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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Also known as, or recorded in historical documents as;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 West Riding.
Modern Authority of Wakefield.
1974 county of West Yorkshire.

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)
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Sources of information, references and further reading
  • Websites (Gatehouse is not responsible for the content of external websites.)
  • Books
    • Goodall, John, 2011, The English Castle 1066-1650 (Yale University Press) passim
      Roberts, Ian, 2005, The medieval cellar at Pontefract castle with details of Civil War inscriptions (West Yorkshire Archaeology Service)
      Turner, Maurice, 2004, Yorkshire Castles: Exploring Historic Yorkshire (Otley: Westbury Publishing) passim
      Roberts, Ian, 2002, Pontefract Castle: Archaeological excavations 1982-86 (West Yorkshire Archaeology Service; Yorkshire Archaeology 8)
      Salter, Mike, 2001, The Castles and Tower Houses of Yorkshire (Malvern: Folly Publications) p. 72-5
      Ingham, Bernard, 2001, Bernard Ingham's Yorkshire Castles (Dalesman) p. 50-1
      Pettifer, A., 1995, English Castles, A guide by counties (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) p. 306-7
      Furtado, Peter et al (eds), 1988, Ordnance Survey guide to castles in Britain (London) p. 202
      Fox, G., 1987, The Three seiges of Pontefract Castle (A compilation of C19 works)
      Dockrill, S.J., Gater, J.A. and Hill, J.J., 1983, 'A resistivity survey at Pontefract Castle, West Yorkshire' in J A Pocock (ed), Geophysical surveys 1982 (Bradford: University, School of Archaeological Sciences) p. 187–94
      King, D.J.C., 1983, Castellarium Anglicanum (London: Kraus) Vol. 2 p. 523
      Ryder, P.F., 1982 (paperback edn 1992), The Medieval Buildings of Yorkshire (Ash Grove Book) p. 87-107
      Fry, P.S., 1980, Castles of the British Isles (David and Charles) p. 276-9
      Colvin, H.M., Ransome, D.R. and Summerson, John, 1975, The history of the King's Works Vol. 3: 1485-1660 (part 1) (London) p. 287-90
      Renn, D.F., 1973 (2 edn.), Norman Castles of Britain (London: John Baker) p. 281
      Garlick, Tom, 1972, Yorkshire Castles (Dalesman) p. 22
      Knowles, David and Hadcock, R.Neville, 1971, Medieval religious houses in England and Wales (Longman) p. 435
      Colvin, H.M., Brown, R.Allen and Taylor, A.J., 1963, The history of the King's Works Vol. 2: the Middle Ages (London: HMSO) p. 781-3
      Pevsner, N., 1959, Buildings of England: Yorkshire: West Riding (London, Penguin) p. 394
      Toy, Sidney, 1953, The Castles of Great Britain (Heinemann) p. 123-5 (exceptionally misleading)
      Illingworth, J.L., 1938 (republished 1970), Yorkshire's Ruined Castles (Wakefield) p. 78-81
      Ellis, A.S., 1919, 'Picture of Pontefract castle at Hampton Court Palace' Miscellanea VII (Thoresby Society 24) p. 1-5 (on an early painting of the castle)
      Evans, Herbert A., 1912, Castles of England and Wales (London) p. 161-71
      Armitage, Ella, 1912, The Early Norman Castles of the British Isles (London: John Murray) p. 187-190 online copy
      Armitage and Montgomerie, 1912, in Page, Wm (ed), VCH Yorkshire Vol. 2 p. 35-6
      Harvey, Alfred, 1911, Castles and Walled Towns of England (London: Methuen and Co)
      Mackenzie, J.D., 1896, Castles of England; their story and structure (New York: Macmillan) Vol. 2 p. 240-6 online copy
      Holmes, R., 1887, The Sieges of Pontefract Castle (Pontefract)
      Clark, G.T., 1884, Mediaeval Military Architecture in England (Wyman and Sons) Vol. 2 p. 375-88 online copy
      Holmes, R., 1878, Pontefract its Name, Lords, and Castle (Pontefract) esp p. 57-247
      Timbs, J. and Gunn, A., 1872, Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales Vol. 3 (London) p. 184-6 online copy
