British Castles, History

Pontefract: The Key to The North

This post is part of my Grand Castle Tour! You can find articles on lots of other castles here!


I just want to start this post by saying: don’t get too excited. Pontefract castle ain’t there anymore.

We have the English Civil War to blame for that – the bane of medieval historians. It was a key Royalist stronghold, a base for raiding parties to attack Parliamentary positions, and it was besieged three times over the 1640s. After the war, the local townspeople asked for it to be demolished and Parliament agreed: it was to be torn to the ground, its resources sold for profit.

I wrote about Barnard Castle last time, which was also demolished. I don’t want to depress you too much, so we won’t be talking about the seventeenth century anymore. From now on we’re focusing on Pontefract at its height, one of the biggest and most important castles in Northern England – and the home of the Lancastrians up to the War of the Roses.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3e/Pontefract_Castle.jpg
Luckily for us, Alexander Keirincx painted it before it was demolished. (source: wikimedia.org)

Pontefract was an important medieval castle, so important that Edward I supposedly called it ‘the key to the north.’ I can’t find any solid evidence of that, but it lies on an old Roman road that was, along with Ermine Street, the main way medieval folks travelled to York and the wider north, and it’s near to the route east-west, crossing the Aire and the Pennines – so it was well-placed to control the local area.

Before the Norman Conquest, it was an Anglo-Saxon religious site and graveyard. It was awarded to Ilbert de Lacy, one of William the Conqueror’s followers. After the conquest, the de Lacys built a stone fortress on the site, with much of it finished by the mid 1200s. They got in trouble with King Henry for failing to support him and lost the castle a couple of times, but otherwise their history isn’t that interesting.

Things heat up when Thomas Lancaster inherits it in 1311.

One Big Medieval Mess

And now I have no choice but to drag you into the nightmarish, spaghetti-like entanglement that is Edward II’s reign. The closer you look at it the worse it gets, but in my opinion it’s also a very exciting period in English history, and I hope you’ll think so too.

Thomas of Lancaster was Edward’s cousin. They were good friends initially from what we can tell: they campaigned in Edward I’s war in Scotland, getting their first tastes of battle together. When Edward I died, Thomas played an important role in Edward II’s coronation: he carried Curtana, the ancient sword that is used when new English kings are crowned, meaning he held a position of honour at the ceremony.

Arms of Edmund Crouchback, Earl of Leicester and Lancaster.svg
Thomas’s arms…
Royal Arms of England.svg
…and Edward’s. Not something you wanted to get mixed up.

But.

Those Scottish campaigns were also where Edward met Piers Gaveston, a lowly knight who quickly became his close friend. Gaveston worried the English barons for many reasons:

  • He was a man of lower class who was given way more power than his station merited, and he had a dangerous control over the king. Edward gave him the Earldom of Cornwall – which was supposed to be reserved for the royal family.
  • He abused his friendship with the king, gaining power and favours for himself and for his friends and family.
  • He had a habit of provoking the barons, assigning them all rude nicknames. Thomas was known as ‘the fiddler’.

Edward’s obsession with Gaveston almost led Thomas and the other barons to open rebellion. They forced the king to accept the Ordinances in 1311, a set of rules that crushed the king’s power and handed much of it to them. They also exiled Gaveston, threatening to kill him if he returned.

He came back two months later. Edward restored his lands and declared the banishment unlawful, setting the stage for war. The barons were led by Thomas, who was now based at Pontefract castle.

After a bit of maneuvring, the barons were able to besiege Gaveston, who surrendered shortly after. They agreed that the barons would take him to York, where Edward was, and negotiate his release. He would be escorted by the Earl of Pembroke.

Gaveston had a pretty cool coat of arms!

But the journey to York took them quite close to the estate where Pembroke’s wife was staying. He left Gaveston in a manor to go and see her. While he was gone, the other barons learned of Gaveston’s whereabouts.

Led by the Earl of Warwick, they arrived at Gaveston’s manor and surrounded it, forcing him to come out. He was still in his bedclothes when they drove him down the road, blowing their hunting horns and chasing him with dogs. They took him to Warwick, where he was condemned to death by a court of barons – including Thomas of Lancaster. He was taken out into the countryside, beheaded and left there. His body wouldn’t be buried for another three years.

Yeah, they hated him that much.

Pembroke, who felt his honour had been insulted, became a staunch loyalist of the king, as did many others in the realm who felt the barons had acted too rashly. Though the matter was supposedly settled in 1313, in the immediate aftermath Edward was red with rage, and swore to avenge the act.

