Pontefract Castle: part of late Saxon cemetery and town ditch, Norman motte and bailey castle and later medieval enclosure castle


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Pontefract Castle: part of late Saxon cemetery and town ditch, Norman motte and bailey castle and later medieval enclosure castle
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Wakefield (Metropolitan Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SE 46061 22225

Reasons for Designation

Motte and bailey castles are medieval fortifications introduced into Britain by the Normans. They comprised a large conical mound of earth or rubble, the motte, surmounted by a palisade and a stone or timber tower. In a majority of examples an embanked enclosure containing additional buildings, the bailey, adjoined the motte. Motte castles and motte-and-bailey castles acted as garrison forts during offensive military operations, as strongholds, and, in many cases, as aristocratic residences and as centres of local or royal administration. Built in towns, villages and open countryside, motte and bailey castles generally occupied strategic positions dominating their immediate locality and, as a result, are the most visually impressive monuments of the early post-Conquest period surviving in the modern landscape. Over 600 motte castles or motte-and-bailey castles are recorded nationally, with examples known from most regions. As one of a restricted range of recognised early post-Conquest monuments, they are particularly important for the study of Norman Britain and the development of the feudal system. Although many were occupied for only a short period of time, motte castles continued to be built and occupied from the 11th to the 13th centuries, after which they were superseded by other types of castle.

Pontefract Castle is a very well-documented example of a major motte and. bailey castle which developed into an equally important enclosure castle whose military and administrative significance lasted throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period. It has played a very important role in the political history of England and been associated with some of the leading families of the medieval period. Although its surviving standing remains are limited owing to its being slighted during the seventeenth century, the buried remains of a wide range of structures and features relating to all phases of its history, including the period of Saxon settlement, survive within its three baileys.