      Grainge, W., 1855, Castles and Abbeys of Yorkshire p. 33-49 online copy
      Fox, G., 1827, History of Pontefract in Yorkshire (Pontefract) esp p. 84-266 online copy
      Boothroyd, B., 1807, History of the Ancient Borough of Pontefract (Pontefract) (history only and not very accurate) online copy
      King, Edward, 1782, Observations on Antient Castles (London) p. 135-40
      Buck, Samuel and Nathaniel, 1774, Buck's Antiquities (London) Vol. 2 p. 336
  • Periodical Articles
    • 2014 Sept, '£3m grant to open up Pontefract Castle's history' Castle Studies Group Bulletin Vol. 18 p. 13 (news report)
      Rogers, Alan, 2013, 'Building Accounts for Pontefract Castle, Michaelmas 1406-Michaelmas 1407' Journal of British Archaeology Assocation Vol. 166 p. 140-156
      2012, 'Pontefract Castle project funding success' Castle Studies Group Bulletin Vol. 14 p. 7
      Creighton, O.H., 2010, 'Room with a View: Framing Castles Landscapes' Château Gaillard Vol. 24 p. 37-49 (slight)
      Constable, Chris, 2007, 'Earthwork castles in West Yorkshire Part Two' Archaeology and Archives in West Yorkshire Vol. 24 p. 5-6 online copy
      Constable, Chris, 2006, 'Earthwork castles in West Yorkshire' Archaeology and Archives in West Yorkshire Vol. 23 p. 5-6 online copy
      Burton, Peter A., 2005-6, 'Pontefract and Castles in Spain' Castle Studies Group Journal Vol. 19 p. 239-44
      Anon, 2005, 'Pontefract Castle' Castle Studies Group Newsletter Vol. 7 p. 3
      Speight, Sarah, 2004, ''Religion in the Bailey: Charters, Chapels and the Clergy' Château Gaillard Vol. 21 p. 271-80
      1999, Forum CBA Group 4 Newsletter
      Harfield, C.G., 1991, 'A Hand-list of Castles Recorded in the Domesday Book' English Historical Review Vol. 106 p. 371-392 view online copy (subscription required)
      Roberts, I., 1990, Forum CBA Group 4 Newsletter
      Wilmott, T., 1987, 'Pontefract' Current Archaeology 9.11 p. 340–4
      Youngs et al, 1987, 'Medieval Britain in 1986' Medieval Archaeology Vol. 31 p. 172-3 online copy
      Thompson, M.W., 1986, 'Associated monasteries and castles in the Middle Ages: a tentative list' The Archaeological Journal Vol. 143 p. 310
      1985, 'Medieval Britain in 1984' Medieval Archaeology Vol. 29 p. 208-9 online copy
      Moorhouse, S., 1984-5, CBA Group 4 Yorkshire Archaeological Register p. 38-41
      1982, 'Medieval Britain in 1981' Medieval Archaeology Vol. 26 p. 216-7 online copy
      Macdonnell, E., 1982, 'Back to reality: Pontefract Castle, West Yorkshire' Country Life Vol. 172 p. 1356, 1358
      1982, 'Pontefract Castle' in P Turnbull, 'The Yorkshire Archaeological Register: 1981' Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 54 p. 181
      Battye, H.., 1965, ''Masons' marks at Pontefract Castle' Pontefract Archaeological Journal
      Gardiner, K., 1964, 'Work in Pontefract Castle' Pontefract Archaeological Journal
      Gardiner, K., 1963, 'Work in Pontefract Castle' Pontefract Archaeological Journal
      Gardiner, K., 1960, 'Work in Pontefract Castle' Pontefract Archaeological Journal
      Brown, R, Allen, 1959, 'A List of Castles, 1154–1216' English Historical Review Vol. 74 p. 249-280 (Reprinted in Brown, R. Allen, 1989, Castles, conquest and charters: collected papers (Woodbridge: Boydell Press) p. 90-121) view online copy (subscription required)
      Armitage, E., 1904 April, 'The Early Norman Castles of England' English Historical Review Vol. 19 p. 209-245, 417-455 esp. 417-9 online copy
      Clark, G.T., 1889, 'Contribution towards a complete list of moated mounds or burhs' The Archaeological Journal Vol. 46 p. 197-217 esp. 216 online copy
      Holmes, R., 1884, 'The Disinterment of Pontefract Castle' Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 8 p. 159-62 (Excavation report) online copy
      1882, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 7 p. 470-2
