Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 1.42: Pontefract Castle

Plate: View of Pontefract Castle engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) after a drawing from the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The original drawings belonged to a cache of nine Elizabethan drawings of castles held by the office of the Duchy of Lancaster. They were produced to illustrate a survey of the properties of the Duchy of Lancaster, undertaken by Ambrose Cave (c. 1503-1568) in 1561. Plate 1.42 is part of a series that also includes Plates 1.39, 1.40, 1.41, 1.44, 1.46, 2.11, and 2.13.

Object: Pontefract Castle, viewed from the south, likely from Baghill. Pontefract was often shortened to Pomfret in writing, and both spellings were routinely used by members of the Society of Antiquaries of London in the early eighteenth century. The engraving shows the outer bailey and the barbican, through which visitors to the castle entered. Proceeding clockwise from the gatehouse, the engraving depicts the keep, Gascoigne Tower (which protected the sally port), Treasurer’s Tower, Swillington Tower, Queens Tower, Kings Tower, and Constable Tower (Roberts 1990). There is a chapel located immediately behind the curtain wall to the right of the gatehouse. The town of Pontefract with its church, St Giles, is visible on the left margin of the engraving. East of the castle walls stands All Saints Church, and behind the church, positioned on a hill on the right margin of the engraving, are the ruins of St John’s Priory.

In the late eleventh century, William the Conqueror granted Ilbert de Lacy, who had fought alongside William at Hastings, the Honour of Pontefract, a large estate encompassing the land from the Pennines to the low-land marshes stretching along the rivers of Aire, Ouse and Don (Creighton 2002, 108). De Lacy built Pontefract as a motte and bailey castle, initially made from earth and timber, which over the next two centuries was gradually rebuilt in stone and enlarged through the addition of new towers, buildings, and fortifications. The Honour of Pontefract passed to the house of Lancaster in 1311 and became a royal possession under Henry IV. During the Civil War a Royalist garrison was stationed in the castle, which was besieged three times and finally demolished after it fell to Parliamentarian forces in March 1649 (Holmes 1878, 236). Today, surviving parts of the castle aboveground include the castle mound as well as ruinous remains of the keep, some of the towers, the curtain wall, the sally port, and a Norman chapel.

Pontefract Castle is located on a hill in the town of Pontefract in Yorkshire. It occupies the ground of a Saxon cemetery and of what archaeologists believe may have been the town ditch of the earlier Saxon settlement.


PONTEFRACT CASTLE in the West Riding of YORKSHIRE, / Granted by WILLIAM the Conquerer to HILDEBERT de LASCY, Repaired by QUEEN ELIZABETH, but totally demolished in 1648, is thus transmitted to Posterity by the Society of Antiquaries, London, 1734.

Preparatory Drawings: Click here to see the Preparatory Drawings for Plate 1.42.

Commentary by Katharina Boehm: The Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) commissioned George Vertue to engrave the drawing of Pontefract Castle along with seven other sixteenth-century drawings of castles in the Duchy of Lancaster in a meeting that took place on 20 April 1732 (SAL Minutes I.288). Smart Lethieullier's (1701-1760) discovery of these drawings during a visit to the duchy office is discussed in more detail in the commentary on Plate 1.39. George Vertue produced a drawing that was exhibited in a meeting on 26 October 1732 (II.1); he presented proof prints of both Pontefract and Lancaster castles on 4 July 1734 (II.45). Two prints of Pontefract castle were gifted, together with prints of the castles of Lancaster and Knaresborough, to the Duke of Rutland, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who had lent the original drawings to the SAL and given permission for them to be engraved (II.150).

Pontefract Castle had been demolished in 1649 and early eighteenth-century visitors must have found it difficult to square the ruinous remains, leased in 1720 by a local family to grow and store licorice crops, with the stately castle depicted on Vertue’s engraving of the original 1561 drawing. This drawing is now held by the National Archives (TNA MR 1/16). Measuring 55 x 152cm, it was slightly larger than the drawing of Lancaster Castle from the same cache. The original drawing depicts a row of small townhouses in the foreground as well as a large group of townhouses between the castle and All Saints Church, much larger than the group of townhouses shown in Vertue’s engraving. As a result the castle is framed on three sides by the town of Pontefract. The composition of Vertue’s engraving is tidier. The removal of the townhouses in the foreground ensures that nothing distracts from the castle, the engraving’s main subject. In place of the town in the foreground, Vertue gave the scene a pastoral air by inserting a herd of grazing sheep, two men strolling by, and two other men with horses.

