Pontefract Castle is a castle which undid itself.
Flicking through the castle’s history reads like a chronicle of disobedience. It was here that by the order of Edward II, Thomas Earl of Lancaster was executed, made to kneel for the axe facing Scotland to symbolise his treasonous association with the Scots. It was here that Richard II died in the dark following his deposition by Henry IV, and you can still see the foundations of the Gascogne Tower in which he was held (pictured below). The facing stonework has been restored to a cheerful beige, but as the second picture shows, the old and blackened stones can still be seen within.
It is supposed to be at Pontefract Castle that Henry VIII’s fifth wife Catherine Howard slept with the courtier Thomas Culpepper. She was executed for this within a year. (From her letter to him: “…when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot always be in your company.”) Mary Queen of Scots stayed at the castle on her way to Rotherham prison.
During the Civil War the castle was held first by the King’s troops, then the Parliamentarians, then the Royalists once more, each continually besieging the other for control of its strategically important position. When Charles I was executed, the Royalist garrison immediately proclaimed Charles II as the rightful king. Beautiful coins were struck proudly bearing the motto after the father’s death, for the son. Pontefract Castle was the last Royalist garrison to surrender.
During these sieges, the tiny damp dungeon beneath the castles bailey held prisoners (probably mostly Parliamentarians) who carved their names into the walls, as did their jailers. They are well preserved, and so the dungeon is only opened once a day (this was at 3 o’clock when we visited). It is amazing to be so close to the raw work of nearly-400-year-old hands, and even more so to see the flags, axes, gallows and crucifixes they carved with them – even the word ‘KING’. The crucifix sends a shiver down your spine – just a cross scratched into stone, but it marks the place where prisoners could find their God in the darkness.
Though thick with echoes of past lives below ground, above ground not very much remains to summon up the monarchs and courtiers who lived and died there. Following the Royalist surrender in 1649, the town of Pontefract (which was tired of being caught between the swords and muskets of rival armies) successfully petitioned Parliament to have the strategically important castle demolished. And so the tall towers and unscalable defences have become mostly outlines and stray walls, open to the skies, like the “hollow crown” of which Shakepeare’s Richard II speaks.