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Yorkshire's Castles: Pontefract Castle

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Yorkshire's Castles
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Do not let the few sad ruins and remains of Pontefract Castle deceive you - Pontefract Castle was once one of the strongest castles in the British Isles. Proof of this lies in the fact that during the Civil War, Pontefract Castle was besieged three times and only surrendered after Charles I was beheaded; indeed it was the last Royalist stronghold in England of the Civil War.

Pontefract Castle was a heavily fortified motte-and-bailey castle with two wards. The inner ward, known as the inner bailey, was a roughly egg-shaped 120 metres by 95 metres, with the keep built around the motte on the south side. On the south-east side of the castle lay an outer bailey, with a barbican protecting its west gate - whereas north of the castle lay an outer tower outside the bailey's curtain completely, joined to the rest of the castle only by a wall-walk running perpendicular to the rest of the castle wall.

The Outer Baileys

The outer bailey was rectangular and on the castle Inner Bailey's south-east side. The outer bailey was 100 metres long by 60 metres wide and helped defend the slope of the hill Pontefract Castle was on by an enclosed curtain wall. The outer bailey was divided into two halves by a wall running along the length of the bailey, splitting the outer bailey into an upper outer bailey next to the inner bailey, and the lower outer bailey below. Both halves of the bailey had southern gatehouses, both of which were simple and weak in comparison to the other gateways. The lower outer bailey no longer exists other than in the foundations of its wall in the south corner.

The upper outer bailey not only contained a gatehouse on the south wall for passage to the lower outer bailey, but also included two other gatehouses, on the east and west side. The east gate faced the nearby All Saints' Church, whereas the west gate led, through the barbican, to the town of Pontefract itself. Inside the upper outer bailey were the royal stables. The only stretch of wall left from the upper outer bailey is a stretch of masonry near the site of the east gate.

The Barbican And West Gate

The main entrance to the castle was from the west side of the castle from the town of Pontefract. In order to gain access to the west gate in the upper outer bailey a visitor would first have to traverse the barbican.

The barbican lay to the castle's west and was an almost square shaped enclose protected by a simple gateway that was 30 metres long by 25 metres wide. Much of its wall has survived and is now known as the castle chain. After this, a narrow passage 15 metres long led to the west gate.

The west gate was the main entrance into the outer barbican of the castle, and certainly the best defended. The west gate, also known as the Receiver's Tower, was a 13th Century tower that was lofty and strong, as was the east gate, although little of which remains now. It was linked to the keep by a thick wall, the thickest stretch of wall in the outer baileys.

The Inner Bailey

The inner bailey was the strongest part of the castle with exceptionally thick walls over six metres thick, made of tough yellow limestone.

The Gatehouse

There was only one gateway to the inner bailey, and that lay on the inner bailey's south-east side near Pontefract Castle's keep. The gatehouse is the nearest tower anti-clockwise from the keep. Remains of the southernmost of the gatehouse tower survive with an external buttress. The gatehouse towers date from the 1190s and were strengthened and given polygonal buttresses in the 14th Century. The tower remains show where the first floor of the gatehouse was, as well as a portcullis groove.

The Constable Tower

Anti-clockwise from the gatehouse, away from the keep, sits the constable tower. This was also known as the Blanche Tower, probably named after John of Gaunt's wife. This was just past the junction of the inner bailey wall with the eastern wall of the outer bailey wall. This tower was almost entirely rebuilt in the reign of Henry IV and is a large, square tower with thick walls projecting six metres beyond the curtain wall. This tower was extensively excavated in the 1980s, when the lowest four metres of the tower's basement foundations was uncovered. The remains of a garderobe was discovered, as well as a counter-mine shaft dating from the Civil War siege. The foundations of the tower were until recently covered in debris from the castle's demolition, but are now visible. Next to the tower was a small building that was the constable's lodging.

The Elizabethan Chapel

Alongside the wall between the constable and king's towers lie the remains of the Elizabethan Chapel. This was built around the 1570s over the remains of a smaller, earlier building and joined onto the southern corner of the king's tower, where the chapel's door lay. This, by way of a covered arcade, enabled travel between the tower and great hall. The chapel was used as a burial place during the Civil War and evidence of countermine shafts have been found within the chapel as well.

The Norman Chapel

The first of three chapels within the castle was the Norman Chapel which was built in 1085. It was originally nine metres long, consisting of a nave and chancel - although an apse on its north-eastern end, near the king's tower, was later added. The chapel was left to decay and was later replaced by a newer chapel in 1499, a chapel which in turn was replaced by the Elizabethan Chapel.

