High on a sandstone ridge there once stood a motte and bailey castle that was built by the Norman knight, Ilbert de Lacy, in about 1080. The site commanded two principle English highways, the north road and the route to the west over the River Aire and the Pennines.
Ilbert was famed for his bravery at the Battle of Hastings, when he and seven other knights charged King Harold’s Shield wall, fearing neither English spear nor axe. This extraordinary act may well have been part of the final charge that broke through the depleted English lines leading to
the Norman victory of 14th October 1066.
When Ilbert died, in about 1092, the castle was inherited by his eldest son Robert de Lacy. A few years later he was to lose the castle and his English lands after joining Robert de Bellême and other barons in an ill-fated rebellion against King Henry I, in support of Duke Robert of Normandy’s rightful claim to the English throne, after the mysterious death of of his brother, King William II (Rufus) in the New Forest in 1100.
When King John came to power in 1199, he returned the castle to Roger de Lucy. When he died in 1213 and was succeeded by his son, King John took possession again. However, he allowed the de Lacy family to continue to live there. It is believed from this time on until the end of 13th century the stone, ‘round tower’ (multilobate keep) and other building projects were carried out.
By 1311, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, had inherited the property by marriage. He was cousin to King Edward II and at one time heir presumptive. Over time the King’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, openly undermined Thomas’s authority leaving him no other choice but to rebel against the King, culminating in the Battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322 when the King won a decisive victory. Thomas was captured and taken ignominiously back to Pontefract where he was sentenced by the King,
in the great hall, taken outside the castle walls and beheaded.
In 1327 Thomas’s younger brother, Henry, 3rd Earl of Lancaster, was allowed to take possession. Three years later he became blind and in 1345 his eldest son, Henry of Grosmont, became Duke of Lancaster on inheriting Pontefract. Henry, not known for literacy, was never-the-less a great military commander
and won tremendous favour with King Edward III.
After the death of Henry, the property passed to John of Gaunt who put into action a great deal of building and repairs, the details of which remain unknown to us. On his death in February 1399 his son Henry Bolingbroke inherited the title, Earl of Lancaster and the property of Pontefract. Returning from France, or as some may say, landing in southern England in force, Henry eventually received King Richard II’s surrender and abdication and ascended the throne as King Henry IV. By October of the same year, Henry had Richard imprisoned in Pontefract’s Goscogne tower where, it is thought,
he was starved and died on the 14th February 1400.
The castle became synonymous as a place of incarceration of the famous. These included the Dukes of Orleans and Bourbon, from the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 who were held for the next thirty years, also King Charles 1 of Scotland who was released after only three years.
From this time on it became a royal castle and over the next 100 years it
was further strengthened by the Lancastrian Kings.
During the Civil War this Royalist castle held out, enduring three long sieges: The first in December 1644, when it was attacked by General Fairfax and his Parliamentary forces. The castle was retaken three months later by Sir Marmaduke Longdale’s Northern Horse. It was then captured by General Poyntz in July 1645, then in turn, recaptured by stealth in 1648 by Royalist forces, when Colonel Morris and Captain Paulden probably in disguise drove carts with concealed troops into the bailey. Finally the castle surrendered to Parliamentary troops in 1649 after a year long siege. Soon afterwards, by an act of Parliament,
the castle was completely demolished.
“we lighted at the Star, and took a fayre re-past, to enable us the better to scale
that high and stately, famous and princely impregnable castle and cittadell, built
by a Norman upon a rocke: which for the situation, strength and largenesse, may compare
with any in the kingdome.”
“In the circuit of the castle there is seven famous towers of that amplitude and receipt, as may
entertaine so many Princes, as sometimes have commanded this Island. The highest of them
is called the Round Tower, in which that unfortunate Prince was enforced to flee round a
poste till his barbarous Butchers inhumanely deprived him of life. Upon that poste the cruel
hackings and fierce blowes doe still remain.”
Part of two descriptions of Pontefract castle, taken from ‘Landsdown Manuscripts’ dated 1665
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