      Clark, 1873, The Builder Vol. 31 p. 162-4, 209-10 (reprinted in MMA)
      Hartshorne, C.H., 1864, Journal British Archaeological Association Vol. 20 p. 136-55 (Reprinted as The Honour and Castle of Pontefract - weak history)
      Batty, R.E., 1852-3, 'Historic Sketch of Pontefract Castle' Reports and Papers of the Associated Architectural Societies Vol. 2 p. 90-104 online copy
      King, Edward, 1782, 'Sequel to the observations on Ancient Castles' Archaeologia Vol. 6 p. 411-16 (reprinted Antient Castles)
  • Guidebooks
    • Roberts, Ian, 1990, Pontefract Castle (The King's England Press for West Yorkshire Archaeology Service) (Reprinted in 1999 by Wakefield MDC - a better than usual quality guidebook)
      1951, (Pontefract) (compiled from Holmes)
      Holmes, R., 1906, Manual for the Visitor to Pontefract Castle (Pontefract)
  • Primary (Medieval documents or transcriptions of such documents - This section is far from complete and the secondary sources should be consulted for full references.)
    • 1086, Domesday Book i. 373 b. online copy
      Davis, H.W.C. (ed), 1913, Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, 1066–1154 Vol. 1 Regesta Willelmi Conquestoris et Willelmi Rufi p. 91 no. 312 online copy
      Johnson, C. and Cronne, H.A. (eds), 1956, Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, 1066–1154 Vol. 2 Regesta Henrici Primi 1100-1135 p. 399, 402 online copy
      Farrer, Wm (ed), 1916, Early Yorkshire Charters Vol. 3 p. 123 no. 1415 online copy
      Dugdale, William (Caley, J., Ellis, H. and Bandinel, B. (eds)), 1817-30 (originally pub. 1655-73), Monasticon Anglicanum (London) Vol. 5 p. 128
      Stubbs, W. (ed), 1880, The Minor Works comprising the Gesta regum with its continuation, the Actus pontificum, and the Mappa mundi, by Gervase, the Monk of Canterbury (London: Longman Rolls series 73) Vol. 2 p. 440 online copy
      Rickard, John, 2002, The Castle Community. The Personnel of English and Welsh Castles, 1272-1422 (Boydell Press) (lists sources for 1272-1422) p. 489-90
      DL44/114 (Survey of 6 Elizabeth) The National Archives reference
      DL44/309 (Survey of 23 Elizabeth) The National Archives reference
      DL44/628 (Survey of 44 Elizabeth) The National Archives reference
      E36/159, pp. 19-24 (Survey of 29 Henry VIII) The National Archives reference
      SP14/49/82 (Survey of 1609) The National Archives reference
  • Antiquarian (Histories and accounts from late medieval and early modern writers)
  • Other sources: Theses; 'grey' literature; in-house reports; unpublished works; etc.
    • English Heritage, 2014, Heritage at Risk Register 2014 Yorkshire (London: English Heritage) p. 119 online copy
      English Heritage, 2013, Heritage at Risk Register 2013 Yorkshire (London: English Heritage) p. 121 online copy
      English Heritage, 2012, Heritage at Risk Register 2012 Yorkshire and the Humber (London: English Heritage) p. 139 online copy
      English Heritage, 2011, Heritage at Risk Register 2011 Yorkshire and the Humber (London: English Heritage) p. 129 online copy
      English Heritage, 2010, Heritage at Risk Register 2010 Yorkshire and the Humber (London: English Heritage) p. 129 online copy
      2005, Conservation Plan - Pontefract Castle (Wakefield MDC)
      Constable, Christopher, 2003, Aspects of the archaeology of the castle in the north of England C 1066-1216 (Doctoral thesis, Durham University) Available at Durham E-Theses Online
      West Yorkshire Archaeology Service Geophysics Archive, 2002, Pontefract Castle, Pontefract, West Yorkshire. Earth Resistance Survey online copy
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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.
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This record last updated on Saturday, November 15, 2014

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