The sweet, sweet history of Pontefract Castle

DigVentures is inviting families to try archaeology as part of a new excavation taking place at Pontefract Castle in October 2019. This week, Yorkshire is celebrating the sweeter side of the castle’s history at Pontefract Liquorice Festival…

Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire is probably one of the most notorious castles in England. Dating all the way back to 1070, it’s where Richard II later died, it was a major military base during the Wars of the Roses, and one of the final strongholds of the English Civil Wars in the 1600s. By the end, the townspeople were so fed up with all the trouble it had attracted that they agreed to have it demolished and in 1649 the drawbridge and gatehouses were torn down.

But that’s not the end of its story. After several hundred years of bloodstained history, the castle developed a much sweeter side. Over the next few centuries, it became an icon of the country’s most popular traditional candy, and the epicentre of Yorkshire’s booming confectionery trade (Terry’s, Rowntree’s, and Trebor all opened their first factories in the county).

Every year, at the Pontefract Liquorice Festival, the town now celebrates its leading role in the country’s 600-year love affair with liquorice, and the small, round, chewy liquorice-flavoured lozenges known throughout England as Pontefract cakes.

The story of how this fearsome fortress became the country’s very own ‘candy crush castle’ is thought to begin in the 1300s, when the hardy liquorice plant was first grown in the area. Some suggest it was brought back from the Crusades by the de Lacy family who built the original Pontefract Castle, while others suggest it was more likely to have been the Dominican monks who settled at Pontefract Priory nearby. Either way, by 1648, there is record of the plant being grown in ‘garths’ either side of Micklegate – a street that runs between the castle and Pontefract’s Market Place.

Like many sweets, liquorice started out as a medicinal remedy. By 1614, Pontefract was already producing small, round lozenges that could ease coughs and stomach complaints. As a sign of quality, and to indicate that they were made with Pontefract-grown liquorice, each lozenge was stamped with the letters G.S – probably the initials of George Savile, a major local landowner.

In 1760, a Pontefract apothecary called George Dunhill decided to make liquorice even more tasty by adding sugar to the recipe. People love them so much that within a few years, he became one of England’s best-known liquorice makers. Continuing the tradition started by Savile, each lozenge was hand-stamped with an image of the castle, turning it into his very own trademark and making it a widely recognised sign of quality liquorice.

They became known as ‘Pontefract cakes’, and the popularity of these little black sweets grew so dramatically in the 1800s that large areas of the town and surrounding fields were being used to harvest liquorice – including the castle itself! The castle yard was turned over to liquorice cultivation and the long-sealed off dungeons were re-opened to store the harvest.

In fact, the castle and the famous liquorice product it represented became so ubiquitous that it even got mixed up in politics. In 1872, Pontefract became the first town in England to elect a new MP using a secret ballot, which is the basis of the electoral system we use today. The ballot boxes were closed with a wax seal to ensure the votes couldn’t be tampered with. And yes, you’ve guessed it… the box was sealed using one of Frank Dunhill’s liquorice stamps, bearing an image of the castle!

Hand stamp for liquorice Pontefract Cakes made by Frank Dunhills. The logo is a stylised wall between two towers, with an owl perched on the top. The owl is probably a reference to the Savile family, who were major landowners in the area. This stamp was also used for the wax seal on the first secret ballot box used in Britain at Pontefract in 1872. 📷 Wakefield Museum Collections.

By the 1920s, Pontefract had 10 factories (and one castle) involved in the cultivation, production and branding of liquorice sweets. Like Dunhill, many of the newer manufacturers chose Pontefract Castle as their emblem, and their employees (mostly women) were responsible for hand-stamping each and every lozenge or ‘cake’ with its image. All over Britain, people were chewing liquorice sweets stamped with the now-famous image of Pontefract Castle.

Eventually, Dunhill’s was bought by Haribo, who still produce Pontefract cakes in the town. To this day, each one carries an image of the castle and the town now celebrates its historic role at the Pontefract Liquorice Festival, which takes place every July.

Can’t get there in time? Find out more about taking part in the family-friendly archaeological excavation at Pontefract Castle this October, or try using the recipe below to make your own lovely liquorice-flavoured Pontefract cakes at home!

How to make your own Pontefract Cakes (and stamp them too!)


For the liquorice:

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the pan
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup dark corn syrup
  • 1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 tablespoons molasses (blackstrap or regular)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon black food gel
  • 3/4 tablespoon anise extract (use up to 1 tablespoon for a stronger flavour)

(If you want to get really authentic, you can make your own liquorice extract by infusing liquorice root with alcohol that’s at least 40% proof. Leave for about six weeks, and then strain off)

For the stamp:

Get creative and design your own castle-inspired motif. You can then turn it into a stamp using baked dough, or a potato.


Start by lining a loaf tin with baking paper, leaving plenty on each side of the loaf tin to make it easy to lift out later. Grease the parchment with plenty of butter so your mixture doesn’t stick.

Add the butter, sugar, corn syrup, condensed milk and molasses to a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the salt, and bring the mixture to a gentle boil, stirring frequently to prevent it from burning.

If you have a suitable thermometer, remove the mixture from the heat at 115 degrees Celsius (240 F). If you don’t have a thermometer, don’t panic! Fill a glass with cold water and drop a small spoonful of the mixture into the water. If you can make a ball with your hands, it’s ready.

As soon as you remove the mixture, pour it over the flour and mix well.

Once it’s mixed, add some food colouring and the liquorice extract. Mix these ingredients in well. If you don’t want to add food colouring, you could use beetroot juice instead.

Pour the mixture into your greased parchment lined loaf tin, and put into the fridge to set. This should take at least an hour

Once it’s set, pull the parchment out of the loaf tin, and cut into shapes.

Traditional Pontefract Cakes are round, but you could get creative! You could also try stamping them with your own design (although do this prior to the mix being completely set).

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Harriet Tatton

Written by Harriet Tatton

Harriet is one of DigVentures' community archaeologists. She loves museums, skeletons, and a good cup of Early Grey. Her first dig was at Bennachie, in Aberdeenshire, and since then she's never gone digging without her signature flowery wellies.

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