The comprehensive gazetteer and bibliography of the medieval castles, fortifications and palaces of England, Wales, the Islands.
The listings
Other Info
Print Page 
Next Record 
Previous Record 
Back to list 

Pontefract Castle

Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;
Pomfret; Pumfreit; Ilberts; Castelli Ilberti; Tanshelf; Snorre

In the civil parish of Pontefract.
In the historic county of Yorkshire.
Modern Authority of Wakefield.
1974 county of West Yorkshire.
Medieval County of Yorkshire West Riding.

OS Map Grid Reference: SE46062236
Latitude 53.69566° Longitude -1.30388°

Pontefract Castle has been described as a certain Timber Castle, and also as a certain Masonry Castle.

There are masonry footings remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.


Pontefract Castle is situated in the town of Pontefract on an outcrop which formerly commanded two of England's principal highways: the north road and the route west over the River Aire and the Pennines. The monument consists of a single area which includes part of the site of the late Saxon cemetery and town ditch that predated the castle, the eleventh century motte and bailey castle, and the twelfth to sixteenth century enclosure castle which remained in use until the mid-seventeenth century. Archaeological remains will survive outside the area but they are not sufficiently well understood at this time to be included in the scheduling. Information on the development of the castle has been gained from a wide range of documentary sources and also from a number of partial excavations culminating in a major programme of work carried out between 1982 and 1986 by the West Yorkshire Archaeological Service. Evidence for a Christian cemetery belonging to the important tenth century royal town of Tanshelf, the Saxon forerunner of Pontefract, was found underlying the inner bailey of the castle near the eleventh century St Clement's chapel. In addition, the outer rim of a large ditch encircling the Norman motte was found by resistivity survey and is believed to have been originally part of the town ditch of the Saxon settlement though it was later modified and utilised as part of the castle defences. The first castle comprised an earthen motte, which would initially have been crowned by a timber palisade and tower, and an open area or bailey which would have contained domestic and garrison buildings and corrals for cattle and horses. The stone walls of the later inner bailey overlie the perimeter of the earlier one, showing it to have been kidney-shaped, with the motte at its southern end, and measuring c.150m from north to south by c.100m from east to west. Two of the buildings that occupied the early bailey have been found, the earliest being St Clement's chapel, the nave and chancel of which are late eleventh century, and the second surviving in part as a spiral stair and Norman arch leading into the later gunpowder store. During the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries the castle was gradually rebuilt in stone, during which time a curtain wall was constructed around the bailey. Towers were built into this wall at regular intervals, evidence for their existence being seen in the fabric of the later medieval Gascoigne and Treasurer's Towers and in the southern part of the Gatehouse Tower. A substantial part of the surviving south-west curtain is of twelfth century date, though on the north- east side, the early wall can be seen only in the foundations of the Constable Tower. In addition, excavation has revealed the site of another early tower beneath the fifteenth century kitchen. Documents also record the existence of Piper Tower dating from the earlier period, though this has not yet been definitely located. The keep was first built in stone during the first half of the thirteenth century, when the pre-existing motte was encased in stone and the gap between the two gradually filled in as the tower was built upwards. The early motte survives inside this structure. In form, the stone keep is similar to Clifford's Tower in York, its standing remains comprising three drum towers joined in a trefoil shape projecting southwards away from the inner bailey. Possibly the missing inward facing side was a fourth drum tower, but a description by John Leland written in about 1530 suggests that it may have consisted of three narrow projecting towers. In 1374 John of Gaunt ordered the keep to be heightened and descriptions dating to 1538 and 1643 indicate that, in its final form, it was three-storeyed, the upper floor being called by then the 'artelere' and the lower floors comprising either five or six rooms. Below the first floor was a basement and a postern gate led out of the south-facing tower onto the rampart. From between the south and east towers, a section of curtain wall ran to the west gate and later formed part of the west wall of an outer bailey. In addition to the heightening of the keep, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the systematic strengthening and reorganisation of the castle. This included the construction of Swillington and Constable Towers, in the ditch outside the west curtain and in the north-east curtain respectively, and also the building of King's Tower and Queen's Tower, both in the north curtain. These two towers contained royal apartments and were linked by the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century Great Hall which may itself have replaced an earlier hall to the west, the building of which then became the kitchen. Documents refer to repairs being carried out continually throughout the first half of the fifteenth century, not only to the domestic buildings but also to the defences. Gascoigne and Gatehouse Towers in particular were enlarged and strengthened and the upper and lower outer baileys appear to have been walled at this time though they may, as unenclosed or palisaded wards, have originated earlier. Very little is left standing of the outer bailey walls, though their foundations will survive below ground. The only standing remains are at the south-west corner of the lower ward, in the lower courses of the modern wall along Castle Garth, and in the more substantial remains of the barbican that was built in the fourteenth or fifteenth century beyond the west gate. A medieval road passed through the barbican and west gate before proceeding between the two outer wards and out again through the east gate. This road and the east gate are now partially overlain by Castle Garth, as are the buried remains of a building described as the King's stables. The castle was founded before 1086 by Ilbert de Lacy, lord of the Honour of Pontefract. Apart from a period of temporary dispossession by Henry I, it remained with the de Lacy family until 1194 when it devolved through the female line to Roger fitzEustace. However, a condition of Roger's inheritance was that he adopt the name de Lacy. It thus continued in the de Lacy line until 1311 when Roger's great-grandson Henry died without a male heir. Through Henry's daughter Alice it passed by marriage to Thomas of Lancaster, nephew of Edward I. Thomas's opposition to his cousin Edward II culminated in his execution for treason in 1322, after which his lands were seized by the king. A faction led by Thomas's brother Henry deposed Edward in 1327, after which Henry received his brother's titles and estates, passing them on to his son Henry who was made the first Duke of Lancaster by Edward III in 1351. After Henry's death the Lancaster estates passed to Edward III's third son, John of Gaunt, through his marriage to Henry's daughter Blanche. In this way, in 1399, after Richard II was deposed and succeeded as king by John's son Henry Bolingbroke, Pontefract became a royal castle. Following a period of continuous rebuilding that coincided with the Wars of the Roses, it gradually fell into decay during the sixteenth century when the only new building appears to have been the construction of the Elizabethan chapel. Between 1618 and 1620, the future Charles I paid out of his own purse for substantial repairs to be carried out, an investment which benefited him greatly during the ensuing Civil War. At this time the castle housed a substantial Royalist garrison and successfully withstood three prolonged sieges before finally surrendering in 1649. Afterwards it was systematically dismantled by Parliament but still remains the property of the Queen through the Duchy of Lancaster. (Scheduling Report)

