West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History


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 area.

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 Friary.

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 Saints.

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 to London.

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 Department.

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.

Travellers 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 the world. 



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