The Great Hall

The great hall on the castle's north-east corner on the point of the egg-shaped bailey was the main domestic building in the castle, and its two adjoining towers, the king's tower and queen's tower contained the castle's Royal apartments. Although little remains of the great hall or the two towers, the towers are known to have been 12 metres square, similar in design to the constable's tower. They were over 18 metres tall, containing five storeys.

Next to the Great Hall are the remains of the privy kitchen. Between the queen's tower and the Swillington tower lay a turret above the castle wall defending the curtain wall on this side.

Swillington Tower

A curious aspect of Pontefract Castle is the Swillington tower on the castle's north side. This was not actually situated on the castle's curtain wall, although a stretch of wall led from the bailey's curtain wall to the Swillington tower, which stood alone 30 metres down the hill from the rest of the castle. This tower was named after John of Gaunt's steward, Sir Robert Swillington, and was built during the reign of Henry IV. It was originally a 13-metre square tower of two storeys and battlements above, but the tower was cut in half in 1810 in order for the road beside it, North Baileygate, to be widened.

The Kitchen

On the castle's south-east side are the remains of the kitchen complex. Here, on the curtain wall, was originally a tower that was removed when the kitchens were fully developed, possibly because of subsidence to the tower's foundations. The remains of the kitchen, bakehouse and brewhouse survive, although the range's other service buildings that linked to the Great Hall, the privy kitchen, larder and store rooms, no longer exist.

The kitchen buildings contains several ovens and fireplaces, as well as garderobes. Above the brewhouse lay the steward's lodgings. In the middle of the kitchen complex lay another tower, the treasurer's tower, which was of early medieval construct.

Gascoigne Tower

Between the kitchen and the keep lay another two towers, the small piper tower, which was destroyed during the Civil War siege and contained a well, and the Gascoigne tower. The Gascoigne tower was an early medieval building, although it was rebuilt, strengthened and expanded in the 15th Century. This tower protected the sallyport. The sallyport was a gateway through the six-metre thick castle wall, and was defended by three drawbars.

The Keep

Pontefract Castle's keep is of an unusual and unique design, though its exact original shape is still the subject of debate.

Although Pontefract Castle began as a motte-and-bailey castle, unlike most other motte-and-bailey castles (such as Pickering), Pontefract Castle's keep enclosed the motte itself in a series of six irregularly-sized lobes giving the keep the shape of a flower's petals (as opposed to the castle developing a shell keep on the motte's summit). Three of these lobes survive on the keep's southern side whereas the three smaller northern lobes no longer exist, and their exact shape is unknown. Their existence is known John Leland's 1530 description of the castle which asserts that the keep was 'cast into six roundells, three bigge and three smaull.'

The keep's unusual shape may well have been inspired by Chateau Gaillard in France which Roger de Lacy, founder of Pontefract Castle, spent much time at during the war in France from 1201 - 1204. Clifford's Tower in York, though, is also a lobed keep. Its four lobes was built around the same time as Pontefract Castle, but it's not known which was built first.

The keep was also known as the round tower and is over 30 metres across. Although only a latrine pit, staircase on the east side and the three lobes survive, a survey from 1538 describes the keep. It states that the keep had three storeys and on the ground floor had six rooms - presumably one in each lobe - although the other floors appear to have had five. The top storey was added under the ownership of John of Gaunt in 1374 and was supported from beneath by stone vaults. This enabled it to bear the weight of cannon, which meant it was known as the artelere (artillery). Where the lobes merged on the top storey, bartizan turrets projected. These gave the castle a fairytale appearance - as a painting from 1630, as well as the 1560 survey drawing, depict.


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 Eadred1 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 Prince2, 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 Constance3, 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 Bolingbroke4 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 5:5


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 Rivers6 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 York7 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.

The castle remains a park today.

1King of England 946 - 955, son of Edward The Elder by his third wife Eadgifu, younger brother of Edmund The Magnificent and grandson of Alfred The Great.2Edward, The Black Prince's first son died in 1372 aged eight.3John of Gaunt also had a mistress Katherine Swynford, whom he married after Constance's death. His great-great-grandson by Katherine Swynford would later become King Henry VII.4Named after Bolingbroke Castle where he was born, and not his title.5During Elizabethan times Pontefract was known as 'Pomfret'.6Anthony Woodville, Captain of the Isle of Wight and Carisbrooke Castle, brother to Queen Elizabeth and uncle of Edward V.7Father of both Edward IV and Richard III.

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