Updated: Dec 10, 2022
I stand there guide book in hand, studying the seventeenth century depiction of a colossal fortification. It reminds me of a grand royal palace from some sort of fantasy post-medieval TV drama. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in an episode of Game of thrones, I think. All thats missing is a fire breathing dragon perched atop the great keep.
As I bring the guidebook down from my face, I look first to my daughter who is happily singing away to herself, and then towards the imposing cooling towers of Ferry Bridge Power Station, which puff casually away in the far distance. We are stood within the main bailey of Pontefract castle, but surely I would be forgiven for thinking that the picture in my hand is just a figment of someones imagination?
Keirincx, Alexander; Pontefract Castle; Pontefract Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/pontefract-castle-22557
History of Pontefract Castle: Normans, Lancastrians and Kings
The ‘Key to the North’.
Although the ruins of Pontefract Castle leave a lot to the imagination, the medieval castle that they once belonged to was one of the mightiest castle’s in England. Historically described as the ‘key to the North’, Pontefract castle survived three sieges during the English Civil and was the last castle in England to be captured by the Parliamentarians. Perched atop a naturally defensible raised platform, Pontefract Castle would have been a tremendous sight to behold.
The Norman Invasion
It was typical of King William to reward his Lords with large estates in his new kingdom. Williams rule was understandably unpopular, particularly in the early years, and William needed to secure his new kingdom and strengthen his rule. By handing out large estates or ‘honours’ to his Lords, he could delegate out regional management and security, and tighten his grip on the kingdom.
The de Lacy family
Ilbert de Lacy had been one such Lord who traveled to England with William in 1066, and Following a successful invasion was rewarded with the honours of Clitheroe and Pontefract. These massive estates made the de Lacy family significant land owners in the North of England, and due to Pontefract’s pre invasion significance as a religious epicentre, Ilbert sought to make this his home and administrative hub.
Building a Norman Castle
The first substantial castle at Pontefract was constructed in 1070, following the Northern uprising of the previous year. This typical motte and bailey castle was synonymous with the Normans, and would have been relatively quick to build, and also highly defensible. Ilbert would have had an important role in securing the North of England, and his castle at Pontefract would have also been incremental in keeping the Scotts in check. Pontefract became the power base of the ever increasingly powerful de Lacy Lords.
The rise of Lancaster
On the death of the sonless Henry de Lacy in 1311, a new era dawned at Pontefract. The vast de Lacy estates passed to Henry’s son in Law Thomas of Lancaster. Thomas was the nephew of the legendary Edward I ‘Longshanks’, and cousin to the problematic Edward II. A feud between Lancaster and Edward II resulted in Lancaster executing Edwards apparent lover, Piers Graveston, and ironically when Edward got his revenge in 1322 Lancaster was executed within the walls of his own castle at Pontefract. The castle and estates however passed back to the Lancastrians in 1327, when Edward was deposed, and King Edward III was crowned king.
The rise of Kings
In 1361 the newly created Duke of Lancaster died and the Lancastrian estates wound up in the hands of Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt. Having enjoyed much influence as the leading magnate of the time, when his nephew Richard II came of age in 1382, cracks in the relationship between the Lancasters and the King began to emerge. This resulted in John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke being banished in 1399. When his father died the same year, Henry returned to England, deposed Richard II and was crowned Henry IV – the founding father of the Royal House of Lancaster. Richard spent the rest of his days imprisoned at Pontefract Castle where he died under suspicious circumstances.
A Royal Castle
Pontefract castle remained a Royal castle and over the centuries went through many transformations. A large scale upgrade and expansion that had been commissioned by John of Gaunt in 1374, was completed at some point in the fifteenth Century and Pontefract gained the nickname ‘key to the North’ due to its huge strength and scale.
Royal castle to Royal wreck
During the English Civil War Pontefract Castle survived three separate sieges. During the first one which began on Christmas Day 1644, the castle walls were bombarded by gun batteries but still stood strong. During the second siege the Royalist occupants only surrendered due to being starved out. Having subsequently taken the castle back in 1648, the Royalists were again subjected to a massive siege effort by the Parliamentarians.
The last bastion of Royalist resistance
This third monumental siege lasted five months and only ended when the Royalists surrendered on 24th March 1649. Although the castle was destroyed later in the year (partially due to the will of the locals), Pontefract was the last castle to be captured in England, and serves as a true testament to its colossal size, strength and reputation.
What to see at Pontefract Castle
Monk Hill and the Priory
Driving into Pontefract, Google maps told me I was a mere 2 minutes from my destination. The first thing I noticed was a large field to my right which appeared to contain the earthworks of some ancient building. I wondered whether this might have been the site of some sort of Pre-Norman fortification. In fact, this area is known as Monk Hill and the uneven ground is all that remains of a Priory which had been built by the 2nd Baron of Pontefract, Robert de Lacy in 1090.
Free car park!
As my satnav takes me off the main road I see what must be part of the castle up a side road to the left. The road up is fairly steep and takes me through a small housing estate which sits half way up the hill. Just as I pass several of the house’s I see the small car park to my left. I knew before I set off that the car park was free, but it was reassuring to confirm this fact as I pulled up and reversed into a space.
