Pontefract Castle in the Wars of the Roses

Pontefract Castle in the 15th century waa held by the Crown. A large inland fortification, it overlooked the nearby bridge over the River Aire at Ferrybridge. This made the castle a hugely significant stronghold as this location effectively controlled right of passage across the river and the great north road from London to York.

Richard II

The castles involvement in the Wars of the Roses begins with the overthrowing of Richard II by Henry IV. It was to Pontefract Castle that the ousted monarch was sent by his cousin. And at Pontefract, in 1399, that King Richard II died. Pontefract Castle was therefore a key location in the Lancastrian seizure of power.

Link: ‘The Prison Speech‘. Filmed at Pontefract Castle, Shakespeare’s dramatisation of Richard IIs imprisonment in the dungeon at Pontefract.

View of Bailey and Kitchen areas from the Keep. Executions took place on the grassed area.
View of Bailey and Kitchen areas from the Keep. Executions took place on the grassed area.

Battle of Wakefield

The castle remained a Crown held fortress throughout the Lancastrian era. In 1460 it hosted a garrison loyal to the Lancastrian cause. Following the Yorkist defeat outside the nearby Sandal Castle in the Battle of Wakefield, it was to Pontefract Castle that the captured Earl of Salisbury was taken. Pressured by the townsfolk, the Earl was executed by beheading within Pontefract Castle.

Links: Battle of WakefieldRichard Neville Earl of Salisbury

Ferrybridge, Towton, and the fall of the Lancastrian regime

Despite Pontefract Castle dominating the landscape near Ferrybridge and having a function of safeguarding the major crossing point over the river Aire, the castle at Pontefract was not utilised in any significant manner by the Lancastrian army as the Yorkists advanced north. The garrison was not substantially reenforced and there are no records of the castles defenders making attempts to intervene as the nearby crossing point waa fought for and secured by the Yorkists. Following Edward IVs victory at Towton Pontefract Castle simply remained a Crown held castle, now under the control of the new Yorkist king, Edward IV.

LinksBattle of FerrybridgeBattle of Towton


The turbulent period of 1469-71 saw Pontefract Castle once more dominating the crucial crossing point over the river Aire. As rebels moved south in 1469, they had to travel within close proximity of Pontefract. Similarly when Edward IV landed at Ravenspur his roure south, from York, to reclaim the throne took him past the castle. The castles garrison did not intervene on either occasion.

1483: Executions at Pontefract

The events of 1483 once again saw Pontefract Castle being chosen as a secure prison for high status prisoners. It was to Pontefract that Anthony Woodviile 2nd Earl Rivers, Sir Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan were sent by Richard Duke of Gloucester. The three prisoners were executed within the castle walls on 25 June 1483.

Administrative role of Pontefract Castle

As a roysl stronghold Pontefract Castle was ideally suited to overseeing a wide rsnge of local and regional matters. It was at the castle that disputes were arbitrated. For example, the castle hosted hearings of a Commission of Oyer and Terminer attempting to bring about a peaceful resolution to clashes between prominent local families.


Painting in Pontefract Museum of Pontefract Castle in the early 17th century, by Alexander Keirincx

Links relating to Pontefract Castle

Wakefield Council – visitor information

Digventures – A brief history of Pontefract Castle

Duchy of Lancaster – the Duchy has held Pontefract Castle for much of the castles history

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