Pontefract Buttercross

It is one of Pontefract’s treasured historic buildings which has been a site of historical significance within the town and surrounding district for over a thousand years. 

Standing in the Market Place next to the 12th centuary St. Giles Church is the Buttercross, a building built on the site of St. Oswald’s Cross. St Oswald, born AD605, was a popular saint in Yorkshire with several churches bearing his dedication. It is not clear wether the original cross was erected by him or in his memory (as is more likely), but the site became a sanctuary for people evading arrest for debt and other offences. This was signified by an unpaved area of approximately two yards around the cross. 

The actual Buttercross was built in 1734 by Mrs Elizabeth Dupier, the widow of Solomon Dupier, who according to his will had left the sum of £150 to be donated to building a market cross in Pontefract. This was the result of a vow he had made when his wife and three daughters had contracted smallpox. He vowed that, if their lives were spared, then he would erect a covered market cross in Pontefract to afford protection from the elements to the country women who came to town on Saturday mornings with their baskets of dairy produce. 

When first constructed, the Buttercross had a flat roof which was replaced by the present hipped roof at a cost of £46-3-10d in 1763. Covered market crosses were common at this time but the Buttercross is a much more substantial building than most and is unusual in its rectangular plan. 

And so it continued as a market shelter for the farmer’s wives well into the 20th century, but delving into history we can read about other more extraordinary transactions that have taken place at our Buttercross over the years. 

In 1776 John Nutt brought his wife to the cross and sold her to a very satisfied Mr Ryder for 5 shillings. In 1815 another wife was auctioned with an opening bid of 1 shilling with the winning bid reaching 11 shillings! At that time it was believed that a wife could be sold to another man with the sale constituting a legal divorce and in one case a woman produced a receipt in court for her sale to prove she was not committing adultery! 

Thankfully, in present times, our Buttercross has become a place to sit and soak up the town’s rich historic atmosphere with a vast variety of market stalls still trading around the site on Wednesdays and Saturdays and us women can rest assured we will not be traded in for another model! 

This article was featured in Issue 2 – March 2019.

Cover image © Michael Hirst.

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