PUBLISHED IN THE
500th MAYORAL YEAR, 1970
Every town had its Market or Church cross which dominated the town centre.
Pontefract had an abundance of early crosses which marked its boundaries
and graced its market square. Of some, such as the HIRD Cross, the site
is unknown, but the remaining six crosses are fairly well documented.
OSGOT, or OSWALD’S Cross, which was named after King Oswald, the early Saxon
Christian who was slain in battle in 655, was the earliest known Cross,
and it was before it that King Edred met the Archbishop and all the
Councillors of the Northumbrians in C.947.
The site was where the Buttercross now stands and was regarded as sanctuary
for criminals. It had two yards of paved freeway round its base and gave
its name to the Wapentake of Osgoldcross.
The eastern boundary of the town had two Crosses, which marked the meeting
of the parishes of Ferrybridge, Knottingley, and Pontefract. The Great
North Road, as wide as the length of a Tennis Court, passed close to
this spot and was protected from floods by a ‘great ditch’.
RALPH’S Cross, known as early as 1170, is still to be found on the Ferrybridge
road and is now known as STUMP Cross because only its base remains in
situ. Part of the Cross is also to be found in a garden near to this
The NEW CROSS or WHITE CROSS, lay to the south on the Knottingley road and
dates from about 1235. Between the two Crosses stood the ‘Old Thorn’
or ‘Gospel Thorn’, an old tree which served as a meeting place for
the ceremony of beating the bounds.
CARLETON CROSS. The western boundary had a Preaching Cross dated about 1300. This
was established as a Boundary Cross for the Black Friars of St. Richard’s
LANCASTER CROSS was erected in memory of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who was
beheaded on St. Thomas’s Hill, on 22nd March 1322. This Cross was
first made of wood, due to a lack of funds, but it was replaced by a
stone Cross in 1401.
BUTTER CROSS is in reality a Market Hall, built in 1734 in memory of Thomas
Dupeer. It replaced St. OSWALD’S Cross.
Situated below the old Pontefract General Infirmary, on Southgate, are two
ancient caves carved out of solid rock.
The first grot, to the east, was begun by Adam de Laythorpe and Robert, his
son, in 1386. It consists of a room approximately three yards by four
yards, from which there is a descent by means of a spiral Staircase of
59 steps to a small chamber below, which at one time contained a large
basin of fresh spring water and was profusely carved with names.
Thoresby, the Leeds Antiquary, thus describes a visit to the site in April 1703:
"Afterwards went to see a remarkable grotto in Mr. English’s garden, hewn out of
an entire rock, out of which solid rock are cut a pair of winding
stairs, the roof, sides and steps, all of a piece, at the bottom of
which is a little fountain or well…."
The chamber is now blocked up due to subsidence and rubble from repairs to
the walls and foundations. Skulls found during excavations for the new
hospital now adorn the alcoves cut into the walls, and at the base of
the steps is carved a skeleton. This is believed to be a late addition,
possibly an eighteenth or nineteenth century carving and depicts the
dance of death, with the wielding of a spear or arrow.
The second cave, to the west, was an oratory – a small chapel for
meditation and prayer, and this is also entered by steps. It is thought
to have been constructed in 1433, but there are two documents which
indicate that it may be earlier. The first document is dated 1406 and
the second, dated 1413, repeats the earlier bequests. Both are much
faded and are difficult to read.
This chapel was blocked up at the Reformation and was not discovered for
three hundred years, until a drainage excavator accidentally broke
through the roof in 1854.
Fifteen years later an entrance was made in to the room from the Valley Gardens,
and this is now within the storage cellars of the hospital.
The chapel has a small altar carved out of the sandstone rock, a small seat
or bed, and a fireplace. The room is now overshadowed by a huge column
erected to support the foundations of the hospital above.
Leland, the chronicler, called Pontefract Castle ‘Snorre Castle’ (norre or
northern Castle), and described it as "very fair and set on a rock
of stone." It was in fact, an important stronghold which became
known as "the Key to the North," serving to guard the main
route to Scotland and the North.
During its development it must have attained great heights of splendour and was
often used as a residence by visiting Royalty. Some idea of its
magnificence can be gained from the household accounts of Thomas, earl
of Lancaster, which totalled £7,957-13s-4½d. for the year 1314.
The Barons wore purple ermine trimmed hoods, saffron coloured summer robes,
and blue robes in winter. The Knights wore green silk, and the clerks
red gowns. Thomas himself wore red silk. The poor of the town were given
russet cloth and cared for by donations of money on the days of the
The major building periods were in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries
and established the character and lay out of the Castle as it is known
from the engravings. John of Gaunt was mainly concerned with this
building programme and large sums were spent on repairs to the Castle.
