FROM CHRISTIANITY TO TREASON
ORIGINS AND HISTORY OF PONTEFRACT BUTTERCROSS
Pontefract Buttercross showing the
original balustrade. An engraving from Paul Jollage’s map of 1742.
Image from the collection of Pontefract Museum
The present day shopper perusing the wide variety of goods available from
the market stalls surrounding the Buttercross may well be unaware that
they are part of a continuing tradition of trade of all kinds on a site
which has been the focal point of historical significance within the
town and the surrounding district for more than a thousand years.
Since its construction in 1734 no building has been so evocative of the town
of Pontefract as the Buttercross.
In the Middle Ages the site was the location of St. Oswald’s Cross, named
after St. Oswald, King of Northumbria. St. Oswald was the eldest son of
the pagan King Aethelfrith of Bernicia by his second marriage to
Princess Aacha of Deira. He was probably born in AD 605 at the height of
his fathers power soon after he had invaded the Kingdom of Deira and
forced its King, Edward, to flee.
However, when Oswald was eleven years old, Queen Aacha was forced to flee to
Scotland with her children when King Edwin re-conquered Northumbria.
There the family were converted to Christianity by the monks from Iona Abbey
and Oswald and his brother Oswiu were sent to the same monastery to be
educated. Oswald apparently became a brave warrior at an early age.
In AD 633, King Edwin was killed in battle against the forces of Gwynedd
and Mercia and Oswald’s half-brother, Eanfrith, established himself on
the Bernician throne. Eanfrith proved to be just as unpopular as Edwin
and Oswald saw himself as his brother’s heir possibly with the
encouragement of the Northumbrians. Oswald’s father was Bernician and
his mother Deiran and it seemed he was one of the few people who could
unite the Kingdom. With a small force of men, Oswald marched south to
lay claim to his inheritance and raised a large cross ahead of the
battle. The prayers of his soldiers around the cross are said to have
contributed to his victory despite being greatly outnumbered by the
opposing forces. Oswald’s reputation as a Saint originates in his
reintroduction of Christianity to Northumberland and he further
increased the spread of Christianity to other parts of the country.
However, there were forces gathering who wished to bring an end to King
Oswald’s glorious reign in Britain and in AD 642 the old Northumbrian
enemy, King Penda of Mercia, gathered a large force against him and
Oswald was killed.
St. Oswald was a popular saint in Yorkshire with several churches bearing
his dedication. Whether the original St. Oswald’s Cross in Pontefract
was erected by him or as is more likely, in his memory, is not known but
the site became a sanctuary for those people evading arrest by the
administrative bodies of the town for debt and other offences. This was
signified by an unpaved area around it extending to approximately two
The cross was established as the meeting place of the Wapentake (District
or Division) of Osgoldcross (a corruption of Oswald’s Cross) which
extended from Featherstone to Whitgift, south to South Elmsall and north
to the boundaries of the rivers Calder and Aire. As a regular meeting
place it undoubtedly became an area from which traders would market
By the Norman period, the town was well established around the cross with a
thriving market place. The area around the cross may already have been
used by those selling dairy produce.
In 1572 the cross was joined by the conduit which had as its source a
spring in Penny Lane which was known as ‘Organn Well’. The pump
adequately served the limited population for a number of decades.
The cross was "newly beautified in 1671" according to
Thomas Gent, though it is likely he was referring to repairs to damage
sustained during the Civil War.
St. Oswald’s Cross was demolished in 1734, much to the reprobation of the
Antiquarian Richard Gough who wrote:
"As if Pontefract was to shew (sic)
no evidence of its splendour, St. Oswald’s cross gave place within
these thirty years to an unmeaning market-house."
The market-house referred to by Gough was of course the present day
Buttercross. Later, in Boothroyd’s ‘History of Pontefract’
it is stated:
inhabitants of the town and country are of a very different opinion to
this celebrated antiquarry [Gough]. They enjoy essential benefit from
the latter, while the former, if it had been suffered to remain, would
be wholly useless."
