West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
 
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Pontefract Local History

FROM CHRISTIANITY TO TREASON


ORIGINS AND HISTORY OF PONTEFRACT BUTTERCROSS

POntefract Butter Cross

Pontefract Buttercross showing the original balustrade. An engraving from Paul Jollage’s map of 1742.
Image from the collection of Pontefract Museum

The present day shopper perusing the wide variety of goods available from the market stalls surrounding the Buttercross may well be unaware that they are part of a continuing tradition of trade of all kinds on a site which has been the focal point of historical significance within the town and the surrounding district for more than a thousand years.

Since its construction in 1734 no building has been so evocative of the town of Pontefract as the Buttercross.

In the Middle Ages the site was the location of St. Oswald’s Cross, named after St. Oswald, King of Northumbria. St. Oswald was the eldest son of the pagan King Aethelfrith of Bernicia by his second marriage to Princess Aacha of Deira. He was probably born in AD 605 at the height of his fathers power soon after he had invaded the Kingdom of Deira and forced its King, Edward, to flee.

However, when Oswald was eleven years old, Queen Aacha was forced to flee to Scotland with her children when King Edwin re-conquered Northumbria.

There the family were converted to Christianity by the monks from Iona Abbey and Oswald and his brother Oswiu were sent to the same monastery to be educated. Oswald apparently became a brave warrior at an early age.

In AD 633, King Edwin was killed in battle against the forces of Gwynedd and Mercia and Oswald’s half-brother, Eanfrith, established himself on the Bernician throne. Eanfrith proved to be just as unpopular as Edwin and Oswald saw himself as his brother’s heir possibly with the encouragement of the Northumbrians. Oswald’s father was Bernician and his mother Deiran and it seemed he was one of the few people who could unite the Kingdom. With a small force of men, Oswald marched south to lay claim to his inheritance and raised a large cross ahead of the battle. The prayers of his soldiers around the cross are said to have contributed to his victory despite being greatly outnumbered by the opposing forces. Oswald’s reputation as a Saint originates in his reintroduction of Christianity to Northumberland and he further increased the spread of Christianity to other parts of the country. However, there were forces gathering who wished to bring an end to King Oswald’s glorious reign in Britain and in AD 642 the old Northumbrian enemy, King Penda of Mercia, gathered a large force against him and Oswald was killed.

St. Oswald was a popular saint in Yorkshire with several churches bearing his dedication. Whether the original St. Oswald’s Cross in Pontefract was erected by him or as is more likely, in his memory, is not known but the site became a sanctuary for those people evading arrest by the administrative bodies of the town for debt and other offences. This was signified by an unpaved area around it extending to approximately two yards.

The cross was established as the meeting place of the Wapentake (District or Division) of Osgoldcross (a corruption of Oswald’s Cross) which extended from Featherstone to Whitgift, south to South Elmsall and north to the boundaries of the rivers Calder and Aire. As a regular meeting place it undoubtedly became an area from which traders would market their goods.

By the Norman period, the town was well established around the cross with a thriving market place. The area around the cross may already have been used by those selling dairy produce.

In 1572 the cross was joined by the conduit which had as its source a spring in Penny Lane which was known as ‘Organn Well’. The pump adequately served the limited population for a number of decades.

The cross was "newly beautified in 1671" according to Thomas Gent, though it is likely he was referring to repairs to damage sustained during the Civil War.

St. Oswald’s Cross was demolished in 1734, much to the reprobation of the Antiquarian Richard Gough who wrote:

"As if Pontefract was to shew (sic) no evidence of its splendour, St. Oswald’s cross gave place within these thirty years to an unmeaning market-house."

The market-house referred to by Gough was of course the present day Buttercross. Later, in Boothroyd’s ‘History of Pontefract’ it is stated:

"The inhabitants of the town and country are of a very different opinion to this celebrated antiquarry [Gough]. They enjoy essential benefit from the latter, while the former, if it had been suffered to remain, would be wholly useless."

