contributed to the castle's ruined state. It is still possible to visit the castle's 11th-century cellars, which were used to store military equipment during the civil war.
The Dunhill family had been growing liquorice at Pontefract Castle for more than a century when George Dunhill, an apothecary, added sugar to his liquorice pastilles medicines and so invented Pontefract Cakes. The early cakes were stamped with the seal of Pontefract Castle as a mark of their quality.
Liquorice had been grown in Pontefract since at least the 17th century, when people grew it in plots of land behind their houses, known as “garths”. At first, liquorice was used as medicine – for horses as well as humans! – and to make it easy to buy and store, the liquorice was made into liquorice pastilles that could be dissolved in water. When George Dunhill invented Pontefract Cakes, he started the confectionary industry in Pontefract that still continues to this day.
Jeanette Leatham was born Jeannette Cunard. The Cunards were a family that had become very rich due to their shipping business. After Jeannette married Edmund Leatham, she devoted her time to good works, supporting children’s homes as well as helping create the pleasure gardens and museum at Pontefract Castle.
The Victorian era was a time when the industrial revolution had made some people extremely rich, while others were unimaginably poor, living in terrible, filthy conditions. Because of this inequality, many people were concerned with ideas about charity and philanthropy (which means “the love of humanity”). Kind, wealthy Victorians tried to make the lives of poor people a little better by starting organisations like orphanages and charity schools as well as cultural organisations like libraries and museums.
*** – Today – ***
Little survives of what "must have been one of the most impressive castles in Yorkshire" other than parts of the curtain wall and excavated and tidied inner walls. It had inner and outer baileys. Parts of a 12th-century wall and the Piper Tower's postern gate and the foundations of a chapel are the oldest remains. The ruins of the Round Tower or keep are on the 11th-century mound. The Great Gate flanked by 14th-century semi-circular towers had inner and outer barbicans. Chambers excavated into the rock in the inner bailey possibly indicate the site of the old hall and the North Bailey gate is marked by the remains of a rectangular tower.
The castle has several unusual features. The donjon has a rare Quatrefoil design. Other examples of this type of Keep are Clifford's Tower, York and at the Château d'Étampes in France. Pontefract also has a torre albarrana, a fortification almost unknown outside the Iberian Peninsular. Known as the Swillington Tower, the detached tower was attached to the north wall by a bridge. Its purpose was to increase the defender's range of flanking fire.
Wakefield Council, who own the site, commissioned William Anelay Ltd to begin repairs on the castle in September 2015, but work stopped in November 2016 when Anelay went into administration. The Council then engaged Heritage Building & Conservation (North) Ltd, who began work on the site in March 2017. A new visitor centre and cafe were opened in July 2017; but in April 2018 the council announced that they had terminated the contract with HB&C (North) Ltd, as no work had been done since mid-March, and they had not had any reassurances that the work would restart. On Yorkshire Day 2019, the restoration was completed, and the castle was removed from Historic England's "Heritage At Risk" list.
*** – Visiting – ***
Be brave! Descend underground to their deep, dark dungeon on one of the dungeon tours. Soak in the atmosphere of this eerie subterranean space, discover the history of the dungeon and see where Civil War prisoners, left to languish, scratched their names into the rock.
From January 2020 tours will run most Fridays and every Saturday and Sunday at 1.15pm and last around 40 minutes. Please note that places are limited to 20 people per tour and Friday tours may not be available due to school bookings. Additional tours will be available during school holiday periods and on event days. Tickets are available from their visitor centre shop. Adults £3.00. Child (5-16 years) £1.50.
If you are making a special trip, please contact them in advance to confirm the tour is running that day. For group tours, please see the Groups section of their website. Please note: the tour involves going underground via steep steps with low light levels and damp conditions. Sensible footwear is strongly recommended. The dungeons are inaccessible to wheelchair users.
Purchase your tickets for their Dungeon Tours here! The tours take place at 1:15pm most Fridays, every Saturday and Sunday and last around 40 minutes. (£3.00 Adults / £1.50 Children). Pop into the Activity Zone with your little ones to take part in our free, regular craft activities or let them have a go at one of their worksheets! Want to know more about the castle? You're in the right place! The History of Pontefract Castle displays help you discover some of the fascinating stories about past residences of this once-mighty fortress.
Their friendly team are on hand to welcome you and share their knowledge of both the castle and the local area. Ask one of the team for details of what's on at the castle and a visitor map for nearby Pontefract town centre. Need some sustenance as you explore the castle? Head to The Liquorice Café who serve a range of hot and cold refreshments to make the most of your visit. The visitor centre is fully accessible to those with walking difficulties or visitors in wheelchairs. They offer free Wi-Fi throughout.
*** – Visiting – ***
Opening Hours (from 1 October to 31 March)
Opening Hours (from 1 April to 30 September):
Please click here to download their access statement.
Please click here to download a map of the castle site.
Location : Pontefract Castle, Castle Chain, Pontefract, West Yorkshire WF8 1QH
Transport: Pontefract Monkhill (National Rail) 10 minutes OR Pontefract Baghill (National Rail) 10 minutes or bus. Bus Routes : 149, 406 and 493 stop closeby.
Opening Times : see above.
Tickets : Free. See above for Dungeon Tours.
Tel: 01977 723440