Pontefract Town Defences

Has been described as a Questionable Urban Defence

There are no visible remains

NamePontefract Town Defences
Alternative NamesTanshelf
Historic CountryYorkshire
Modern AuthorityWakefield
1974 AuthorityWest Yorkshire
Civil ParishPontefract

No remains of earthen ramparts. (Bond)

Beresford suggested an original presence of a line of defences around the town, but there is little firm evidence for this (Anon, draft town survey)

Beresford (1967, 525) proposed a larger primary borough, defined by Back Northgate and Walkergate. There is no denying the symmetry of this arrangement, but it

does not take into account the topography of this part of Pontefract. Beresford further proposed a walled borough, built integrally with the castle (1967, 160, fig. 37), a notion perpetuated by Aston and Bond (1987, 126), but one which can not be sustained on documentary or archaeological grounds. There are more persuasive reasons to suppose that the new borough might once have had earthwork defences, and there are parallels for earthwork defences at other similar towns of the period (Barley 1975, 60; Beresford 1967, 504). Beresford's supposition that the defining streets to the north-west and south-east reflected the course of a defensive circuit is reasonable, but not for Back Northgate and Walkergate, particularly as the latter extends far to the south-east of the scarp top which is represented by the line of Southgate, topographically the more likely south-eastern edge of the new borough. Southgate and Northgate are much more likely candidates for streets reflecting the course of any earthwork defences and could, with Baxtergate and Finkle Street, meeting at the western end of Micklegate, represent an intervallum road, or back lane.

There are some thirteenth-century documentary references to ditches, but these are more readily construed as references to the castle ditch (the hopedic or upper dike) at the eastern end of Micklegate (Holmes 1899, 144–46). A reference to the 'town dike' to the north of Walkergate in 1322 (Ellis 1893, 302) may well, however, be an allusion to the borough defences. (Roberts and Whittick 2013)

Gatehouse Comments

The first post-Conquest town may well have been marked by a boundary ditch but there is nothing to suggest defensive banks. This area is that just to the west of the castle being the area between Back Northgate and Southgate. It does not include the later Market Place (in an area of later medieval expansion) or the parish church (to the East of the Castle in the area of pre-Conquest settlement). As with many Yorkshire towns the 'gate' element in some street names is from the the Danish gata meaning road and not a reference to town gates. Pontefract was the largest town in medieval West Yorkshire and strived for borough status from an early date. Nothing in the various charters for the town suggests the presence of defences, there are no grants of murage. The location of the town on a ridge is suggested as defensive. The defensive value of high ground is much overstated generally and certainly is here where the reasons for the towns location clearly have more to do with avoiding the low marshy and flood threatened land and with the cultivatable quality of ridge land (remembering that in medieval towns people grew much of their own food in the long strips behind their houses and that, because this food was vegetables rather than cereal, this land needed to be of particularly good quality).

- Philip Davis

Not scheduled

Not Listed

County Historic Environment Record
OS Map Grid ReferenceSE453220
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Photo by Philip Davis. All Rights Reserved

() above

Latitude 53° 41' 42.42" Longitude -1° 18' 19.87"

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  • Creighton, O.H. and Higham, R.A., 2005, Medieval Town Walls (Stroud: Tempus) p. 268
  • Hindle, Paul, 2002, Medieval town plans (Shire Publications) p. 40, 50
  • Aston, M. and Bond, J., 1987, The Landscape of Towns p. 126
  • Bond, C.J., 1987, 'Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Defences' in Schofield, J. and Leech, R. (eds) Urban Archaeology in Britain (CBA Research Report 61) p. 92-116 online copy
  • Barley, M.W., 1975, 'Town Defences in England and Wales after 1066' in Barley, M.W. (ed), The Plans and Topography of Medieval Towns in England and Wales (CBA Research Report 14) p. 60
  • Beresford, M.W., 1967, New Towns of the Middle Ages: Town Plantation in England, Wales and Gascony (London: Lutterworth Press) p. 525


  • Roberts, I and Whittick, C., 2013, 'Pontefract: A Review of the Evidence for the Medieval Town' Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 85 p. 68-96
  • Creighton, Oliver, 2006, ''Castles of Communities': Medieval Town Defences in England; Wales and Gascony' Château Gaillard Vol. 22 p. 75-86
  • Ellis, A.S., 1893, 'Yorkshire Deeds', Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 12 p. 302

Primary Sources

  • 1984, Pontefract: A Borough and Its Charters (Leeds: West Yorkshire Archive Service)
  • Holmes, R. (ed), 1899, The Chartulary of St John of Pontefract... (YAS Record Series 25)


  • Anon, c. 1980, Draft text for town survey (manuscript in WYAAS records)