ALL SAINTS’ CHURCH, PONTEFRACT
Pontefract (from the French for broken-bridge) also known, as Pomfret is a historic market town, municipal & parliamentary borough of West Yorkshire, is ideally situated near to the A 1 M & M62 motorways. (longitude 169 & latitude 17)
Pontefract Castle dates from the Norman times & was destroyed during the English Civil Wars; the ruins are still visible today and are well worth a visit. Richard II was imprisoned & killed there in 1399. Shakespeare even mentioned Pontefract or Pomfret in Richard III spoken by Earl Rivers.
0 Pomfret, Pomfret! 0 thou bloody prison,
Fatal & ominous to noble peers!
Within the guilty closure of thy walls
Richard the second here was hack 'd to death;
The name Pontefract itself does not actually appear in the Domesday Survey of 1086, but Taddenessdyf (or Tateshale), now Tanshelf, a part of Pontefract, does. Pontefract was in the royal estate of Tanshelf, where inAD947, king Eadred accepted the allegiance of the Northumbrians & Wulfstan, the Archbishop of York, but Eadred was unaware that Wulfstan planned to offer the kingdom of York to the Viking Eric Bloodaxe, the King of Norway. Pontefract may have also been the base for Eadred's campaign against Eric Bloodaxe who was part Norse & part Danish. Eric Bloodaxe was elected King of York in AD948, & laid claim to the whole of Northumbria.
Pontefract's deep rich loam made it an ideal spot to grow liquorice, and large scale cultivation was firmly established at the end of the 15`" century, the celebrated 'Pomfret cakes' were made from the locally processed roots along with a wide variety of other liquorice confections. Records show that Pomfret cakes were being made around 1614. The commercial cultivation of liquorice roots ended in 1944, with the last fields being in the vicinity Bondgate in 1972. Although there is now no liquorice grown in Pontefract, there remains two major sweet manufacturing factories still producing liquorice sweets, including Pontefract cakes, the liquorice for which is now imported from Turkey, Belgium and America, already processed into slabs of thick pliable material.
Pontefract has a large public park covering some 365 acres on the western side of the town, within its boundries is enclosed a racecourse which dates back to the early 18t' century. this was extended in the 1980's, and became the longest circular flat horse racing course in Europe.
The focal point of the town centre, in the market place, is the Buttercross, which was built in 1734. Behind the Buttercross is situated St. Giles Church, which was built in the first few years of the 12'h century as a chapel-of-ease to All Saints’ Church, but due to the ruin of All Saints, Saint Giles became the Parish Church in 1789. In the town, adjacent to the hospital, are the valley gardens. In Southgate there is an ancient hermitage & oratory, which was cut 51 feet into solid rock & dates from 1396. Peter the hermit of Pomfret is also mentioned in Shakespeare's play King John, when Philip Falconbridge, the bastard son of Richard I says
‘Here's the prophet that I brought with me from forth the streets of Pomfret’
Situated below the castle & on the northeastern side of the town, within the Pontefract castle conservation area is All Saints’ Church, which suffered severely in the siege of the castle during the English Civil war. All Saints’ was the Parochial centre from Anglo Saxon times. It was possibly one of the first Churches to be built in the area & its destruction was one of the greatest historical misfortunes to happen in Pontefract. During the Civil war the Church was constantly changing from one side to the other.
In December 1644 the parliamentarians decided to try & remove the royalists, who had held the Church for four days. Even though there were 11 cannons firing from the castle protecting the parliamentarians, numbers overwhelmed them & they retreated to the castle. There was desperate fighting in the Church & Churchyard. The next day the troops, in the tower, tried to escape by trying to descend the west end of the Church by using a bell rope. Over the next few months there were several more attempts to overthrow the Church & it was reported, at the time, that a total of 60, 181b cannon balls, were fired at the Church from Monkhill in one day alone. In April 1999, after a fall of masonry, adjacent to the north wall, a small cannon ball was discovered (llb 2oz & 2" dia.), which had been embedded in the wall.
