Pontefract Castle

Pontefract Castle, West Yorkshire

~ History ~

1066 ~ Following William the Conqueror's successful invasion of Saxon England, he grants lands to his most trusted Norman Lords to hold swathes of the country under control in his name.

The Norman baron Ilbert de Lacy is granted the lordship of Pontefract as well as 150 other estates throughout Yorkshire.

1070 ~ Pontefract Castle is erected by Ilbert de Lac.  Initially the castle is a wooden structure which was replaced with stone over time.

1100's ~ Robert de Lacy failed to support King Henry I during his power struggle with his brother, and so the King confiscates the castle from the family.

Roger de Lacy pays King Richard I 3,000 marks for the Honour of Pontefract, but the King retaines possession of the castle.

1199 ~ King Richard's brother and successor, King John gives de Lacy the castle in the year he ascendes the throne.

1213 ~ Roger dies and is succeeded by his eldest son, John. However, the King takes possession of Castle Donington and Pontefract Castle.The de Lacys are allowed to live in the castle

1311 ~ The castle passes by marriage to the estates of the House of Lancaster.

1322 ~ Thomas, Earl of Lancaster is 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.

The castle passes to Henry, Duke of Lancaster and subsequently to John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward III. He makes the castle his personal residence, spending vast amounts of money improving it.

1397 ~ King Richard II banishes John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, his cousin and Duke of Hereford from the country.

1399 ~ The powerful and influential John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster dies. Much of Bolingbroke's patrimony is being given away by Richard II to his favourites, including Pontefract Castle.

Henry Bolingbroke returns to England to claim his rights to the Duchy of Lancaster and the properties of his father.

When he lands at Ravenspur on the Humber he makes straight for his castle at Pontefract. Men from all over the country soon rally around the duke. Meeting with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, who has his own misgivings about the king, Henry Bolingbroke insists that his only object was to regain his own patrimony. Percy takes him at his word and declines to interfere as Henry marches on Pontefract.

The King, being in Ireland at the time, is in no position to oppose Bolingbroke who deposes King Richard and takes the crown for himself as King Henry IV.

Upon return Richard II surrenders to Henry at Flint Castle, promising to abdicate if his life is spared.  Both men then return to London, the indignant king riding all the way behind Henry. On arrival, he is imprisoned in the Tower of London

A subsequent meeting between Richard and Henry culminates in a blind rage by Richard, ordering his release from the Tower, calling his cousin a traitor. He demands to see his wife and swears revenge. Henry refuses to do anything without parliamentary approval.

When parliament meets to discuss Richard's fate, it is  unanimously accepted by lords and commons that Richard resign and Henry be crowned King Henry IV of England.

Richard is taken to Pontefract Castle. Although King Henry agrees to letting him live, this all changes when it is revealed that the earls of Huntingdon, Kent and Salisbury and Lord Despenser, and also the Earl of Rutland – all now demoted from the ranks they had been given by Richard – are planning to murder the new king and restore Richard to the throne.

Although averted, the plot highlights the danger of allowing Richard to live.

1400 ~ Richard is starved to death in captivity,his body is taken south from Pontefract and displayed in the old St Paul's Cathedral  before burial.

1405 ~ Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York is imprisoned before his execution.

1406 ~ The child King James I of Scotland is kidnapped off the coast at Flamborough Head whilst fleeing to France and imprisoned in the castle.

1415 ~ The Duke of Orleans having been wounded at Agincourt is captured following the battle and spends part of his twenty four year imprisonment in the castle.

1460 ~ Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury is executed at the castle.

1483 ~ Richard of York and future King Richard III has Earl Rivers and Lord Richard Gray imprisoned at the castle and later executed to reduce his late brother wife and queen, Elizabeth Woodville's influence at court.

1541~ During a royal tour of the provinces, King Henry VIII's fifth wife, Queen Catherine Howard, commits her first act of adultery with Sir Thomas Culpeper at Pontefract Castle, a crime for which she is later apprehended and executed without trial.

1569 ~ Mary, Queen of Scots lodges at the castle.

1644 ~ Following the fall of York Parliamentarian armies under Sir Thomas Fairfax and Colonel Lambert march on to Pontefract Castle. The siege begins on Christmas Day 1644. The attackers are unable to breach the castle defenses, and the siege is lifted after three months when Royalist forces under Sir Marmaduke Langdale win a victory at nearby Chequerfield.

1645 ~ Within a month of the Royalist garrison being relieved, a second siege begins. After a further 4 months the castle garrison finally surrender and Parliament takes control of the castle.

1648 ~  Royalist supporters under Captain W Paulden and Colonel Morris enter the castle in disguise. They surprise the defenders and seize control.

Once more Parliament gather an army and besieged the castle.

Oliver Cromwell himself arives to take personal charge. However he is forced to return to London to take charge of the trial of King Charles. After Charles is executed the garison immediately proclaimed his son king as Charles II, and mint coins with the new king's likeness.

1649 ~ Pontefract is now the final Royalist stronghold in the country to stand against Parliament. The futility of their situation is obvious, and the garrison finally surrender.

Oliver Cromwell proclaims Pontefract Castle "one of the strongest inland garrisons in the kingdom".

The mayor of Pontefract petitions on behalf of the townspeople that the castle should be destroyed. 

1649 ~ Under order of Parliament work to destroy the castle begins.


Castle Garth






Modern day Pontefract can be traced back to the Saxon times and featured in the Domesday Book, albeit as two separate villages. The two areas slowly merged and became known as Pontefract in the 12th century. The name Pontefract is taken from the Latin Pons – meaning bridge, and Fractus – meaning broken.

The castle was built on the site of an earlier Saxon fort upon a rocky spur.The elevated rocky plateau commanded great views as well as making it almost impregnable to attack.

In terms of historical importance few castles in the north cancome close to Pontefract. King Edward I referred to the castle as being the key to the north.

Today the castle lies in ruin, not due to destruction by siege, but upon order of Parliament to have it destroyed due to its strength and importance should civil war again return. A sad end to a magnificent fortress.

A must visit to any castle and historical enthusiast.