Pontefract is a small town in West Yorkshire – and our visit there was fraught with problems, namely some incomprehensible parking rules in the town centre, kamikaze pedestrians who thought nothing of stepping into the road in front of your car, confusing signs to the castle, and a closed Visitor Centre when we finally got there!
The castle itself was a little disappointing too. This painting from the early 17th century shows a magnificent structure, but the castle, a Royalist stronghold, was destroyed by the Parliamentarians in 1644 (during the English Civil War) and only the ruins remain.
It was first built by Ilbert de Lacy about 1070, having been granted the land by William the Conqueor in return for his support. The first castle would have been a wooden structure on a man-made ‘motte’ and was replaced by a stone keep, and other buildings around an inner courtyard (or bailey).
|The ruins of the keep|
In 1311 it passed by marriage to the estates of the house of Lancaster, and later in the century, John of Gaunt, as Duke of Lancaster, made it his personal residence and spent a lot of money improving it.
When his son, Henry Bolingbroke, usurped the throne in 1399, Pontefract became one of the main royal residences in the north of England. Henry’s predecessor, the deposed Richard II, was murdered there, traditionally thought to be in the Gascoigne Tower. Although Shakespeare says he was hacked to death, it seems more probable that he was actually starved to death.
During the early part of the Wars of the Roses, the castle was a Lancastrian stronghold. Their forces came from Pontefract to the battle of Wakefield in 1460, and one of the Yorkist leaders, Salisbury, was executed there after the battle. The bodies of Richard, Duke of York, and his son were also buried there, until they were removed to Fortheringhay for reburial.
Pontefract passed to Yorkist control after their final defeat of Henry VI, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) used Pontefract as one of his official residences when he was appointed as ‘Lord of the North’ by his brother, Edward IV.
In 1483, after preventing the attempted coup by the Woodville to control the young king, Edward V, Richard had three of the conspirators executed at Pontefract.
In modern times, the ruins of the castle fell into total disrepair, until the 1980’s when the town council received funding to repair and improve it, and I understand a newly refurbished visitor centre has now opened, with displays and exhibits.