Vertue faithfully reproduced the castle, All Saints Church, and the town with St Giles to the left of the castle as they are shown on the original drawing, but he made significant changes to the appearance of the ruins of the church that had once belonged to St John’s Priory (upper right). The original drawing shows a hastily sketched assemblage of four ruinous structures of very different heights: a rounded tower, a gabled end, and two ruined walls. Since the drawing was produced just two decades after the dissolution of monasteries, Vertue may have presented a grander version of the ruins in order to remind viewers of the fate that abbeys and monasteries suffered throughout England during this period. Whether he was motivated by this didactic aim or a purely aesthetic one, Vertue’s fictional version of the ruins of the priory church quickly became a canonical part of pictures of Pontefract castle and its environs, copied by many later artists and engravers throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Clearly visible in both the original drawing and Vertue’s engraving is the unusual shape of the castle’s keep with its irregularly-sized lobes. By the early eighteenth century, only the bases of three of the drum towers that were once part of the keep survived. However, John Leland’s Itinerary—available to members of the SAL for instance in Thomas Hearne’s edition (1710-12)—contained a description of the keep’s original design. Leland, who visited Pontefract in the 1530s, notes that the castle “conteinith 8. Tourres, of which the Dungeon [the keep] cast ynto 6. Roundelles, 3. bigge and 3. smaul, is very fair, and hath a fair Spring” (Leland 1710, 1.34). Leland’s description suggests that the original keep had an unusual form, consisting of three small and three bigger lobes arranged like the petals of a flower. Four of these irregularly-sized lobes can be seen on Vertue’s engraving, where the points at which the individual towers merge are decorated with small turrets. Roger Gale, who was a highly active member of the SAL during its early decades, owned another drawing of Pontefract Castle, taken during one of the sieges of the Civil War. This drawing depicts all six lobes of the keep on a single plane by dramatically flattening the perspective. Gale’s drawing was engraved by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck (1726) and might have influenced Vertue’s rendering of the Elizabethan drawing. The Minute Books document that on two different occasions in the 1740s and 1750s members of the SAL looked at copies of a siege map dated 1648 (BL Add. MS 39256) that showed the town of Pontefract, the castle, and the line of circumvallation surrounding both (SAL Minutes V.14; VIII.155).

Leland’s description of Pontefract provides a clue to another feature of the original 1561 drawing and Vertue’s engraving: right in the center of the picture, behind the castle and its curtain wall but framed by its high-rising towers, stands what appears to be a small medieval chapel on a hill. This chapel had been demolished when Vertue engraved the drawing, but it was still in existence when Leland visited Pontefract. Leland points out that “[w]ithowt the Town on the Hil, wher the goode Duke of Lancastre was beheddid, ys a fair Chirche” (Leland 1710, 5.84). Thomas of Lancaster, who was embroiled in a rebellion against Edward II, was condemned to death for treason in Pontefract Castle. Medieval chronicles report that Thomas of Lancaster was executed on a hill, outside but in view of the castle. He came to be regarded as a saint by the populace, and although the pope never canonized “St Thomas,” believers undertook pilgrimages to his shrine and kept the cult alive until the Reformation (Piroyansky 2008, 29). While Thomas of Lancaster was buried in St John’s Priory, pilgrims venerated him at the chantry chapel built on the hill where the execution took place.

Today, no traces of the chapel—Leland’s “fair Chirche”—remain, but historians believe that it was located on a hill by the road to Ferrybridge, about half a mile north-east from the castle (Slater 2014, 218). This means that the chapel’s location on the 1561 drawing and on Vertue’s engraving—to the north, rather than northeast of the castle—is not correct. However, such inaccuracies were extremely common: for instance, Alexander Keirincx’s famous 1640/1641 painting of the castle contracts the distance between the town and the castle and alters the course of the river Aire in order to be able to include both in his composition. The artist who produced the 1561 drawing was clearly interested in surrounding the castle with familiar landmarks, such as St Giles, All Saints Church, and the ruins of St John’s Priory—all of which had strong connections to the castle and its owners who had founded and funded these religious houses at different points in time. If the chapel behind the castle indeed represents the chantry chapel erected in memory of Thomas of Lancaster, its inclusion—a reminder of one of castle’s first famous prisoners—probably followed a similar logic.

