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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History



A Brief Introduction

A recent archaeological survey has discovered that the earliest occupation of the castle site was probably back in the late Iron Age and Roman Periods though the earliest remains that were discovered, date from the Saxon Period. At that time, the castle area was occupied by a cemetery and possibly a Church which was later incorporated within the Norman Motte and Bailey Castle.

In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy conquered England by defeating King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. He became William I and rewarded his barons by giving them each parts of the country.

Ilbert de Lacy was offered a large area of Yorkshire including the area now known as Pontefract. A  castle was first built around 1070 by Ilbert de Lacy, soon after the Norman conquest and comprised of a wooden fortification which over the next century was gradually rebuilt in stone.

With the death of Henry de Lacy, the last of the great Lords of Pontefract in 1310, it was Henry's daughter Alice who succeeded him, as both of Henry's sons had met their death in separate earlier accidents. Alice married Thomas, Earl of Lancaster in 1311 and their marriage transferred the Lacy estates to the House of Lancaster. Thomas was a grandson of Henry III and during his time at Pontefract castle, the fortification was further strengthened. At the time, England was in general disorder and after the English, under King Edward II, were routed by the Scottish armies under Robert I at Bannockburn in 1314, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster became regarded as the most powerful man in the country.  Thomas opposed his cousin, King Edward II and the favourites that surrounded him at court. In 1322, Thomas challenged his cousin at the battle of Boroughbridge but was defeated and brought back to Pontefract where he was tried for treason and later executed.  Thomas's land was restored to his heirs and became part of the Duchy of Lancaster on its creation in 1351.

Pontefract Castle depicted during the 14th century

Pontefract Castle depicted during the 14th century

One of the castles most famous victims was King Richard II.  After an era of royal restrictions and economic hardship following the black death and legislation passed by  parliament limiting wages without regulating prices, there was a Peasants Revolt in 1381 against the government policies of John of Gaunt.

John of Gaunt was of Royal birth, his father being Edward III and his brother, Edward, The Black Prince.  When Henry, Duke of Lancaster died in 1361, his estates including Pontefract Castle, passed to John of Gaunt who was the husband of Henry's daughter Blanche. John of Gaunt became guardian to his nephew Richard II, (the son of the Black Prince) and virtually ran the country. During the peasants revolt he took refuge within Pontefract castle.

King Richard's unwise generosity towards his favourites during these times of unrest, led Thomas, Duke of Gloucester and four other magnates to form the 'Lord's Appellant' who convicted five of Richard's closest advisors for treason.  In 1397, Richard arrested three of the five Lords and sentenced them to death and banished the other two.  One of those exiled was Henry Bolingbroke, the eldest son of John of Gaunt, who was originally banished for 10 years.  On the death of John of Gaunt in 1399, King Richard II confiscated the vast Lancastrian estates which were Henry Bollingbroke's inheritance.

In 1399, Richard travelled to Ireland allowing Henry Bollingbroke to land at Ravenspur, Yorkshire, in July, to reclaim his confiscated title of Duke of Lancaster and with it, Lord of Pontefract.  Taking advantage of the widespread dissatisfaction with Richard's rule, Richard was forced to surrender to him on his return from Ireland and abdicate.  He was eventually imprisoned in Pontefract Castle where it is uncertain whether he died through general neglect or was murdered by the Kings supporters.  Pontefract Castle thus became a Royal Castle when Henry's claim to the throne was confirmed by Parliament and he became King Henry IV in October 1399.

The Castle itself was further modified and strengthened by the Lancastrian Kings throughout the 14th and 15th centuries until it became one of the foremost royal castles in the North of England.  Pontefract also became one of the largest and wealthiest towns in the West Riding.  The castle was used to house important prisoners and during the Wars of the Roses it was used as a Lancastrian stronghold when in 1460 the Lancastrian Army came from Pontefract to the Battle of Wakefield.

Pontefract Castle depicted during the 17th century

Pontefract Castle depicted during the 17th century

The 16th century saw the castle fall into relative disuse until the start of the Civil War where it was held for the King and underwent three sieges in 1644, 1645 and 1648. The town suffered great damage before the castle was finally surrendered in 1649 when it was believed to be the last remaining Royalist stronghold to fall to Cromwell's armies.  Under an Act of Parliament, put forward by the local townspeople who had suffered greatly throughout all the fighting, the castle was ordered to be destroyed and it was duly reduced to the remains we see today.

Pontefract Castle is open to visitors for most of the year and the WMDC Wakefield Museums and Arts website gives further details and opening hours.


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