Pontefract Castle is situated in the town of Pontefract on an outcrop which formerly commanded two of England's principal highways: the north road and the route west over the River Aire and the Pennines. The monument consists of a single area which includes part of the site of the late Saxon cemetery and town ditch that predated the castle, the eleventh century motte and bailey castle, and the twelfth to sixteenth century enclosure castle which remained in use until the mid-seventeenth century. Archaeological remains will survive outside the area but they are not sufficiently well understood at this time to be included in the scheduling. Information on the development of the castle has been gained from a wide range of documentary sources and also from a number of partial excavations culminating in a major programme of work carried out between 1982 and 1986 by the West Yorkshire Archaeological Service. Evidence for a Christian cemetery belonging to the important tenth century royal town of Tanshelf, the Saxon forerunner of Pontefract, was found underlying the inner bailey of the castle near the eleventh century St Clement's chapel. In addition, the outer rim of a large ditch encircling the Norman motte was found by resistivity survey and is believed to have been originally part of the town ditch of the Saxon settlement though it was later modified and utilised as part of the castle defences. The first castle comprised an earthen motte, which would initially have been crowned by a timber palisade and tower, and an open area or bailey which would have contained domestic and garrison buildings and corrals for cattle and horses. The stone walls of the later inner bailey overlie the perimeter of the earlier one, showing it to have been kidney-shaped, with the motte at its southern end, and measuring c.150m from north to south by c.100m from east to west. Two of the buildings that occupied the early bailey have been found, the earliest being St Clement's chapel, the nave and chancel of which are late eleventh century, and the second surviving in part as a spiral stair and Norman arch leading into the later gunpowder store. During the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries the castle was gradually rebuilt in stone, during which time a curtain wall was constructed around the bailey. Towers were built into this wall at regular intervals, evidence for their existence being seen in the fabric of the later medieval Gascoigne and Treasurer's Towers and in the southern part of the Gatehouse Tower. A substantial part of the surviving south-west curtain is of twelfth century date, though on the north- east side, the early wall can be seen only in the foundations of the Constable Tower. In addition, excavation has revealed the site of another early tower beneath the fifteenth century kitchen. Documents also record the existence of Piper Tower dating from the earlier period, though this has not yet been definitely located. The keep was first built in stone during the first half of the thirteenth century, when the pre-existing motte was encased in stone and the gap between the two gradually filled in as the tower was built upwards. The early motte survives inside this structure. In form, the stone keep is similar to Clifford's Tower in York, its standing remains comprising three drum towers joined in a trefoil shape projecting southwards away from the inner bailey. Possibly the missing inward facing side was a fourth drum tower, but a description by John Leland written in about 1530 suggests that it may have consisted of three narrow projecting towers. In 1374 John of Gaunt ordered the keep to be heightened and descriptions dating to 1538 and 1643 indicate that, in its final form, it was three-storeyed, the upper floor being called by then the `artelere' and the lower floors comprising either five or six rooms. Below the first floor was a basement and a postern gate led out of the south-facing tower onto the rampart. From between the south and east towers, a section of curtain wall ran to the west gate and later formed part of the west wall of an outer bailey. In addition to the heightening of the keep, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the systematic strengthening and reorganisation of the castle. This included the construction of Swillington and Constable Towers, in the ditch outside the west curtain and in the north-east curtain respectively, and also the building of King's Tower and Queen's Tower, both in the north curtain. These two towers contained royal apartments and were linked by the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century Great Hall which may itself have replaced an earlier hall to the west, the building of which then became the kitchen. Documents refer to repairs being carried out continually throughout the first half of the fifteenth century, not only to the domestic buildings but also to the defences. Gascoigne and Gatehouse Towers in particular were enlarged and strengthened and the upper and lower outer baileys appear to have been walled at this time though they may, as unenclosed or palisaded wards, have originated earlier. Very little is left standing of the outer bailey walls, though their foundations will survive below ground. The only standing remains are at the south-west corner of the lower ward, in the lower courses of the modern wall along Castle Garth, and in the more substantial remains of the barbican that was built in the fourteenth or fifteenth century beyond the west gate. A medieval road passed through the barbican and west gate before proceeding between the two outer wards and out again through the east gate. This road and the east gate are now partially overlain by Castle Garth, as are the buried remains of a building described as the King's stables. The castle was founded before 1086 by Ilbert de Lacy, lord of the Honour of Pontefract. Apart from a period of temporary dispossession by Henry I, it remained with the de Lacy family until 1194 when it devolved through the female line to Roger fitzEustace. However, a condition of Roger's inheritance was that he adopt the name de Lacy. It thus continued in the de Lacy line until 1311 when Roger's great-grandson Henry died without a male heir. Through Henry's daughter Alice it passed by marriage to Thomas of Lancaster, nephew of Edward I. Thomas's opposition to his cousin Edward II culminated in his execution for treason in 1322, after which his lands were seized by the king. A faction led by Thomas's brother Henry deposed Edward in 1327, after which Henry received his brother's titles and estates, passing them on to his son Henry who was made the first Duke of Lancaster by Edward III in 1351. After Henry's death the Lancaster estates passed to Edward III's third son, John of Gaunt, through his marriage to Henry's daughter Blanche. In this way, in 1399, after Richard II was deposed and succeeded as king by John's son Henry Bolingbroke, Pontefract became a royal castle. Following a period of continuous rebuilding that coincided with the Wars of the Roses, it gradually fell into decay during the sixteenth century when the only new building appears to have been the construction of the Elizabethan chapel. Between 1618 and 1620, the future Charles I paid out of his own purse for substantial repairs to be carried out, an investment which benefited him greatly during the ensuing Civil War. At this time the castle housed a substantial Royalist garrison and successfully withstood three prolonged sieges before finally surrendering in 1649. Afterwards it was systematically dismantled by Parliament but still remains the property of the Queen through the Duchy of Lancaster. A number of features are excluded from the scheduling. These include all modern buildings, fixtures and fittings such as the visitors' centre and custodian's lodge, the Victorian tea-room and the veterans' shelter, information boards, standpipe, railings, safety grilles, benches, bins, modern steps and lighting, the surface of Castle Garth where it passes through the protected area and the surfaces of all paths, and the greenhouses and other nursery buildings and fixtures in the outer bailey. The ground beneath these features is, however, included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Roberts, I, Pontefract Castle, (1990)
Gardiner, K, 'Pontefract Archaeological Journal' in Work in Pontefract Castle, ()
In preparation, Pontefract Castle excavations,


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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