After that Thomas was the leader of the barons and supporter of the Ordinances, which won him lots of support from the common folk, who thought the king had too much power. After Edward’s failed Scottish campaign in 1314, Thomas was effectively king for four years, meaning the lord of Pontefract was in charge of all of England. Told you it was important!

History note: That Scottish campaign was when Bannockburn happened, and the events of ‘Braveheart’. But ‘Braveheart’ gets almost none of this right. For instance, as the disastrous battle unfolded, Edward actually tried to charge into the battle to help his men, but was dragged away by his supporters who wouldn’t let him throw away his life. Say what you like about him, but Edward was a brave and courageous warrior. Oh, and there’s no chance the king’s wife had an affair with Wallace. And… ugh.

It was especially important to Thomas, who spent a lot of his time there.

He and Edward jostled for ultimate authority until 1321, when Thomas and the barons rose up in rebellion for the second – and final – time. By this point, Edward had another favourite, Hugh Despenser, who was altogether much worse than Gaveston. He and his father started using their royal influence to bully other nobles out of their lands, imprisoning their relatives and using bribery and coercion. He had also been a pirate, and was a known murderer. No-one was allowed to be in the king’s presence without Hugh. The king’s wife, Isabella, fled to France to escape him, and actually started supporting the baronial rebels against her own husband.

Blason Thomas Le Despencer.svg
I think the Despensers have a particularly awesome coat of arms.

Unfortunately, Thomas and the rebels were defeated at the disastrous Battle of Boroughbridge, and this is where it all gets very Game of Thrones. Thomas was captured and taken to Pontefract castle, where the king, the Despensers and others trialled him in his own great hall. He was not allowed to speak in his own defence or have anyone speak for him, and then he was beheaded outside the walls. Edward had his revenge, and in the cruellest way possible: Thomas was condemned to death in silence in his own home.

There was some justice: some years later, Parliament ruled the trial unlawful, and all Thomas’s possessions were restored to his family. His tomb became a pilgrimage site for the common folk, who loved him, and miracles were said to happen there. Edward posted men to drive people away but they kept coming, and Thomas became a saint.

There was a more immediate come-uppance: in another event worthy of the best Game of Thrones writing, Isabella, Edward’s wife, eventually returned to England with a hired continental army. Edward tried to raise his armies but after years of dictatorship, hardly any of his sheriffs listened. He retreated to Wales and was captured less than two months later. Hugh Despenser was hanged while being forced to wear a surcoat with his coat of arms upside down, then cut into pieces.

Back to the Castle

I made that as short as I could, promise! But there’s no doubt in my mind that Thomas’s trial was one of the most important events that happened in Pontefract, and a lot of context is needed to explain pretty much anything that happened in Edward II’s reign.

Let’s talk ruins.

Map of the site provided by Ordnance Survey (source: historicengland.org.uk)

When the de Lacys built their first castle here, it was a typical wooden motte-and-bailey with a ditch surrounding the motte: later archaeology revealed that the ditch actually predated the castle. It most likely belonged to the Anglo-Saxon royal centre of Tanshelf, which existed there before Pontefract; it seems the Norman builders incorporated it into their castle.

The most substantial part left is the keep. What remains are three drum towers joined in a clover-like pattern, usually known as a trefoil design. The common assumption is that the keep was made up of four drum towers in a quatrefoil design, like Clifford’s Tower in York (which is still standing and I’ll talk about some other time). However, in 1530 John Leland described the keep as being “cast into six roundels, three big and three small.” If so, it appears the three big towers have survived, while the three small ones have not.

https://www.medieval.eu/wp-content/uploads/Reconstruction_of_Pontefract_Castle.jpg
A reconstruction of the castle, with a suggested design of the keep visible on the left. (source: medieval.eu)
Pontefract Castle primary print
Here’s another good one, though exploring-castles.com only descibes it as ‘a primary source from the 1500s’ so I don’t know where it’s from. Tut tut. Either way, it shows how extensive the castle’s towers and curtain walls once were!

Either way, there is nothing else like it in England. It may have been inspired by the Chateau Gaillard in France: we know Pontefract’s keep was built in the early 1200s, and in 1203 Roger de Lacy, lord of Pontefract, was in France as part of the English campaign and was left in control of Chateau Gaillard: he defended it in an eight-month siege before returning to England, when he presumably set about expanding his castle. It’s perfectly reasonable that de Lacy liked the style of the castle he was in charge of and decided to copy it when he got home.

