Castle Stories
Castle Stories

Pontefract Castle Stories

Since its construction almost a thousand years ago, Pontefract Castle has seen some truly incredible things.

Known since the 13th century as the Key to the North, the castle has been at the centre of some of English history's most pivotal events.

Loyal Royalist soldiers, medieval barons and selfish kings. Unfaithful royal lovers, liquorice farmers and selfless Victorian ladies. Read on to discover some of the hundreds of stories contained within the castle walls…

Ilbert de Lacy

Pontefract Castle and the Norman Conquest

After William the Conqueror became king, he rewarded his loyal friends and allies by giving them land. One such friend was Ilbert de Lacy (left), who had fought for William at the Battle of Hastings. Ilbert was given the Honour of Pontefract, a large estate in Yorkshire. It was here, on the site of an Anglo-Saxon manor, that he built Pontefract Castle in 1070.

Ilbert, like William himself, was from Normandy. There was a lot of opposition from the Anglo-Saxons to their new Norman rulers. So the Normans built mighty castles - like Pontefract - to help them rule over their new subjects. The massive castles they built were designed to inspire fear and awe in the native population. 

Pontefract Castle and the Magna Carta

The de Lacy family enlarged Pontefract Castle, making it one of the mightiest fortresses in England. King John confiscated the castle when Roger de Lacy died. The King made Roger’s heir, John de Lacy (right), pay a huge fee to release his inheritance – but the King would not give up Pontefract Castle. So John de Lacy joined the rebel barons, and forced King John to seal the Magna Carta in 1215.

The Magna Carta (which means "Great Charter" in Latin) was a document drawn up by a group of barons who were unhappy with the unjust way King John was ruling England. It guaranteed a lot of rights and protections for the barons and it was a milestone in English justice, becoming part of the fabric of the English political system.

John de Lacy
Richard II

Pontefract Castle and a Shakespearean Tragedy

Over the centuries, Pontefract Castle’s importance made it the scene of many dark and terrible deeds… even being involved in the murder of a king.

King Richard II (left) was captured by his cousin, Henry IV, and imprisoned in the castle, where he was starved to death. This infamous event is immortalised in Shakespeare’s play, Richard II.
You can watch the scene of the King in prison – filmed at Pontefract Castle – in the video below.

Pontefract Castle and the Pilgrimage of Grace

During the reign of Henry VIII, the castle belonged to the Crown and was held by Thomas Darcy (right). However, Darcy disagreed with Henry’s religious policies. So when the Pilgrimage of Grace (a religious uprising opposing the Dissolution of the Monasteries) began, Thomas sympathised with the rebels, and surrendered the castle to them. When the rebellion failed, Darcy was executed for treason.

In medieval England, monasteries were crucial to the lives of commoners, as the monks lived and worked in their local communities. They provided education, and looked after the sick and elderly. So when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, many ordinary people were very unhappy. That is why so many commoners rose up against Henry during the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Thomas Darcy
Catherine Howard

Pontefract Castle and Henry VIII’s Fifth Wife

In 1541, King Henry VIII visited Pontefract Castle with his wife, Catherine Howard (left), and his courtier and friend, Thomas Culpeper. It is alleged that while staying at the castle, Thomas and Catherine began an affair. When this was discovered, the pair were executed.

By the time he married sixteen-year-old Catherine Howard in 1540, forty-nine-year-old Henry had already had four wives on his quest to get a strong male heir (he already had a son from his marriage to Jane Seymour, but young Prince Edward was sickly). Catherine was the second of Henry’s wives to be executed – the first was her cousin, Anne Boleyn – and Henry would go on to marry once more before he died. The tyrannical monarch did not get his wish: Edward VI died young, making way for his sisters, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I.

Pontefract Castle and the Civil Wars

During the Civil Wars, Pontefract Castle took part in three sieges. At the start of the second war, John Morris (right), and a few supporters, snuck into the castle by pretending to bring in beds for the garrison. These Royalists held the castle for 9 months, but when the King was executed, they had to surrender, and Morris was executed for treason.

The Civil Wars were a series of wars fought in Britain in the 17th century between King Charles I’s Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. Royalists believed that the King had a “divine right” to rule the country however he chose. Parliamentarians believed the country should be governed by parliament. The Parliamentarians won, and King Charles was beheaded. Cromwell ruled Britain for many years. When he died, the country invited Charles I’s son, Charles II, to be king – but this time, he would have very little power.

John Morris
George Dunhill

Pontefract Castle and Pontefract Cakes

The Dunhill family had been growing liquorice at Pontefract Castle for more than a century when George Dunhill (left), an apothecary, added sugar to his liquorice pastilles medicines and so invented Pontefract Cakes. The early cakes were stamped with the seal of Pontefract Castle as a mark of their quality.

Liquorice had been grown in Pontefract since at least the 17th century, when people grew it in plots of land behind their houses, known as “garths”. At first, liquorice was used as medicine – for horses as well as humans! – and to make it easy to buy and store, the liquorice was made into liquorice pastilles that could be dissolved in water. When George Dunhill invented Pontefract Cakes, he started the confectionary industry in Pontefract that still continues to this day.

Pontefract Castle and Victorian Philanthropy

Jeanette Leatham (right) was born Jeannette Cunard. The Cunards were a family that had become very rich due to their shipping business. After Jeannette married Edmund Leatham, she devoted her time to good works, supporting children’s homes as well as helping create the pleasure gardens and museum at Pontefract Castle.

The Victorian era was a time when the industrial revolution had made some people extremely rich, while others were unimaginably poor, living in terrible, filthy conditions. Because of this inequality, many people were concerned with ideas about charity and philanthropy (which means “the love of humanity”). Kind, wealthy Victorians tried to make the lives of poor people a little better by starting organisations like orphanages and charity schools as well as cultural organisations like libraries and museums.

Jeanette Leatham

So much more to discover...

If you've enjoyed these stories, and would like to find out more, then come and visit us at the castle, where the full stories of these and many more fascinating people throughout history are on display.