In June 1645 the parliamentarians finally occupied the Church, to be fired upon, by the royalists from the kings tower & the barbican of the castle. The parliamentarian soldiers began to make siege works within the ruined Church for their own defence, they pillaged the Church of lead, iron & wood & by 1649 the Church was in total roofless ruin.
To the west of the present All Saints’ Church, across the road, is the remains of an earlier Anglo Saxon Church & burial ground, which was in use from 7"' century onwards. It was probably a timber structure first, with Chancel & nave constructed later. The earliest burials date around AD700.
Information regarding the 12ffi century Church is unknown, the first documents referring to building work is a charter of 1219, when John de Lacy granted the Priory permission to extend the graveyard with the building of a new free standing Chapel on the north side of the graveyard.
The present Church appears to have been started about 1300 with the building of the Chancel, possibly to the east of the previous Chapel. The next stage was the building of the transepts and aisles & the lower part of the tower, with its famous double helix staircase at the northwest corner. A double helix staircase i.e. two sets of staircases, both of which wind round the same stone newel, having separate entrances at the top & bottom of the stairs (similar in form to strands of DNA). The only other examples of a double helix staircase, can be found in this country in Tamworth at St Ethilda’s Church, and in the Chateau de Chambard in France. The double helix staircase at All Saints’, extends from ground level to just short of the bell-ringing chamber, which is then reached by the continuation of one staircase only.
The tower belfry was constructed in the early to middle part of the 14t' century. The nave arcades, aisle walls, north & south porches were constructed with the Lady Chapel, by the end of the 14th century the octagon was built on top of the tower. It had two storeys, the lower one decorated with statues of the Apostles and Evangelists - each with their own emblem.
On top of the octagon was a tall cross-surrounded by a parapet. The work was completed sometime during the 15t' century. St. Catherines' chapel was also built in the north transept & there was also mention of a stone statue of St. John the Baptist in 1445 & one of St. Peter in 1497. Eventually part of the transepts were repaired for use as a funeral Chapel and until 1810 the graveyard was the sole burial ground for the whole town of Pontefract. (In 1896 the graveyard was closed for burials by the council.)
The Church formed a background to a melodramatic incident during the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536. Pilgrims, who objected to Henry VIII's religious changes, held the Castle and had with them, as a reluctant participant, the Archbishop of York, Edward Lee. During a sermon in All Saints’, he asked for moderation, the pilgrims didn't agree with his message and hustled him back to the Castle.
In 1660 the remains of the Lantern collapsed in a gale. The surrounding walls of the graveyard were raised to contain burials in 1786 and the unsafe roofs of the south transept and aisle were removed in 1795.
In 1831 R.D. Chantrell, an architect from Leeds, was engaged to restore the Church, as a Chapel-of-ease, for St. Giles. He proceeded to block the west windows of the transepts & arcades, added an apse to the east, for the altar, which was mirrored to the west by the entrance porch which formed a polygon under the tower. The belfry was repaired and the clock faces added. In 1838 a separate parish of All Saints’ was formed. In 1863 the sole surviving bell, which dated from 1598, was recast and later replaced by 6 bells.
Later in the century (in 1863), the south transept window had new stained glass fitted (in 1901)
In the 20'h century (around 1906) the galleries & medieval tracery of the west window were removed and placed against the north wall of the nave. In 1967 a new nave and vestry were constructed, incorporating medieval carved heads, over the new west door, taken from the old porch of 1831.
In 1989, Rev. Eric Fowkes the then vicar, had the finials removed from the top of the tower for safety reasons, there was a outcry as he had failed to gain the necessary approval from the Wakefield Diocesan advisory council for the care of Churches, who were concerned that the carved stone finials were removed ` without any lawful authority of the Chancellor of the Diocese', that the finials were part of the tower and the church structure and it was decreed that they must be replaced. The finials were subsequently replaced in 1990, paid for by the Parish of All Saints.