Pontefract Castle and John Morris: How an English Civil War Siege was Undone by Beds

Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire has been a place of power ever since he was originally built during the Norman Period. It became a place of royal power after it was brought into royal hands in the 12th century, after the power struggles during the reign of Henry I. For me, the castle means a lot as the place that Anthony Woodville, my favourite historical figure, his nephew, Richard Grey, and his friend, Thomas Vaughn, were executed in 1483. The years of the English Civil War in the 1640s continued this tumultuous history when it was besieged 3 times.[1] In fact, the consequences of the last siege in 1648, following the Parliamentarians gaining control of the castle ended in an interesting, even somewhat comical, way.

The Royalists were determined to again take possession of the castle. None was more enthusiastic than the Yorkshireman, Colonel John Morris. He was known for carrying on fighting at both the Battle of Nantwich and Middlewich, despite being on the losing side.[2] However, following the fall of Royal forces at Liverpool, he briefly switched sides. It is thought that this was because of a soldiers’ desire to win, rather than any heartfelt gesture. As Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon (also a very distant ancestor of mine), noted on Morris’ decision to change sides, this didn’t help him with the Parliamentarians either, for they “left him out in their compounding of their new army”.[3] The lack of acceptance made him once again return to his Royalist roots and he found himself assisting in the third siege at Pontefract Castle.

Pontefract Castle during the Siege of 1645 in, “Supplement to the Sieges of Pontefract Castle, etc”, British Library

The original plan was to scale the walls using ladders, but the men Morris commanded had got a little too drunk beforehand and they ended up being disturbed by the guards but weren’t captured.[4] Following this attempt at entering the castle, there were orders to employ more men at garrison inside the castle. This meant more beds were needed for these extra men, so Morris and his men were able to successfully disguise themselves by carrying beds into the castle.[5] It’s almost beyond belief, but this strategy worked, and the Royalists were able to take charge of the castle. The Parliamentarians were placed in the dungeons and many of their names were carved into the walls.[6] In direct response, other Parliamentarians in the area were sent to ransack John Morris’ house in the West Riding of Yorkshire. They stole £1,000 (around £103,500 in today’s money) in goods, and £1,800 (just over £186,000 in today’s money) in cash.[7]

The Royalists held Pontefract for around 9 months in total, even well after the Parliamentarians had officially won the war. It wasn’t until the execution of Charles I in January 1649 at Whitehall in London, that the garrison finally realised that they would have to surrender. Even so, just as before, Morris wasn’t willing to give in without having his final say. He made demands that he said had to be met before he would allow the garrison to surrender. He specifically asked for an armed convoy home and for all the men to be exempt from prosecution or being sued for their parts on the Royalist side.[8] These terms proved too much, and it was finally agreed that only Morris and 5 others would be exempt, but this proved to be a trick so they would leave the castle.[9] One man was shot when they left and Morris escaped, but went on the run. He was found 10 days later and sent to York to be condemned to death as a traitor, but again he briefly escaped.[10] He was eventually executed on 23rd of August 1649.

Pontefract Castle as of 2016 (Author’s Own Image)

The Parliamentarians, especially Oliver Cromwell, never forgot how stupid they were made to look when John Morris and his men had taken over the castle at Pontefract. Cromwell saw it as such a troublesome place than instead of the customary slighting, where a castle was partially damaged, he ordered and paid the townspeople of Pontefract to destroy it.[11] To this day, the castle is a former shadow of itself. It’s very hard to imagine what the castle had once looked like prior to the destruction as there is so little left of it. Thankfully, there are some lovely images available to give a sense of what that might have been like. Whatever that may have been, you can’t help but commend John Morris for his tenacity and quick thinking when it came to infiltrating Pontefract Castle by using just beds.

If you would like to learn more about the history of Pontefract Castle, please do take a look at the following website: https://pontefractsandalcastles.org.uk/. It’s run by an amazing team of volunteers for both Pontefract and nearby Sandal Castle, both with wonderful Wars of the Roses connections. The team are lovely and the website is full of information on all aspects of history connected to both sites.


[1] Exploring Castles, Pontefract Castle: History of England’s Most Fearsome Fort, https://www.exploring-castles.com/uk/england/pontefract_castle/

[2] Cooper, S., The Bravest Cavalier: John Morris & The Siege of Pontefract Castle, 1648-9 (2014), http://www.chivalryandwar.co.uk/Resource/THE%20BRAVEST%20CAVALIER.pdf, p. 21

[3] Clarendon cited in Cooper, S., The Bravest Cavalier, p. 21.

[4] Pontefract Castle, Stories, https://www.pontefractcastle.co.uk/Castle-Stories.aspx; Thomas Paulden cited in Cooper, S., The Bravest Cavalier, p. 21.

[5] Earls of Manchester, Sieging and besieged: who were the soldiers who fought to control Pontefract Castle?, https://earlofmanchesters.co.uk/sieging-and-besieged-who-were-the-soldiers-who-fought-to-control-pontefract-castle/

[6] Cooper, S., The Bravest Cavalier, p. 49.

[7] Cooper, S., The Bravest Cavalier, p. 50.

[8] Earls of Manchester, Sieging and besieged: who were the soldiers who fought to control Pontefract Castle?, https://earlofmanchesters.co.uk/sieging-and-besieged-who-were-the-soldiers-who-fought-to-control-pontefract-castle/

[9] Earls of Manchester, Sieging and besieged: who were the soldiers who fought to control Pontefract Castle?, https://earlofmanchesters.co.uk/sieging-and-besieged-who-were-the-soldiers-who-fought-to-control-pontefract-castle/

[10] Earls of Manchester, Sieging and besieged: who were the soldiers who fought to control Pontefract Castle?, https://earlofmanchesters.co.uk/sieging-and-besieged-who-were-the-soldiers-who-fought-to-control-pontefract-castle/; Pontefract Castle, Stories, https://www.pontefractcastle.co.uk/Castle-Stories.aspx;

[11] Exploring Castles, Pontefract Castle: History of England’s Most Fearsome Fort, https://www.exploring-castles.com/uk/england/pontefract_castle/

2 thoughts on “Pontefract Castle and John Morris: How an English Civil War Siege was Undone by Beds

  1. How interesting – and how incredible that it actually worked! I feel so bad for so many beautiful old buildings that Cromwell destroyed. I live near Donnington Castle in Newbury and that was damaged in a siege but then parliament demolished what was left of that too, after the Civil War. It dated to the 1300s.

    Like

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