Coat of arms of Roger de Lacy, Constable of Chester.svg
De Lacys coat of arms, because I’ve already added a bunch and you can’t stop me.

Also rather weirdly: the original motte (manmade hill) the wooden castle sat on wasn’t dismantled, but encased in stone beneath the keep. This was rarely if ever done, and is just another unique quirk of Pontefract.

Here’s what’s left of the keep today. (source: blogging4history.blogspot.com)

Its huge inner bailey provided plenty of room for entertainment, and its many towers could have hosted a large number of guests. The kitchens (the foundations of which survive) had four fireplaces and several ovens, enough to feed a large party. No wonder it hosted the Tudor monarchs from time to time.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c0/St_Clement%27s_Chapel%2C_Pontefract_Castle%2C_2010.jpg
The remains of St Clement’s chapel, with some of the surviving curtain wall visible in the background. (source: wikimedia.org)

The uncovered remains of St Clement’s chapel are quite exciting because it was built in 1090, making it a piece of distinctly Norman architecture – and I love Norman architecture. Much nicer and squarer than the flashy, pointy Gothic stuff that came after – though that’s still nice.

Pontefract Castle gatehouse
source: exploring-castles.com

Here’s what survives of the inner bailey’s gatehouse. You can see how precise the brickwork was, and how well-aligned those holes are through the middle. It’s a shame most of this is gone.

source: wessexarch.co.uk

Here’s a gorgeous photo of the kitchens, which really helps to appreciate the sheer size of them. I love ruins like this because it gives us a hint at what the medieval room would have looked like when it was being used. And those ovens are just beautiful.

source: blogging4history.blogspot.com

Look at this. Doesn’t look like much, right? That’s because it was cut in half in 1810 so a road could be built. Ugh!

This is all that remains of Swillington Tower. Built in the later middle ages (almost certainly after 1350), it wasn’t part of the curtain wall: it sat slightly out from it, and it was designed so the defenders could shoot attackers more effectively. It was only reachable via a bridge that stretched from the castle walls. Sounds simple enough, right?

(Scroll back up to that reconstructured model and you’ll see it jutting out from the northern top of the castle walls.)

These structures are known as albarrana towers, and were almost never built outside Muslim Spain. Not even in other parts of the Islamic world. Pontefract’s is the only one in England.

And they destroyed half of it to build a road! Grumble grumble.

source: blogging4history.blogspot.com

And here’s a gorgeous close-up of some Norman columns from St Clement’s Chapel, courtesy of blogging4history. They have some stunning photos of Pontefract’s ruins – go and have a look!

Recent History

Most castles in England are managed by English Heritage, an ex-government body turned private charity (I have a post here explaining that weird situation). But not Pontefract. No, Pontefract is still owned by the Duchy of Lancaster. Yes, old Thomas’s title still exists: it was inherited by the royals in 1399 and remains one of the Crown’s possessions. Today it’s administered by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is a member of the Cabinet – though actual day-to-day running of the estate has been delegated to advisers since Victorian times.

The Duchy has delegated its management of Pontefract castle to the local government, Wakefield Council – which seems unfair to me, since no-one really expects a local government to have enough money lying around to look after a ruin as well as making sure all the bins are collected on Monday.

Sure enough, Pontefract’s ruin struggled along, Historic England’s ‘Heritage At Risk’ decree hanging over its head, until the site received over £3million from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2014. The site has since been repaired, with some archaeological work done, and the visitors’ centre remodelled and expanded. The site is in much better shape than ever, and was taken off the ‘Heritage At Risk’ list in August 2019.

A sort-of happy ending for Thomas’s old, battered home!


Phew, that was a mammoth post! I hope you enjoyed this look at Pontefract castle. If you’re interested, you can find my other castle posts over here. You might even want to get emailed when I post new ones: just put your email in at the bottom of this page if you do.

Oh, and you can find me on Twitter here!

5 thoughts on “Pontefract: The Key to The North”

    1. I know right?! I’m glad it’s finally getting the funding it deserves.

      I’m glad you think so 🙂 I spent basically my whole final uni year studying Edward II’s reign so now it’s stuck in my head forever, so everyone else gets to hear about it too 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you for this concise but colourful summary! I’ve moved to Pontefract but got lost with all the details thrown at me from other sources. To be fair it seems like there’s a lot of drama that’s played out here. This castle is one of my favourite picnic spots on a warm day.

    Liked by 1 person

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