Pontefract is a historic market town in West Yorkshire, England, near the A1 (or Great North Road) and the M62 motorway. Historically part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, it is one of the five towns in the metropolitan borough of the City of Wakefield and has a population of 28,250. Pontefract's motto is Post mortem patris pro filio, Latin for "After the death of the father, support the son", a reference to English Civil War Royalist sympathies.
The name "Pontefract" originates from the Latin for "broken bridge", formed of the elements pons ('bridge') and fractus ('broken'). Pontefract was not recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book, but was noted as Pontefracto in 1090, four years after the Domesday survey. There is a theory that the bridge alluded to was one which crossed Wash Dike, a small stream on the north-eastern edge of Pontefract, running alongside what is now Bondgate (the modern-day A645). Such a crossing point would have been important in the town's early days, providing access between Pontefract and other settlements to the north and east, such as York.
The town is situated on an old Roman road (now the A639), described as the "Roman Ridge", which passes south towards Doncaster. The Roman Ridge is believed to form part of an alternative route from Doncaster to York via Castleford and Tadcaster, as a diversion of the major Roman road Ermine Street, which may have been used to avoid having to cross the river Humber near North Ferriby during rough weather conditions over the Humber. The area which is now the town market place was the original meeting place of the Osgoldcross wapentake. There are the remains of an Anglo-Saxon church and cemetery at The Booths, off North Baileygate, below the castle. The oldest grave dates from around 690. The church is likely to be at Tanshelf, recorded variously as Tateshale, Tateshalla, Tateshalle or Tatessella in the 1086 Domesday Book, but Pontefract is not mentioned.
In 2007 a suspected extension of Ferrybridge Henge — a Neolithic henge — was discovered near Pontefract during a survey in preparation for the construction of a row of houses. Once the survey was complete, the construction continued.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066 almost all of Yorkshire came under the ownership of followers of William the Conqueror, one of whom was Ilbert de Lacy who became the owner of Tateshale (Tanshelf) where he began to build a castle. Pontefract Castle began as a wooden motte and bailey castle, built before 1086 and later rebuilt in stone. The de Lacys lived in the castle for more than two centuries and were holders of the castle and the Honour of Pontefract from 1067 until the death of Alice de Lacy in 1348.
King Richard II was murdered at the castle in 1400. Little is known of the precise nature of his demise; in particular Shakespeare may have "adjusted" the facts for his own purposes. There are at least three theories which attempt to explain his death:
Pontefract was the site of Pontefract Priory, a Cluniac priory founded in 1090 by Robert de Lacy dedicated to St John the Evangelist. The priory was dissolved by royal authority in 1539. The abbey maintained the Chartularies of St John, a collection of historic documents later discovered among family papers by Thomas Levett, the High Sheriff of Rutland and a native of Yorkshire, who later gave them to Roger Dodsworth, an antiquary. They were later published by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society.
Pontefract suffered throughout the English Civil War. In 1648-49 the castle was laid under siege by Oliver Cromwell, who said it was "... one of the strongest inland garrisons in the kingdom." Three sieges by the Parliamentarians left the town "impoverished and depopulated". In March 1649, after the third siege, Pontefract inhabitants, fearing a fourth, petitioned Parliament for the castle to be demolished. In their view, the castle was a magnet for trouble, and in April 1649 demolition began. The ruins of the castle remain today and are publicly accessible.