Pontefract Castle stories

Pontefract Castle was built nearly a thousand years ago. It has seen some truly incredible things.

Since the 13th Century Pontefract Castle has been known as the Key to the North. The Castle has been at the centre of some of English history's most important events.

Loyal Royalist soldiers, medieval barons and selfish kings. Unfaithful royal lovers, liquorice farmers and selfless Victorian ladies. Read on to discover some of the hundreds of stories contained within the castle walls.

Pontefract Castle and The Norman Conquest

After William the Conqueror became king in 1066, he rewarded his loyal friends and allies. He did so by giving them land. One such friend was Ilbert de Lacy who had fought for William at the Battle of Hastings. Ilbert was given the Honour of Pontefract, a large estate in Yorkshire. It was here, on the site of an Anglo-Saxon manor, that he built Pontefract Castle in 1070.

Ilbert was also from Normandy. There was a lot of opposition from the Anglo-Saxons to their new Norman rulers. The Normans built mighty castles - like Pontefract - to help them rule over their new subjects. The massive castles they built had a purpose: to instil fear and awe in the native population.

Pontefract Castle and the Magna Carta

The de Lacy family enlarged Pontefract Castle, making it one of the mightiest fortresses in England. However, when Roger de Lacy died in 1211, King John confiscated the castle. He made Roger’s heir, John de Lacy, pay a huge fee to release his inheritance. John de Lacy was not willing to give up the castle without a fight. He joined several other rebel barons and forced King John to seal the Magna Carta in 1215.
The Magna Carta (which means "Great Charter" in Latin) was a document drawn up by a group of barons. They were unhappy with the way King John was ruling England. It guaranteed several rights and protections for the barons. It was a big step forward for justice in England and became the fabric of the English political system.

Pontefract Castle and a Shakespearean Tragedy

Pontefract Castle’s importance made it the location of many dark and terrible deeds throughout history. In 1399 King Richard II was captured by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and had his throne taken away from him. He was imprisoned by the new King Henry IV at Pontefract Castle, where he is thought to have starved to death. This infamous event is immortalised in Shakespeare’s play, Richard II.

You can watch the scene of the King in prison – filmed at Pontefract Castle – in the video below. 

Pontefract Castle and the Pilgrimage of Grace

The Dissolution of the Monasteries, led by Henry VIII, involved destroying all monasteries and religious buildings in England. In response to these religious changes, rebels in Yorkshire started a revolt. Their aim was to oppose the actions taken by Henry VIII. This revolt was known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. It started in 1536.
In medieval England, monasteries were crucial to the lives of common people. The monks lived and worked in their local communities. They provided education and looked after the sick and elderly. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, many ordinary people were very unhappy.  They rose up against Henry during the Pilgrimage of Grace.
Although Pontefract Castle belonged to the Crown, it was held by Thomas Darcy at this time. Thomas sympathised with the rebels and surrendered the castle to them. Despite the rebellion having several thousand followers they were defeated by the King. Thomas Darcy was executed for treason.

Pontefract Castle and Henry VIII’s Fifth Wife

By 1540, 49-year-old Henry had already married four wives in his quest to have a male heir. It was during this time that he married Catherine Howard, who was just sixteen years old.
In 1541, King Henry VIII visited Pontefract Castle with his new wife Catherine Howard. They were also accompanied by Henry’s courtier and friend, Thomas Culpeper. It is alleged that while staying at the castle, Thomas and Catherine began an affair. A love letter, written by Catherine to Thomas, was found in his chambers after their relationship was discovered. Catherine and Thomas were both executed for treason against the King in 1542.
Catherine was the second of Henry’s wives to be executed. The first was her cousin, Anne Boleyn. Henry would go on to marry once more before he died in 1547. 

Pontefract Castle and the English Civil Wars

The English Civil Wars were a series of wars fought in Britain in the 17th century. They were fought between King Charles I’s Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. The Royalists believed that the King had a “divine right” to rule the country however he chose. The Parliamentarians believed the country should be governed by parliament. The Parliamentarians eventually won, and Charles I was beheaded in 1649. 

During the English Civil Wars, Pontefract Castle was involved in three sieges. The third siege was in 1648. John Morris was a Royalist. He snuck into the castle with a few supporters by pretending to bring beds in for the garrison! Morris and his fellow Royalists held the castle for 9 months. When King Charles I was executed, they had to surrender, and Morris was executed for treason.
Cromwell ruled Britain between 1653 and 1658 as Lord Protector. When he died, he was succeeded by his son Richard. Richard was not very popular and gave up power after 9 months in 1659. The country then invited Charles I’s son to become king. Charles II ruled for over 30 years, but he had a lot less power than the kings and queens before him.

Pontefract Castle and the seven balls

During conservation works at the Castle in 2016, the workers made a surprising discovery. They found seven cannonballs embedded almost 1m into the outer wall of the castle.
One of our key sources about the Castle’s history is Nathan Drake’s diary. Drake was based at the Castle in the 17th Century. He wrote in his diary that the cannonballs were fired at the Castle between 17 and 21 January 1644. They were fired by Parliamentarian forces trying to besiege the Castle. The diary even records that cannonballs were fired from the backyard of a Mr Lumne. The incident occurred somewhere around the bottom of today’s Salter Row.
Drake records that 1,363 shots were fired at the Castle. To him, it was surprising that anything remained of the Castle! Not only did the Castle survive the siege, the only section of the castle wall to collapse was the Piper Tower. According to Drake, the Piper Tower collapsed on the 19 January 1644. Little remains of the Piper Tower today. The curtain wall which made up the outer edge of the tower still stands to around 5m high on the outside. 
Those seven cannonballs which missed the tower were removed from the wall in the conservation works. They were kept and can now be seen in our Visitor Centre exhibition.

Pontefract Castle and Pontefract Cakes

The Dunhill family grew liquorice at Pontefract Castle for more than a century. George Dunhill was an apothecary. He trialled adding sugar to his liquorice pastilles medicines. This led to the invention of 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. 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! To make it easy to buy and store, the liquorice was made into liquorice pastilles that could be dissolved in water. The invention of Pontefract Cakes kickstarted the confectionary industry in Pontefract. The industry continues to this day with Haribo.

Pontefract Castle and Victorian Philanthropy

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. She supported children’s homes and helped to create the pleasure gardens at Pontefract Castle. She was also involved with the museum at the Castle.

The Victorian era was a time when the industrial revolution had made some people very rich. Many others existed in poverty living in terrible, filthy conditions. This inequality led to the development of 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 orphanages and charity schools. They also funded public libraries and museums.

Find out more

If you've enjoyed these stories and would like to find out more, then come and visit us at the Castle! You can also book onto a Castle Explorer Tour. These run every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 12 noon. Click here to book Castle Explorer Tours.


If you are a school or group and you would like to arrange a visit to Pontefract Castle, please contact the Museums and Castles’ Learning team using the 'Contact Us' details below.

More information about our full programme and free downloadable teaching resources are available through our Museums Blog Pages

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