Wolsey, on his way back to London in disgrace commented of Pontefract Castle, “Shall I go there, and lie there, and die like a beast?” Perhaps he was thinking of King Richard II who starved to death in the great fortress.
The Normans built their motte and bailey on the Anglo-Saxon Royal Manor of Tanshelf. It’s builder was Ilbert de Lacy. Ilbert and his brother arrived in 1066. The new Lord of Pontefract had done well out of the conquest and didn’t forget to show his gratitude by making gifts to both Selby Abbey and St Mary’s Abbey in York.
As the centuries progressed so did the castle until its eight towers dominated the town and the landscape beyond. Edward I described it as ‘the key to the north’. The de Lacy’s continued to be its custodians until Henry de Lacy (Earl of Lincoln) lost his male heir when he fell off the battlements in 1310. His daughter Alice an important heiress was married to Thomas, Earl of Lancaster so it was he who became the next custodian of the castle. He was Edward II’s cousin and it would be fair to say that they didn’t see eye to eye. By 1318 Alice and Thomas were separated – possibly because of the fraught political situation of the period or perhaps because they just didn’t like one another. Alice spent most of her time in Pickering while Thomas lived a bachelor life. Thomas eventually revolted against his cousin on account of the Despencers, made an alliance with the Scots and then rather unfortunately lost the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. He was taken back home to Pontefract and unceremoniously executed looking towards Scotland which was the direction of his treachery.
Eventually the castle passed into the hands of John of Gaunt and from there to his son Henry Bolingbroke who became Henry IV when he usurped his cousin’s throne. Richard II found himself locked in one of Pontefract;s dungeons and that was the end of him. Pontefract was now a royal castle and its prisoners reflected its importance and its security. In 1405, Richard Scrope, Archbishop of York was imprisoned here before his execution. James I of Scotland spent some time here as an unwilling guest as did the Dukes of Bourbon and Orleans after their capture at Agincourt. Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury was executed here in 1460 and in 1483 Richard of York had Earl Rivers and Lord Richard Gray imprisoned here and executed – which was one way to reduce the Woodville influence at court but hasn’t reflected well on the man who became Richard III mainly because the two half brothers of the boy king Edward V were executed without trial.
The castle had a grim reputation which is perhaps something that Catherine Howard (Henry VIII’s Fifth wife) ought to have reflected upon before she started her affair with Thomas Culpepper during a Royal Progress.
Pontefract Castle’s days of greatness and terror drew to a close with the English Civil War. After the Battle of Marston Moor the castle became a Royalist stronghold. Parliamentry forces besieged it and when it finally fell in 1648 the mayor of Pontefract petitioned on behalf of the townspeople that the castle should be destroyed. Work began in April 1649.
Today a few fragments of the castle remain. The curtain wall encloses a park which hides a grim secret. Some thirty-five feet beneath the grass there lurks a network of cellars and magazines which were once Pontefract Castle’s dungeons.