How Pontefract got its name

I’ve been working on my research into the history of the de Lacy family today and discovered some interesting suggestions about how Pontefract got its name:

Although there is no record of a place named Pontefract in the Domesday Book, by the time Ilbert de Lacy’s son Robert held land there the name was in use.  Robert’s charter to the monks of the Cluniac priory of St John, which was founded in 1090, contains the words: ‘De domino suo de Kirkbye, et deo sancti Johanni, et monachis meis de Pontfract’.

It was not unusual for towns to have their names changed in the early days of Norman rule.  Sometimes it happened because the Normans found the original name too difficult to pronounce and often it happened at the foundation of a monastery – perhaps in a similar way to a person taking a Christian name at baptism.  Simeon of Durham, writing in 1129, records two such changes when Monkchester became Newcastle, and Streneshald became Whitby.  However, he makes no mention of a new name at Pontefract and refers to the place as Tateshale.  So it seems that the area may have been known by two different names for a while until the importance of the castle and its surrounding land resulted in the common use of the name Pontefract.

An historian named Hume, claims that the name was connected to the fertility of the soil in the area and that pomum ferre was the origin of Pomfrete.  The Tudor historian, John Leland, claims that it was the name of a place in Normandy that belonged to the de Lacy family.  But it seems certain that Pontefract takes its name from the Latin pontus fractus meaning broken bridge and was also known as Pomfret from the Norman French pont freit.

In an article by Eric Houlder, published in Local History Magazine, March 1990, the author suggests that prior to 1320 there was a medieval road which ran through an area known as The Wash, which was liable to flooding, and that after this date the route was relocated three miles to the east to cross the River Aire at Ferrybridge.  It is possible that the old bridge then fell into disrepair.

Thomas de Castleford, a Benedictine monk at the priory in Pontefract wrote a history of the town in 1326 and claimed that the name Pontefract had come about because of a miracle that happened there. The manuscript no longer exists but it is quoted by Leland and tells a story of crowds coming to welcome home William, archbishop of York, who had recently been restored to that role by Pope Anastasius IV.  So many people crowded onto the bridge to welcome him that it collapsed under their weight.  William called on God to save the people and it was a miracle that no-one was killed or drowned.  But other chroniclers place this event on a bridge over the river Ouse at York and as it happened in May 1154, over 50 years after Robert de Lacy’s charter to the priory then it can be discounted as the true origin of the name.

Another story, included in Boothroyd’s History of Pontefract, is that when King William marched north to York in 1069, he discovered that rebels had destroyed the bridge across the river Aire at Ferrybridge.  As the river was swollen with rain he was unable to cross and had to wait there for three weeks until one of his Norman knights discovered a place where William was able to ford the river.  The name of the knight is given as Lisours and some historians claim this was Ilbert de Lacy.  This story is taken from an account written by Orderic Vitalis and a translation reads: “It was again reported that the brigands had gone to York to celebrate the feast of the Nativity and to prepare for battle.  The king was hastening thither from Nottingham but was stopped at Pontefract where the river was not fordable and could not be crossed by boats.  He would not listen to those who advised him to return; and to those who proposed to construct a bridge he replied that it was not expedient as the enemy might come upon them unawares and take the opportunity of their being so engaged to inflict a loss upon them.  They were detained there for three weeks.  At length a brave knight named Lisois des Moutiers carefully sounded the river, searching for a ford, both above and below the town.  At last, with difficulty, he discovered a place where it was fordable and crossed over at the head of sixty bold men-at-arms.  They were charged by a multitude of the enemy, but stoutly held their ground against the assault.  The next day Lisois returned and announced his discovery and the army crossed the ford without much further delay.”

This account doesn’t mention the rebels having destroyed a bridge and the knight who discovered the ford is clearly not Ilbert de Lacy.  So, whilst it’s an appealing story and probably true, it has little to do with the origin of the name of Pontefract.

By 1135 the name had passed into general use.  In 1135 Richard of Hexham, writing about the murder of William Maltravers, says that Maltravers held the honour of Pontefract – for so that town is called − by grant of Henry the king.  The Latin is written as Fracti Pontis.  By the time of a charter of Roger de Lacy in 1194 the words have been transposed and the name is Ponte Fracto.  Over subsequent years it is spelled in a variety of ways including the French version of Pomfret, but gradually Pontefract became the usual spelling and is the name by which the town has been known for generations.

Cockersand Abbey

It’s been Heritage Open weekend and on Saturday I went to see Cockersand Abbey, which lies on a remote coastal plain of Lancashire where the river Lune flows into Morecambe Bay.

There isn’t a lot to see as most of what is left of the remains lie under a covering of earth and, as is common with other abbeys, most of the stones were purloined by locals to build farmhouses, walls, barns and even the sea wall.  Well, why bother to dress your own stones when there are perfectly good, prepared stones just waiting to be re-used?

Before the abbey was built there was a hospice here for the sick and lepers that was founded by a hermit named Hugh Garth.  The hospice was here from around 1180 and was continued by the Premonstratensian White Canons when they built their priory here in 1190, perhaps after the death of Hugh.  It was built on a clay ‘island’ and its medieval name was S. Maria de Marisco or Saint Mary of the Marsh.

  The priory thrived and gained the rank of abbey, becoming the third wealthiest in Lancashire after Furness and Whalley. Then came Henry VIII’s Dissolution and in 1539 a man named Henry Kychen was sent to make an inventory of the abbey. He bought the estate for himself and when his daughter, Anne, married Robert Dalton she was given the land.  It became part of the Thurnham Hall estate and the Dalton family used the chapter house as their private mausoleum, which is why it has survived.


Whilst the outer walls have been rebuilt and altered and the original lead roof replaced with slate, inside the original 12th century architecture remains.

If you think that the columns look a bit on the short side, then you would be correct. The present floor is a ‘false’ floor and is raised 4ft 6 inches above the original tiled floor to form a space for the burial of several coffins.

It does, however, mean that visitors have a very good view of the ancient decorative features.

The tomb of Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, lost in the Great Fire of London.

It had been a long, hot summer in 1666 and the city of London was crowded with overhanging wooden buildings that were tinder dry.  Legend suggests that someone was a little careless in a bakery on Pudding Lane, although the baker swore in court that his fires had all been put out that night.  At the time blame was laid on French or Dutch conspirators and it was also suggested that it was a Papist plot.  Titus Oates blamed Jesuit priests for setting fire to the city.  And after an investigation into the cause of the fire a French Protestant watchmaker, Robert Hubert, confessed to having deliberately started it and was hanged at Tyburn.

But other people accepted that it was an ‘act of God’.   There was a strong east wind and the fire spread.  It burned for several days and at its worst it reached St Paul’s Cathedral where wooden scaffolding caught fire followed by the timber roof beams.  The lead of the roof melted and flowed down Ludgate Hill.  Stones exploded from the building and within a few hours the Cathedral was a ruin.

Within the Cathedral, was the body and tomb of Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, who died on 5th February 1311.  Henry de Lacy was buried in St Dunstan’s Chapel in St Paul’s.  His monument was described as ‘an elaborately ornamented altar tomb on which was a recumbent armed effigy of the earl, with hands placed in the attitude of prayer, a lion at the feet, and angels supporting a pillow for the head‘.

Luckily a drawing had been made of the tomb in 1656 by artist Wenceslaus Hollar which can be seen at this link:  I think I may send for this for my office wall!