Castle Stories

Pontefract Castle Stories

Since its construction almost a thousand years ago, Pontefract Castle has seen some truly incredible things. Loyal Royalist soldiers, medieval barons and selfish kings. Unfaithful royal lovers, liquorice farmers and selfless Victorian ladies. Read on to discover some of the hundreds of stories contained within the castle walls…

Ilbert de Lacy

Pontefract Castle and the Norman Conquest

After William the Conqueror became king, he rewarded his loyal friends and allies by giving them land. One such friend was Ilbert de Lacy (left), who had fought for William at the Battle of Hastings. Ilbert was given the Honour of Pontefract, a large estate in Yorkshire. It was here, on the site of an Anglo-Saxon manor, that he built Pontefract Castle in 1070.

Ilbert, like William himself, was from Normandy. There was a lot of opposition from the Anglo-Saxons to their new Norman rulers. So the Normans built mighty castles - like Pontefract - to help them rule over their new subjects. The massive castles they built were designed to inspire fear and awe in the native population. 

Pontefract Castle and the Magna Carta

The de Lacy family enlarged Pontefract Castle, making it one of the mightiest fortresses in England. King John confiscated the castle when Roger de Lacy died. The King made Roger’s heir, John de Lacy (right), pay a huge fee to release his inheritance – but the King would not give up Pontefract Castle. So John de Lacy joined the rebel barons, and forced King John to seal the Magna Carta in 1215.

The Magna Carta (which means "Great Charter" in Latin) was a document drawn up by a group of barons who were unhappy with the unjust way King John was ruling England. It guaranteed a lot of rights and protections for the barons and it was a milestone in English justice, becoming part of the fabric of the English political system.

John de Lacy
Richard II

Pontefract Castle and a Shakespearean Tragedy

Over the centuries, Pontefract Castle’s importance made it the scene of many dark and terrible deeds… even being involved in the murder of a king.

King Richard II (left) was captured by his cousin, Henry IV, and imprisoned in the castle, where he was starved to death. This infamous event is immortalised in Shakespeare’s play, Richard II.
You can watch the scene of the King in prison – filmed at Pontefract Castle – in the video below.

Castle Stories Video

Henry VIII and Catherine Howard

On the 23rd August 1541 Henry VIII and his entourage arrived at Pontefract, amongst them were his wife, Catherine (Howard) and his close friend Thomas Culpeper. The visit was part of their Royal Progress of the North.

It is alleged that whilst staying at Pontefract Castle within the castle's Royal Apartments, Culpeper and Howard began a love affair. An incriminating love letter written by Howard to Culpeper, possibly whilst in Pontefract, was intercepted and found its way to Archbishop Cranmer.

The Archbishop dared not present this information to Henry in person, so he placed it on the king’s seat at Hampton Court Palace; just before Henry was due to listen to mass.

Catherine was stripped of her title as queen and imprisoned until she was charged with treason for committing adultery with Culpeper. She was beheaded by a single stroke of an axe in February 1542, six months after her visit to Pontefract Castle. Thomas Culpeper was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered but the sentence was commuted to beheading and Culpeper was executed in December 1541.

Richard II - Was it murder or mystery at Pontefract Castle?

Richard II inherited the throne from his grandfather at the age of ten in 1377. His father (The Black Prince) had died a year earlier leaving Richard to become the heir apparent. Richard reigned as King for 22 years but his reign was at times quite turbulent and the last two years were known as “Richard's Tyranny”.

During his tyranny Richard took revenge on many of the nobles that he considered to have caused him trouble during the first few years of his reign. One of those nobles was Henry Bolingbroke, Richard’s cousin and son of John of Gaunt, Richard’s influential uncle who had acted as regent until Richard came of age.

When John of Gaunt died in 1399 Richard acted quickly to disinherit Henry to prevent him taking the throne. This didn’t work; Henry who had already been exiled returned to England with a small army, deposed Richard and had himself crowned Henry IV.

Richard was imprisoned within the Gascoigne Tower at Pontefract Castle from late 1399 until his death on or around the 14th February 1400. Most sources agree that Richard died of starvation, although whether this was self-inflicted as a protest or murder remains unclear. Richard's body was initially taken to Kings Langley in Hertfordshire and was then moved to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey.

Those north of the border with Scotland however tell the end of the story slightly differently. They believe that Richard escaped Pontefract (with a local man taking his place), and fled to Stirling Castle. Certainly a man is documented as staying there, identifying himself as Richard and being buried as a king in the local Dominican friary.

William Shakespeare immortalised Richard II in his play of the same name, which portrayed Richard's reign and deposition by Henry Bolingbroke.

Richard II