Camden, who penned his account of Pontefract towards the end of the sixteenth century, makes no mention of the chantry chapel, which at this point had probably suffered the same fate as St John’s Priory and been demolished. Camden describes the castle as “very stately, and strongly founded upon a rock; and not only fortify’d, but also beautify’d, with many outworks” (1722, 864). Gibson’s edition of Britannia also outlines Pontefract’s long history as prison and place of execution “fatal to great men” (Camden 1722, 865). The execution of Thomas of Lancaster is discussed as well as the potentially violent death of Richard II and the execution of Anthony, the Earl Rivers, and of Sir Richard Grey on the order of Richard III. In the early eighteenth century, the memory of Pontefract as the site of Richard II’s mysterious death (some sources suggested he had been murdered or starved to death; others alleged he had died from exhaustion) was kept fresh, for instance, through broadsheet ballads such as An Excellent Ballad of the Deposing of Richard the Second, and How, After Many Miseries, He Was Barbarously Murder’d in Pomfret Castle (c.1730), set to the tune of the popular song “Regard my Sorrows” and illustrated with a woodcut that shows how the deposed king is tortured by two men in the dungeon of Pontefract Castle. Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King Richard II famously shows Richard being murdered by Pierce of Exton during the king’s imprisonment at Pontefract. Pontefract figures also in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard III where Rivers and Grey, seeking to block the Duke of Gloucester’s (the later Richard III’s) usurpation of the throne, are dragged off to Pontefract. For Rivers, the mere name of the castle spells despair: “O Pomfret, Pomfret! O thou bloody prison! / Fatal and ominous to noble peers!” (Shakespeare 2008, III.3.7-8).

The idea that Pontefract was a “murderous den” held a strong fascination for Edward King, member of the SAL and its acting president for two months in 1784, who published a detailed account of the castle’s remains in his Observations on Ancient Castles (King 1782, 135). King takes the reader on a tour through the subterranean chambers and tunnels of Pontefract that once served as dungeons and speculates at length about the exact spot where Richard II was incarcerated and murdered (1782, 137-40). Vertue’s earlier engraving of this monarch in his heyday (Plate 1.4) may have come to mind for some collectors of Vetusta Monumenta, but references to the castle’s bloody history are almost entirely absent from Vertue’s engraving and the accompanying note: Pontefract, with its crenelated battlements and decorative turrets, is given a serene air and there is no trace of the siege trenches and outer fortifications that were added in the decades leading up to the Civil War and that are clearly visible on the aforementioned siege map of 1648. The note remembers Ilbert de Lacy, the founder of the castle, and the repairs carried out under Elizabeth I, but does not allude to the imprisonments and executions that took place at Pontefract.

Vertue’s engraving has had a remarkable afterlife: while Buck’s engraving of Gale’s drawing and Keirincx’s painting appear to have been copied only rarely, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reproductions of Vertue’s engraving (some showing major or minor alterations) survive in the collection of Pontefract Museum. Two comprehensive nineteenth-century histories of Pontefract Castle, authored respectively by George Fox and Richard Holmes, use reproductions of Vertue’s engraving as the sole pictorial representation of the castle’s architecture.

Works Cited:

Buck, Samuel and Nathaniel Buck. 1726. “Pomfret Castle in Yorkshire before it was Demolished.” In A Collection of Engravings of Castles, and Abbeys in England. London.

Camden, William. 1722. Britannia, or a chorographical description of Great Britain and Ireland, together with the adjacent islands. Translated by Edmund Gibson. Vol. 2. London: Mary Matthews

Creighton, O.H. 2002. Castles and Landscapes: Power, Community and Fortification in Medieval England. London: Equinox.

An Excellent Ballad of the Deposing of Richard the Second, and How, After Many Miseries, He Was Barbarously Murder’d in Pomfret Castle. c.1730. Northampton: Dicey.

Fox, John. 1827. The History of Pontefract in Yorkshire. Pontefract: John Fox.

Holmes, Richard. 1878. Pontefract: Its Name, Its Lords, and Its Castle. Pontefract.

Keirincx, Alexander. c.1640/41. Pontefract Castle. A1.931. Pontefract Museum, Pontefract.

King, Edward. 1782. Observations on Ancient Castles. London: Nichols.

Leland, John. 1710-12. The Itinerary of John Leland the Antiquary. Edited by Thomas Hearne. 9 vols. Oxford.

Perspective View of Pontefract Castle. 1561. MR 1/16. The National Archives, Kew.

Piroyansky, Danna. 2008. Martyrs in the Making: Political Martyrdom in Late Medieval England. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Roberts, Ian. 1990. Pontefract Castle: Archaeological Excavations 1982-86. Wakefield: West Yorkshire Archaeology Service.

Shakespeare, William. 2008. The Tragedy of King Richard III. Edited by John Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Siege of Pontefract Castle of 1648. 1648. Siege Map. Add. 39256. British Library, London.

Slater, Laura. 2014 “Finding Jerusalem in Medieval Pontefract.” Northern History 51, no. 2: 211-20.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

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