Pontefract is an historic market town in West Yorkshire; it is one of the 'Five Towns' in the metropolitan borough of the City of Wakefield and has been a market town since the Middle Ages; it is situated on an old Roman road, described as the "Roman Ridge", which passes south towards Doncaster; it also boasts a park with the largest circular flat horse racecource in Europe; its continuous circuit is 2 miles and 125 yards (3,300 metres) long; it stages flat racing between the end of March and the end of October.
The name Pontefract originates from the Latin for "broken bridge", formed of the elements pons ('bridge') and fractus ('broken'); there is a theory that the bridge was one which crossed Wash Burn, a small stream on the north eastern edge of Pontefract, running alongside what is now Bondgate; it would have been important in the town's early days, providing access between Pontefract and other settlements to the north and east, such as York.
Pontefract is known for its medieval castle which was built around 1076 by Ilbert de Lacy; it was a motte and bailey castle and was later rebuilt in stone; it dates from Norman times, when it was known as Pomfret; it is supposed that King Richard II of England was murdered within its Gascogne Tower; William Shakespeare's play Richard III supports this theory and mentions the incident:
Pomfret, Pomfret! O thou bloody prison,
Fatal and ominous to noble peers!
Due to the castle, Pontefract was heavily involved with the English Civil War and it was noted by Oliver Cromwell as "one of the strongest inland garrisons in the kingdom."; however, three sieges by the Parliamentarians left the town impoverished and depopulated.
After the Third Siege on the 24th March 1649, the Pontefract inhabitants, fearing a fourth, petitioned Parliament for the castle to be demolished; in their view, the castle was a magnet for trouble, so on the 5th April 1649, its demolition began; however, enough of the crumbling sandstone ruins still remain for visitors to enjoy.
Pontefract's deep, sandy soil makes it one of the few British places in which liquorice can be successfully grown, explaining why the town built up a liquorice sweet industry and it is where the famous Pontefract Cakes are produced.
The town's two liquorice factories are owned by Haribo (Formerly known as Dunhills) and Monkhill Confectionery (Part of the Cadbury's Group - formerly known as Wilkinson's); a Liquorice Festival is held there annually.