Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Pontefract: The town of two saints

Do you know about Pontefract's saintly past? 

Discover Pontefract's claim to not just one saint, but two, in this blog!

Why were local saints important?

Possession of a saint was considered to be of great importance in medieval England. Bequests and pilgrimages brought in a lot of money to the local priories. 

This fascination with saintly bones was the subject of 'A Morbid Taste for Bones', the first Cadfael Chronicles book by Ellis Peters. Peters' medieval mystery novel gives an insight into the importance of the possession of such saintly relics.  

To have a saint buried in Pontefract was a great claim to fame for the medieval powerhouse of Pontefract, known by the 12th century as the Key to the North.

New research shows that Pontefract had not just one saintly burial, but two! These were Saint Thomas of Pontefract, and the lesser-known Saint Thurstan.

Drawings of two men, one believed to be either Edmund Crouchback or Thomas of Lancaster and the other Saint George. The Earl of Lancaster is wearing armour with a red tunic with three lions on. The two men are facing each other.
A miniature of an earl of Lancaster (possibly Edmund Crouchback or his son Thomas of Lancaster) with St. George from a medieval manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 231) - Wikimedia Commons

Who was Saint Thomas of Pontefract?

Saint Thomas of Pontefract (1278 - 1322) is a well-known figure in Pontefract's fascinating history. Known as Thomas of Lancaster during his lifetime, Saint Thomas of Pontefract was venerated as a local saint soon after his beheading. He became so important to Pontefract that a chapel was erected in his name on the edge of the town.

Thomas was a controversial character in life. He was one of the wealthiest men in the country and was also the cousin of Edward II. Thomas was estranged from his wife Alice de Lacy, whom he married for her money. He frequently fell out with the king and his associates. These disputes would eventually lead to his death. 

Captured at the Battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322, Thomas was brought to Pontefract Castle. Until this point Pontefract Castle had belonged to Thomas by right of his marriage to Alice de Lacy. Thomas was held in a tower he had ironically constructed for the purpose of holding his cousin Edward II - had he managed to capture him instead! 

Thomas was tried by a jury of the king and his close associates, without the right to a defence. Inevitably he was found guilty and sentenced to death by beheading. Thomas was beheaded on the 22 March 1322.

Part of the remains of Pontefract Castle, showing the entrance to the sally port, the curtain wall, and the keep looming in the distande
Part of the remains of Pontefract Castle today

Why was Saint Thomas of Pontefract considered a saint?

After Thomas' death, miracles were soon reported at the hill where he was beheaded. 

The most notable was a blind priest who rubbed sand stained with Thomas' blood into his eyes, curing his blindness. There were also reports of a child coming back to life after lying on Thomas' tomb for three days.

As news of these miracles spread, combined with respect for his rebellion against the king, Thomas became a popular figure. Thousands of people at a time would travel to the site of his miracles in Pontefract. A chapel was erected on the hill, as well as a mill. These were duly named St Thomas' Chapel and St Thomas' Mill, on St Thomas' Hill. These were still being recorded on the earliest Ordnance Survey maps in the 19th century.

But new research confirms that Saint Thomas wasn't Pontefract's only claim to saintly fame...

Who was Saint Thurstan, Archbishop of York?

It has long been known that Thurstan, archbishop of York from 1114 to 1140, retired to the Cluniac priory at Pontefract.  

Thurstan died just two weeks after he retired. He was buried in front of the high altar at Pontefract Priory.

Recent research by Dr Michael Carter from English Heritage revealed that Thurstan was recognised as a saint, through analysing early church documents.

In a record of Saints Feast days celebrated at Pontefract Priory, 6 February is recorded as the feast of the anniversary of the death of Saint Thurstan. Dr Carter states this is "unambiguous proof that Thurstan was indeed a saint".

A field with trees and houses in the background, and a blue information plaque about St John's Priory
The site of the former St John's Priory, Pontefract - Bill Henderson, Wikimedia Commons

Why aren't Saint Thomas of Pontefract and Saint Thurstan more widely known?

In medieval England there were many classes of saint that were done away with after the Reformation. 

Both of these saints are only mentioned on local records, suggesting that they fall into the category of local uncanonised saints.

These uncanonised saints were not recognised by the Church officially. However, they were often of equal or even greater importance to their local people.

So Pontefract can now claim the fame of two saints - one you maybe knew about, and one you probably didn't!

Visit Pontefract Castle

This is just a snippet of the incredible history of Pontefract Castle! 
Want to learn more? Come and visit us! 
Pontefract Castle is open every day and is free entry. 
We also run Dungeon Tours and Castle Explorer Tours every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

1 comment:

  1. While better known at Court and Chicester, please also consider a third saint with Pontefract connections.
    Baron Edmund de Lacy proclaimed, “I assign this place to Saint Richard, Bishop and Confessor. My teacher and dearest friend, whose wish was to establish a church here in Pontefract, for him, I lay the first stone”. It was founded in 1256 on six acres of land donated by Edmund de Lacy in honour of Saint Richard de Wych, Bishop of Chichester. The Friary was built on today’s site of Pontefract Hospital. While no remains are to be seen, some are still preserved underground.


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