Pontefract Castle, in Yorkshire, England (or Pomfret Castle, as it was known at its time) used to be the most important, and most terrifying castle in the whole of Early Modern England.
However, visitors today would find this unbelievable to understand.
Nowadays, Pontefract is absolutely ruined, and it’s incredibly difficult to visualise this vast castle as it once was.
Nonetheless, this mighty stone castle was a real force to be reckoned with – and had such a feared reputation that it was even mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. It’s undoubtedly the most important castle in the whole of Yorkshire, England, and is well-worth your time for a visit.
Here are six highlights from Pontefract’s long and incredible history.
6. Pontefract Castle has a blood-stained history: of death, decay and dark dungeons
Pontefract Castle has attracted a phenomenal amount of death, decay and misery over the years. As an ominous precursor, the entire place was constructed on an old Anglo-Saxon burial ground.
In addition to this, the castle was the spot of Richard II’s infamous ‘murder’ (see our next point below), and hundreds of soldiers were killed or imprisoned here during the Wars of the Roses.
To add to the general feeling of despair, Pontefract has a huge and oppressive network of dungeons – hollowed out of the bedrock 35 feet below the castle. Prisoners were trapped in the winding, pitch-black pits for weeks at a time, and scratched their names into the walls during their miserable imprisonment.
You can see the prisoner’s names, scratched into the dungeon walls, when you visit the castle today. This is part of the tour to the ‘magazines’ and armour cellars – these cellars were originally the dungeons.
Pontefract was the site of some dark moments in history – in 1311, Edward II gained the upper hand on his own cousin, Thomas Earl of Lancaster, and had him executed in the castle- along with beheading 20 other rebels.
It was in Pontefract too that Richard III condemned Sir Richard Grey, Sir Thomas Vaughan and Earl Rivers to execution, as their faction-fighting endangered his rule. These three were killed in 1483 – the same year of the alleged ‘murder’ of the two young princes in the Tower of London.
Other unfortunate events occurred in the castle. It was the place where Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, began her affair with Thomas Culpepper. Both were eventually beheaded for their ill-advised liaison.
5. And Pontefract Castle was the spot where King Richard II was murdered – which served as inspiration for Shakespeare
King Richard II was certainly held in Pontefract Castle in 1399. We don’t know exactly what happened to him, but most sources think that he was either intentionally neglected until he starved to death; or was cruelly murdered in the dungeons.
A couple of scholars have suggested the dungeon of the Keep to be the spot of his murder- a tiny, pitch-black space seeping with the cold and damp.
Writing in the late 1500s, Shakespeare used Pontefract Castle (at his time, Pomfret Castle) as a setting in two of his history plays, Richard II and Richard III. In Richard II, the King is dragged to Pomfret Castle, where he ruminates on his life when imprisoned in the dungeons – and is killed as the play ends.
In Shakespeare’s Richard III, Rivers is dragged to the castle, and describes it thus:
O Pomfret, Pomfret! O thou bloody prison!
Fatal and ominous to noble peers!
Within the guilty closure of thy walls
Richard the Second here was hack’d to death.
Although we don’t know the exact facts about Richard II’s death, the most important point is that Pontefract Castle was notorious – and widely feared – for its bloody reputation.
4. Once a magnificent palace — although that’s hard to imagine today
It’s truly hard to imagine nowadays, but Pontefract Castle was once a magnificent and extravagant palace – the jewel of Yorkshire. Pontefract was a vast stone castle, and it’s thought that it enjoyed the protection of two-outer walled baileys. Effectively, it was a concentric castle design.
Pontefract was also crowned with around 10 internal towers. Some of these towers climbed to vast heights – the King’s Tower and Queen’s Tower were thought to be around 20m high.
Pontefract Castle was equipped for extravagant entertaining.
The kitchen had no less than four fireplaces, a bakery with two ovens, and the scale and an incomparable variety of accommodation in the numerous towers. It would truly have been a castle fit for royalty – it had the considerable distinction of hosting Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I during their time.
