Pontefract Castle is in the town of Pontefract about 15 miles from Leeds, is one of the five towns in the City of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England. The name ‘Pontefract’ came from the Latin words ‘pons’ meaning ‘bridge’ and ‘fractus’ meaning ‘broken’. So ‘Pontefract’ means ‘broken bridge’. It is possible that the bridge in question was the one that crossed Wash Burn, which is a small stream on the north-eastern perimeter of Pontefract.
The castle began as a wooden structure which was strengthened with stone over time. Eventually it became one of the strongest castles in the British Isles. During the Civil War of England, the haunted Pontefract Castle was besieged three times, unsuccessfully. It held the honor of being the last Royalist stronghold to surrender in that war. It only yielded after Charles I was beheaded. Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarians, called Pontefract Castle “one of the strongest inland garrisons in the kingdom”.
After William the Conqueror established Norman control over England, Pontefract was the center of an honor, meaning feudal land tenure, of 162 manors. This huge estate was intentional. It was meant to give the lord of the honor enough power and wealth to stand up to the threat of invasion by the Scots from the north. In 1076, Pontefract was given to Ilbert de Lacy. The Doomsday Book of 1086, recorded that there was a wooden motte-and-bailey castle on the site.
Before the arrival of the Normans, Pontefract was already an important part of present-day Yorkshire. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Pontefract was known as Tanshelf or Taddenessclyf. It was noted as a royal residence. In 947, King Eadredl held his witan, meaning council, in Pontefract. The Archbishop Wulfstan of York and other Northern magnates came to this witan to swear oaths of obedience to King Eadredl. What is left of a Saxon church can be found not far from Pontefract Castle.
Pontefract Castle has a unique design. The keep, instead of being on the motte as in other castles, was constructed around the motte to enclose it. This keep consisted of six irregularly-sized lobes. The general effect, if viewed by a bird, would be like that of the petals of a flower. In 1530, John Leland described the keep as “cast into six roundells, three bigge and three smaul”.
The castle also has another architectural curiosity. It has a tower which is not part of the curtain wall. Swillington Tower is about 30 meters downhill away from the castle. It is connected to the curtain wall by a stretch of wall instead of being built arising from the curtain wall as is normally done. This tower is named after Sir Robert Swillington, who was one of John of Gaunt’s stewards. It was built during the time of Henry IV, consisting of two stories with battlements above at a height of 13 meters.
A King Starved to Death
During the Elizabethan era, Pontefract was called Pomfret. In the Shakespearean play, Richard III, in Act 3 Scene 3, there were some ominous lines about Pontefract Castle:
“O Pomfret, Pomfret! O thou bloody prison,
Fatal and ominous to noble peers!
Within the guilty closure of thy walls
Richard the second here was hack’d to death;
And, for more slander to thy dismal seat,
We give thee up our guiltless blood to drink.”
Richard II was the son of Edward, the Black Prince. On July 16, 1377, at the tender age of ten, he was crowned king. On August 19, 1399, he abdicated the throne in favor of Henry of Bolingbroke. On September 1, Richard II was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Later he was taken to Pontefract Castle. Henry of Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, would have allowed the ex-king to live out the remainder of his days there, but court conspiracies decided otherwise.
A plot to dethrone the new king was uncovered in January 1400. The earls of Huntingdon, Kent, Somerset and Rutland were said to have conspired with Thomas Dispenser to murder Henry IV and restore Richard II. This was called the Ephiphany Rising. Since it was nipped in the bud, the rebellion did not succeed. The unfortunate result was that Henry IV decided that Richard II was too dangerous to be allowed to live. On or around February 14, 1400, Richard II ended his stay in the mortal realm.
The exact manner of his demise was uncertain. The official version was that he died of “means unknown”. Some said that he starved himself to death. Others said that he was forcibly starved to death. Still others averred that he was hacked to death. Unfortunately his ghost did not come back to haunt Pontefract Castle to tell his side of the story.
Nevertheless, fans of the paranormal will not be disappointed when they visit the castle with the idea of doing a bit of ghost-hunting. A good place to start looking would be the underground magazine.
Originally this was the cellar of the Great Hall. During the English Civil War, it was used to store gunpowder. Prisoners were also kept here at that time, chained to the wall by the stairs. It must have been a most harrowing time for those unfortunate enough to be incarcerated here to be so near to such large amounts of explosive material. Presumably they observed a ‘No Smoking’ prohibition without being told.
Pontefract Castle Haunted
Steve Coulson is one of the custodians of the castle. Once, he experienced a close brush with paranormal phenomena in the underground magazine. One day, after taking a party of schoolchildren on an underground tour of the castle, he returned to his office. Then he heard a loud knocking. Off-hand, he thought that he had inadvertently left someone behind locked in the magazine. So he went back underground to unlock the door. He looked inside. There was nobody there. Later he asked a former custodian about it. Apparently the other custodian had also experienced something similar ghost knocking at the door.
Pontefract Castle Specter of the Black Monk
Ghosts at Pontefract Castle seem to be up and about even in daylight. A common apparition sighted during the late afternoon was that of a Black Monk.
The Gascoigne Tower is situated on the west side of the castle. Attached to the tower are the kitchens. The Royal Apartments are to the north-east, behind the Normal Chapel. Visitors from all over the world have reported seeing the Black Monk walking from the ruins of the kitchens towards the Queen’s Tower. This specter is always sighted going from west to east. No one has ever reported seeing it coming the other way.
There is no precise data on the identity of the Black Monk. In 1851, Victorian engineers found something interesting underground. They were working under what is now the Pontefract General Infirmary. They found a tiny chamber. This chamber was built by monks who literally wanted to get away from it all. The chamber was accessed by a spiral staircase. A skeleton was found in the ceiling. Perhaps some of these hermit monks found the gateway between the two realms and turned up in ethereal form in the temporal world.
The Black Monk is not the only ghostly man in the cloth sighted. At times, there is another ghostly monk dressed in gray. Sometimes, a ghostly woman, dressed in gray too, can be seen near the castle gates holding a lantern. There is no report of whether the two specters were having a ghostly rendezvous.
Pontefract Castle Apparition in the Mirror
At the castle, there is a Visitor’s Center. Here, visitors can get information on the castle as well as buy souvenirs. There is a mirror in the center. Some visitors have seen a reflection of a young girl in the mirror. She was said to be dressed in ragged clothes and had long brown hair. During those sightings there were no persons in the center that fitted the description of the reflection. Next to the center is the ladies toilet. Sometimes, a girl could be heard crying inside when no one was in the toilet. Some visitors said they have even heard ghostly screaming.
Lady visitors to Pontefract Castle are well-advised to have a companion or two with them when they feel the need to powder their noses.