As the inscription on the south side states, the Buttercross was
"Erected by Mrs Elizabeth Dupier, relict of Solomon Dupier,
gentleman, in a cheerful and generous compliance with his benevolent
No ordinary resident of the town, Solomon Dupier died on 20th August 1732
but thirty years before his death he had been one of the garrison of
Gibraltar when it was held by pro Bourbon forces for King Philip V in
the war of the Spanish Succession. On 3rd August 1704 an Anglo-Dutch
force commanded by Admiral Gerorge Rooke attacked Gibraltar, the
garrison surrendering the following day. It is said that Solomon Dupier
was instrumental in bringing about the fall of the rock and that he
received a valuable pension for his services. In a recent communication
dated 30th May 1968 it is stated that "it would appear Dupier
was to give a signal when the Spanish garrison were engaged in their
religious duties in connection with one of the more important festivals
in the Catholic Church calendar. He did so, and, as a result, the
English Forces landed and captured the Rock with few, if any,
It was also stated that it was "not considered politic that Solomon
Dupier should continue to reside in Gibraltar and it would appear that
the English Government gave him a pension of £500 per year and
permission to settle anywhere in England that he should choose."
Along with Captain Lay, a member of Rooke’s force, Dupier came to live in
Pontefract, bringing with him his wife and three daughters, where he
maintained the lifestyle of a gentleman. Whatever Dupier’s involvement
in 1704, whether it could be considered an act of treason may never be
known and the reasons for him choosing to settle in Pontefract may
likewise never come to light.
Some years after his arrival in Pontefract his wife and three daughters
contracted smallpox and he took a vow that if their lives were spared he
would erect a covered market cross in Pontefract in order to afford
protection from the elements to the country women who came in to the
town on Saturday mornings with their baskets of dairy produce. Although
all four did survive it is said that all lost their sight but
nevertheless Dupier left money in his will to his widow in trust to
erect a Buttercross in fulfilment of his vow. According to Solomon
Dupiers will, £150 was to be donated to the building of a market cross
which was to be completed within two years of the death of his wife.
However, on the 10th December 1733 an agreement was reached between the Mayor and
Alderman of Pontefract and Elizabeth Dupier that construction of the
market cross should proceed without delay and so his widow, instead of
waiting the stipulated period, carried his testementary directions into
effect in 1734.
When first constructed, the Buttercross had a flat roof surrounded by a
balustrade but this was replaced by the present hipped roof at a cost of
£46-3-10d during August and September 1763. Such covered market crosses
were common during the eighteenth century but the Buttercross is a much
more substantial structure than most others and is unusual in its
rectangular plan. It continued to fulfil its original function as a
market shelter for farmers wives with their baskets of dairy produce
well into the 20th century but other more extraordinary transactions
have taken place at the Buttercross during its existence.
It is recorded that in 1776 John Nutt brought his wife to the market cross
and sold her to a Mr. Ryder for five shillings and it was further
reported that "all persons seemed perfectly satisfied."
In 1815 another man succeeded in auctioning his wife. With an opening
bid of one shilling his good lady was eventually sold for eleven
shillings! Such happenings were not unique to Pontefract as it is
recalled that similar occurrences were reported in the market town of
Selby in 1862.
It is also recorded in West Yorkshire Archives that in 1822 a man sold his
wife at The Cross in Halifax. The purchaser had good reason – three
children from his marriage with her seven years previously.
Unfortunately for him, the woman's husband, long since feared dead,
returned home from army duty in some foreign land and claimed her. The
husband led her to The Cross with a halter round her neck and before
many witnesses the deal was struck though no price is recorded.
At the time, it was long thought amongst uneducated people that a wife
could be sold to another man and that the resultant sale constituted a
legal divorce. Indeed, in one case in 1881, a woman stated in court that
she had been sold by her husband and possessed a receipt to prove that
she was not committing adultery.
Both Solomon Dupier and his wife, who later died in 1745, are buried in
Darrington Church where a contemporary tablet to their memory can be
Solomon Dupier’s act of generosity to the people whose community he shared for
almost thirty years has left a rich legacy in the form of a structure
that has been the focal point of the town for the last 170 years. This
Grade II listed building, seemingly forever in a state of disrepair and
in need of constant maintenance and renovation is Pontefract and
deserving of the same attention now as bestowed upon it by the Dupier’s
many years ago.
Further Studies of Interest
Pontefract Carnegie Free Library
Hope and Anchor Inn, Pontefract - Dr. Terry Spencer