3. Pontefract Castle was the last remaining stronghold in the English Civil War – Holding Out for Charles I, even after his execution!
During the Civil War itself, Pontefract Castle was besieged on three different occasions – and fell from Royalist hands to the Parliamentarians, and back again to the Royalists. These battles and sieges were universally hard-fought. Oliver Cromwell described the castle in one of his letters:
“[Pontefract Castle is] well watered; situated on rock in every part of it; and therefore difficult to mine. The walls are very thick and high, with strong towers; and if battered, very difficult to access, by reason of the depth and steepness of the graft.”
Oliver Cromwell, writing during the Civil War
One of the strangest moments in Pontefract’s history occurred during 1648. The castle had fallen to the Parliamentarians, but the Royalists, lead by Colonel John Morris, managed to dupe their way into the castle by pretending to be bed-collectors. Distraction complete, they then besieged and overcame the castle. Odd, huh?!
Pontefract Castle was, remarkably, the last castle to surrender to the victorious Parliamentarians at the end of the Civil War.
In fact, the castle remained staunchly Royalist until the war was unquestionably won by the Parliamentarians. Charles I was executed in January 1649, but the castle still held out until March that year, living in hope of some Royalist miracle.
Ever the optimists, the Royalists holding out in the castle declared dead Charles I’s son, Charles II, to be the true King of England – even whilst Oliver Cromwell held power.
2. A Castle Intentionally Destroyed by Parliament (and the will of the locals!)
Oliver Cromwell hated Pontefract Castle, due all the trouble it had caused him during the civil war. Resultantly, he wanted the place destroyed at the first opportunity.
In an odd twist, rather than the Parliamentarians just slighting (intentionally destroying) the castle’s defence, Cromwell placed pressure on the adjacent town of Pontefract.
He asked the townspeople to petition Parliament, begging for the castle to be demolished. That way, he could get the job done properly – and the thing entirely wiped off the face of the earth.
The neighbours were all too pleased to have the castle demolished, as Pontefract Castle had been long-time a magnet for trouble, death and despair. Armies pillaging the castle had generally pillaged the town en route – stealing provisions and assaulting local women – and so the townspeople were more than happy to see the castle destroyed.
Consequently, three days after the castle finally surrendered at the end of the civil war, Parliament set out to destroy the place. The price of destruction was about £800, and men set out systematically dismantling the entire castle over a couple of weeks. The only place to be left would be the Barbican.
1. A Store For Liquorice: Pontefract Castle at the Brink of Historical Extinction
After the destruction of Pontefract Castle in 1648, the ruins decayed over the centuries.
In Victorian times, the castle grounds were bizarrely used to grow liquorice – and parts of the old castle ruins were excavated to become liquorice stores! That’s why modern day Pontefract Cakes have a picture of a castle on them.
In recent history, unhappily, the castle has fallen into even worse repair.
Under a lack-of-care from the cash-strapped local town council, the ailing old castle was plagued by drug-dealers and graffiti artists, transforming one of England’s most important historical sites into a depressed-urban battle-field of assaults, attempted assaults, and even manslaughter on the site. Happily, however, things are looking up.
Pontefract has received grants from English Heritage, local bodies and also the British National Lottery. The aim is to repair, improve and renovate the castle and its visitor centres, making it fit for the 21st century. There’s extensive work now going on, and things are looking rosy for the castle’s continued survival.
Pontefract remains as one of the most interesting of all the castles of England, and would have been one of the most impressive of all stone castles if it had survived intact to this day.
Visiting Pontefract Castle
- About 50,000 people visit Pontefract Castle every year
- The site is now secured at night, but access in the daytimes is free
- There’s a small charge for a quick tour of the dark ammunition cellars
- There is a visitors’ centre with exhibits, information, a gift shop and tea shop.
If you’ve enjoyed reading about Pontefract Castle, I think you’ll also enjoy reading more about Dover Castle, one of England’s most phenomenal fortresses. Or you might like to know more about the other castles in historic York, which is just a short drive from Pontefract.