As the inscription on the south side states, the Buttercross was "Erected by Mrs Elizabeth Dupier, relict of Solomon Dupier, gentleman, in a cheerful and generous compliance with his benevolent intention, 1734"

No ordinary resident of the town, Solomon Dupier died on 20th August 1732 but thirty years before his death he had been one of the garrison of Gibraltar when it was held by pro Bourbon forces for King Philip V in the war of the Spanish Succession. On 3rd August 1704 an Anglo-Dutch force commanded by Admiral Gerorge Rooke attacked Gibraltar, the garrison surrendering the following day. It is said that Solomon Dupier was instrumental in bringing about the fall of the rock and that he received a valuable pension for his services. In a recent communication dated 30th May 1968 it is stated that "it would appear Dupier was to give a signal when the Spanish garrison were engaged in their religious duties in connection with one of the more important festivals in the Catholic Church calendar. He did so, and, as a result, the English Forces landed and captured the Rock with few, if any, casualties."

It was also stated that it was "not considered politic that Solomon Dupier should continue to reside in Gibraltar and it would appear that the English Government gave him a pension of £500 per year and permission to settle anywhere in England that he should choose."

Along with Captain Lay, a member of Rooke’s force, Dupier came to live in Pontefract, bringing with him his wife and three daughters, where he maintained the lifestyle of a gentleman. Whatever Dupier’s involvement in 1704, whether it could be considered an act of treason may never be known and the reasons for him choosing to settle in Pontefract may likewise never come to light.

Some years after his arrival in Pontefract his wife and three daughters contracted smallpox and he took a vow that if their lives were spared he would erect a covered market cross in Pontefract in order to afford protection from the elements to the country women who came in to the town on Saturday mornings with their baskets of dairy produce. Although all four did survive it is said that all lost their sight but nevertheless Dupier left money in his will to his widow in trust to erect a Buttercross in fulfilment of his vow. According to Solomon Dupiers will, £150 was to be donated to the building of a market cross which was to be completed within two years of the death of his wife.

However, on the 10th December 1733 an agreement was reached between the Mayor and Alderman of Pontefract and Elizabeth Dupier that construction of the market cross should proceed without delay and so his widow, instead of waiting the stipulated period, carried his testementary directions into effect in 1734.

When first constructed, the Buttercross had a flat roof surrounded by a balustrade but this was replaced by the present hipped roof at a cost of £46-3-10d during August and September 1763. Such covered market crosses were common during the eighteenth century but the Buttercross is a much more substantial structure than most others and is unusual in its rectangular plan. It continued to fulfil its original function as a market shelter for farmers wives with their baskets of dairy produce well into the 20th century but other more extraordinary transactions have taken place at the Buttercross during its existence.

It is recorded that in 1776 John Nutt brought his wife to the market cross and sold her to a Mr. Ryder for five shillings and it was further reported that "all persons seemed perfectly satisfied." In 1815 another man succeeded in auctioning his wife. With an opening bid of one shilling his good lady was eventually sold for eleven shillings! Such happenings were not unique to Pontefract as it is recalled that similar occurrences were reported in the market town of Selby in 1862.

It is also recorded in West Yorkshire Archives that in 1822 a man sold his wife at The Cross in Halifax. The purchaser had good reason – three children from his marriage with her seven years previously. Unfortunately for him, the woman's husband, long since feared dead, returned home from army duty in some foreign land and claimed her. The husband led her to The Cross with a halter round her neck and before many witnesses the deal was struck though no price is recorded.

At the time, it was long thought amongst uneducated people that a wife could be sold to another man and that the resultant sale constituted a legal divorce. Indeed, in one case in 1881, a woman stated in court that she had been sold by her husband and possessed a receipt to prove that she was not committing adultery.

Both Solomon Dupier and his wife, who later died in 1745, are buried in Darrington Church where a contemporary tablet to their memory can be seen.

Solomon Dupier’s act of generosity to the people whose community he shared for almost thirty years has left a rich legacy in the form of a structure that has been the focal point of the town for the last 170 years. This Grade II listed building, seemingly forever in a state of disrepair and in need of constant maintenance and renovation is Pontefract and deserving of the same attention now as bestowed upon it by the Dupier’s many years ago.

Michael Norfolk


Further Studies of Interest

Pontefract Carnegie Free Library
Hope and Anchor Inn, Pontefract - Dr. Terry Spencer


 

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