Pontefract (derivation is “broken bridge” (pons+fractus), Norman Pontefracto) is an ancient market town (now industrialised) in West Yorkshire, England, south-east of Leeds, known in medieval history for its castle, and in later times for a flat round liquorice confection called a “Pontefract (or Pomfret) Cake”.
A common pronunciation of the town is “pumfr’t”. The exact whereabouts of the original bridge is debated.
The site occupies a strategic point on one of the main north-south routes and there have been fortifications since the 8th century. The Saxon fort was replaced from 1069 by a great castle which later would become the administrative centre of the vast Lancastrian estates. Its place in history is assured by the following:
- 1322 – Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster was beheaded there following a dispute with his cousin, Edward II
- 1399 – Richard II was imprisoned there following his deposition at the hands of Henry IV and died there of unknown causes (probably starvation) soon after.
- 1415 – Charles, duke of Orleans, captured at Agincourt, was incarcerated there for over 20 years.
- 1483 – Earl Rivers, protector of the young Edward IV and other supporters of the royal heir, were murdered there on the orders of the future Richard III.
- 1644-49 - A Royalist stronghold during the English Civil War (it had become a Crown possession when the Duchy of Lancaster merged with the ruling house at the succession of Henry IV), it was besieged by the Parliamentarians in 1644 and later, and finally fell in 1649, after the beheading of Charles I. Its demolition was then ordered, much to the joy, it seems, of the surrounding inhabitants.
- 1939-44 – the castle's last defensive role was for its ruins to be used as anchor points for barrage balloons during World War II.
The cultivation of liquorice in the area can be dated to 16th century. The liquorice coins, known as "Pomfret Cakes” or “Pontefract Cakes”, each stamped with an impression of the castle, have been made there for centuries. The Pontefract Museum is the largest liquorice related institution of its type in the world.