The Swillington Tower, to the north of the castle, was a freestanding tower linked to the castle by a walkway with a drawbridge. This is an unique English example of such a tower. The tower can be identified as being built in 2-6 years of Henry IV (1400-1404) but the work was probably supervised and, maybe, planned in detail, by the constable, Robert Waterton although the master mason was Robert de Gamelston (Rogers 2013). Waterton had service both with John of Gaunt and his son, Henry of Bolingbroke, later Henry IV. Gaunt had a close association with Spain assuming the title of King of Castile and León in 1371. Henry (and Waterton) spent considerable time in the Baltic in the 1390s. It may, therefore, be that the Swillington Tower takes its architectural inspiration for either the torre albarrana, a form of tower considered to be of Almohad origin and, otherwise, found only in Iberia or the Dansker towers of some Baltic castles. However, since the function of the Swillington tower seems to be really a private retreat rather than either a defensive tower as in torre albarrana or as a latrine like Dansker towers it is not possibly to be certain as to where the inspiration comes from. Gatehouse suspects both tower forms were an inspiration.
Links to archaeological and architectural databases, mapping and other online resources

Data >
PastScape   County HER   Scheduling        
Maps >
Streetmap   NLS maps   Where's the path   Old-Maps      
Data/Maps > 
Magic   V. O. B.   Geology   LiDAR   Open Domesday  
Air Photos > 
Bing Maps   Google Maps   Getmapping   ZoomEarth      
Photos >
CastleFacts   Geograph   Flickr   Panoramio      

Sources of information, references and further reading
Most of the sites or buildings recorded in this web site are NOT open to the public and permission to visit a site must always be sought from the landowner or tenant.
It is an offence to disturb a Scheduled Monument without consent. It is a destruction of everyone's heritage to remove archaeological evidence from ANY site without proper recording and reporting.
Don't use metal detectors on historic sites without authorisation.
The information on this web page may be derived from information compiled by and/or copyright of Historic England, County Historic Environment Records and other individuals and organisations. It may also contain information licensed under the Open Government Licence. All the sources given should be consulted to identify the original copyright holder and permission obtained from them before use of the information on this site for commercial purposes.
The author and compiler of Gatehouse does not receive any income from the site and funds it himself. The information within this site is provided freely for educational purposes only.
The bibliography owes much to various bibliographies produced by John Kenyon for the Council for British Archaeology, the Castle Studies Group and others.
Suggestions for finding online and/or hard copies of bibliographical sources can be seen at this link.
Minor archaeological investigations, such as watching brief reports, and some other 'grey' literature is most likely to be held by H.E.R.s but is often poorly referenced and is unlikely to be recorded here, or elsewhere, but some suggestions can be found here.
The possible site or monument is represented on maps as a point location. This is a guide only. It should be noted that OS grid references defines an area, not a point location. In practice this means the actual center of the site or monument may often, but not always, be to the North East of the point shown. Locations derived from OS grid references and from latitude longitiude may differ by a small distance.
Further information on mapping and location can be seen at this link.
Please help to make this as useful a resource as possible by contacting Gatehouse if you see errors, can add information or have suggestions for improvements in functality and design.
Help is acknowledged.
This record last updated 02/08/2017 08:34:53

Home | Books | Links | Fortifications and Castles | Other Information | Help | Downloads | Author Information | Contact