Entering the Castle
Having unloaded Oaklie and a few supplies from the car we made our way up the rest of the hill on foot, and past the visitors centre which forms a bit of a physical barrier between the path and the castle. As we approach the end of the building, the entrance to the castle complex opens up to our right, and I immediately sight a big chunk of castle wall sat just beyond the entrance. Just past the visitors centre, from the direction we had just walked, was a modern looking play area. I had hoped Oaklie might not have seen this until we had explored the castle, but what was I thinking!? Like a hungry shark on a trial of blood she broke free and excitedly ran towards the playground.
Excellent play park
Considering there is no cost to enter Pontefract Castle, the playpark was suprisingly modern and of a good quality. With a large climbing frame, a couple of slides and some other bits and bobs, the play area is a very nice addition to the castle. Oaklie certainly enjoyed it and I only just managed to get her away with promises of finding the king!
Prior to exploring the Castle grounds I decided to have a quick look inside the visitors centre. This contains a nice looking cafe/restaurant, a small kids play area, shop, toilets and a kids activity room which appeared to be occupied by a group of school children. We ended up picking up a free brochure which contained a map and made our way back to the castle’s entrance.
Exploring Pontefract Castle
Imagining Pontefract Castle
It’s difficult to imagine the castle in its heyday as very little of the original structure exists. Having been demolished in 1649 after the civil war, it takes a bit of imagination to work out where everything would have been. The largest past of the castle that remains is three cylindrical towers which formed part of the original keep. You see part of this as you enter, but if you go counter clockwise around the site like we did, you won’t immediately see the three towers.
Not one, not two, but three baileys!
The castle would have comprised three Bailey’s; the main bailey situated within the castle walls being complemented by two external ones to the south East. Where you enter today is where a Barbican would have been situated, at the most southern point of the castle complex. This would have given access to the middle bailey, with the main castle walls situated to your left, and the third bailey to you right at the bottom of the hill. The internal bailey beyond the castle walls would have been accessed by a massive gatehouse which would have been dominated by two towers. Only a tiny section of the gatehouse remains.
The mighty castle walls
After using the map to get my barings, we made our way up past the keep and Northwards into the inner bailey. The inner bailey is a very vast space and would have been bubbling with life back in the middle ages. This would have been completely surrounded by the massive castle walls which would have been dominated by around nine giant towers. Although the walls are all but rubble today, it is possible to appreciate the strategic position of the castle with superb views over Yorkshire in all directions.
Walking the inner bailey
We took the footpath counter clockwise around the inner ward. This largely follows the position on the original walls, and although these have long since been destroyed, some of the foundations can still be seen, along with parts of the ‘Constable Tower’. Although the walls were originally made from wood, like many castles of the time they would probably have been slowly converted into stone in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It’s incredible to think that when the castle was in its prime, the walls would have housed nine ginormous defensive towers.
Evidence of previous structures
As you approach the North Eastern part of the bailey there is clear evidence of several other buildings. As well as the Constable Tower, you can see where an Elizabethan Chapel once stood, a Norman Chapel which was adapted from a previous Saxon church, and also the Great Hall. We continued our way around, occasionally using the viewing platforms to admire the views, and reading the handily placed plaques which were very helpfully brought the castle to life.
There would have been perhaps a dozen buildings lining the walls prior to the castle’s destruction. One of the largest concentrations of structures still partially visible today is situated within the North West of the Castle Complex. The bakehouse is easy to make out for example, and you can even see parts of the ancient ovens.
A massive motte
The most impressive part of the castle however has to be the keep. The giant mound that once supported the massive tower is visible from every part of the inner bailey. Furthermore, the most substantial part of castle still in existence today can be found in the towers which made up the keep. You can climb up to the top of the motte by using two sets of stairs from the bailey. However if you really want to appreciate the scale of the keep, you need to pass over the castle walls and approach it from the North West.
The motte inside the tower
What remains of the keep today is parts of three of the four original cylindrical towers. The guide book draws parallels between this interesting keep design, and the four lobed design of Clifford’s Tower in York. Apparently one likely inspired the other. What I found fascinating to learn was that the Keep was actually built around the original Norman Motte. This is knows as a ‘shell keep’ and would have formed a strong base for the gargantuan keep. The visible parts of the keep we see today thus, would have basically formed just the foundations. When you think about it then, the actual size and height of the Great Keep is quite incomprehensible and utterly mind boggling!
Reflecting on my visit
Our visit to Pontefract Castle had been quite a mind opener for me and has left a bit of a lasting impression. I always knew Pontefract had been a monstrous fortification, but it wasn’t until I visited that it really got me thinking about the grand scale of it all. Pontefract Castle was simply huge, and even if it still stood today would have made quite an impression. Although not much of the castle remains there is certainly enough to keep your attention, and plenty of information boards explaining what the various parts of the castle were.
Pontefract Castle is completely free to enter, and there isn’t even a car park charge. The castle is also well looked after, with conservation work only just being completed. We had a lovely day exploring Pontefract Castle, and the fact that there is also a free play area makes it even easier to recommend for families with kids looking for days out or things to do at the weekend. Iv’e thought about Pontefract Castle a lot since my visit, and I feel like I want to find out more. It is absolutely fantastic that Wakefield Council provide this fantastic historic site at no cost and I salute them for sharing this with all of us for free. This is one of the best free family days of its kind to be had in Yorkshire.
For more castle related articles check out my Castle’s category page here.
Thanks for reading!