The lower part of the great tower – often referred to as the ‘Keep’,
and later as the ‘Blanchetour’, but properly as the ‘Donjon’,
had been rebuilt during the reign of Edward II but was completed by John
of Gaunt in 1374-1378. Thirty oaks were obtained from Seacroft Woods,
but the usual source of timber was Phipping Park, near Pollington.
The ‘New tower outside the castle to the North’ was built in the period
1399-1405, and became known as Swillington Tower, after the Castle
Seneschal, Thomas Swillington, who died there in 1405. The Constable
tower was built 1405-1412, and the kitchen in 1413. The Kings Hall
1439-40, Barbican 1439-1441, the larder ‘rebuilt to match the kitchen’
1446-59 and in 1446-7 the Donjon and the Thomas tower were repaired.
A record showing that in 1462-3 the drawbridge was built between the Lords
Chamber and the New Tower (Constable) clearly confirms that the King’s
Tower was next to the Constable Tower. There has been much doubt
regarding the King’s and Queen’s Towers, which are often misnamed on
the Siege Plans.
Henry IV and Henry V allowed the expenditure of £1,500-£2,000 in
strengthening and repairing the castle.
The strength of the Castle was one of the reasons why it was used as a
National prison. Richard II was an important prisoner and reputedly
murdered at the castle, but doubts have been expressed regarding the
validity of this claim. However, recently published accounts show that
£66-13-4 was paid for the carriage of the King’s body from Pontefract
The ‘Contrariant Roll’ names the downfall of another famous name
associated with Pontefract Castle. It lists that Robin Hood forfeit one
dwelling house of 5 chambers on Bichill, Wakefield’ prior to his
period of outlawry in Barnsdale Woods. Contrariant was a name given to
Thomas of Lancaster and his followers because it was not expedient to
call them rebels or traitors.
Important prisoners captured at the battle of Agincourt were transported to
Pontefract and included the French Royal Prince Charles Duke of Orleans,
who was kept prisoner for a period of twenty five years. It was at
Pontefract that he wrote much of his poetry and became one of the best
poets in France. Robert Waterton, the Steward of the Castle, was
assigned the important task of negotiating peace terms with the French,
and also arranged for another literary prisoner, the Scots King James I,
to be returned from Pontefract to Scotland.
It was on 12th May, 1423, that a safe conduct was granted to William,
Bishop of Glasgow. The Chancellor of Scotland, George Earl of March,
John de Montgomery of Ardrossan, and four others, who came to negotiate
the deliverance of the King of Scotland.
Many other important Scots were also imprisoned at the Castle, and over a
period of thirty years many prisoners were exchanged.
The Castle Guard continued to be a major prison and was still in use for the
new French prisoners in 1780 when "the French prisoners on parole
at Pontefract began their route South in order to be exchanged."
The Castle, except the gatehouse, was demolished in 1649 after the Civil War
had brought much trouble to the town. It was used as a liquorice garth
until 1880 when the Corporation leased it for use as a public Park.
In the liquorice fields at Pontefract
My love and I did meet
And many a burdened liquorice bush
Was blooming round our feet
So wrote the poet John Betjemen about 20 years ago. Commercially the
liquorice garths, which were a feature of the town in the past, are no
more and only a little is still preserved by the Corporation’s Parks
There is no documentary evidence yet available to prove when, and by whom,
liquorice was first grown in Pontefract. The plant is not a native of
this country, and the long history of liquorice supports the likelihood
that it was brought by the Monks, probably in the late 12th century. It
was renowned throughout the civilised world for its thirst quenching and
medicinal properties ; it was described by the personal physicians of
the Caesars as a tonic, and it formed part of the rations of the Roman
soldier, just as it did later for the soldiers of Elizabeth I. Its
virtues were extolled by Theophrastus in the 3rd century B.C. As men of
medicine the monks would be well acquainted with its powers as they
would also be aware of the mode of cultivation, added to which they had
the right soil in which to grow it in Pontefract.
in the 17th century described the vast quantities being grown in the
area, and in 1794 Mr. Hawley, a local nurseryman, wrote to the Board of
Agriculture "a considerable quantity, more than 100 acres, is grown
in the neighbourhood." A Town’s Meeting of 1701 made an order
forbidding anyone to give, sell or lend any liquorice buds or setts for
growing outside the Borough.
The original Pontefract cakes date before 1614, but they were for medicinal
purposes. The confectionery industry stemmed from George Dunhill who, in
1760, added sugar to the recipe. In 1790 four growers and refiners are
recorded and in 1822 there were five recorded, while in 1900 there were
15 manufacturers of Pontefract Cakes in the town. Today there are but
two – though their combined output doubtless exceeds by several times
that of all the 15 in 1900. The liquorice used comes in extract form
from Spain, Greece, and other Mediterranean sources, and from China.
For a variety of reasons, local liquorice growing declined and finally died
out in 1944, but the Pontefract Cake is known throughout the country and