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.

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