New Discoveries at Pontefract Castle Open the Gates For More to Come

by Ian Downes

Now that the Key to the North project at Pontefract Castle is coming to a close this seems an ideal time to cover the most important discoveries to date. 

There have been many thousands of artefacts discovered, which is no unusual thing when excavating a royal castle with over 1000 years of recorded history. Amongst those unearthed are two standout discoveries from the Key To The North Project.

7 ½ “cannon” balls were found lodged within the Keep wall.  These are solid cast iron balls that were fired from a variety of weapons including a Demi-Cannon, a Cannon Petro, a Basilisk, and a Culverin.  Discoveries of cannon balls or shot are not unusual on a site with such a rich Civil Wars history and there are already a number of cannonballs in the museum’s collection.  These earlier finds were discovered within the castle grounds and gardens of neighbouring properties. What makes the newly discovered cannon unusual is that they were found still lodged in the wall that they were fired at.

This gave us an opportunity to look back at the Diaries of Nathan Drake, a soldier garrisoned at the castle during the castle’s first seige, to try and determine when the cannon may have been fired.  Drake identifies that between the 17th and 21st January 1644, 1363 shots were fired at the castle at the section of wall where the balls were found.  He doesn’t record any other periods of cannon fire being targeted at the same section.  Such an intense period of fire resulted in the collapse of the Piper Tower. Despite its collapse this still left roughly an 8m high wall from the outside, meaning the castle remained impenetrable. This may be one of the reasons that Oliver Cromwell described the castle as “one of England’s strongest inland garrisons”.

Not long after the discovery of the cannon balls the team made a second significant find.  Whilst excavating the footings of the herb garden wall, a substantial ashlar wall was uncovered.  Works paused to consult old plans and sketches of the castle and Historic England were informed. It was agreed that further excavation should go ahead to assess the size of the new structure. 

Shortly after this find a U-shaped wall, with a substantial drum tower attached on one side was also unearthed.  This was all located just a few metres outside the existing gatehouse drum towers.  This mystery structure isn’t shown on the illustration of the castle by Alexander Kierincx, painted in 1640.  It is now thought this is an earlier and much more complex gatehouse than the one that was standing when Kierincx painted the castle.  

The discovery of an earlier gatehouse has the potential to redraw the map of the castle and increase our understanding of it as a medieval fortress.  As a result of this significance, Historic England have agreed to fund an excavation of the structure in late 2019 where we will hopefully be able to learn more about this important new discovery.

This article was featured in Issue 1 – February 2019.

Cover image © Michael Hirst.

Back to top