One of the ways we fund the podcast is through affiliate links. If you purchase these items through our links, we make a commission. This, and all the posts here on our website, may contain such affiliate links. 

Welcome to Episode #116 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

One of the most notorious castles in all of English history is Pontefract Castle. Just one step down in the levels of punishment a criminal could receive short of being sent to the Tower of London was to find themselves imprisoned in one of the town castles, and none was more notorious in it’s reputation for death and imprisonment than Pontefract Castle. 

Known as Pomfret in Shakespeare’s plays, the bard paints a compelling story about the death of Richard II at Pontefract Castle, but what is the real history behind this iconic location? We have invited our guest this week, Neil Redfern, to visit with us and share the real history behind Pontefract Castle, as well as what’s being done today to try and save it.

Join the conversation below.

Subscribe
Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay | iHeartRadio

GET THE APP

Immediately access the entire video library of That Shakespeare Life, PLUS Bonus content, exclusive interviews, documentaries, activities, and more! 

Neil Redfern is currently the Executive Director of The Council for British Archaeology, the leading independent charity promoting archaeology and the public participation in archaeology in the UK. Prior to this role he worked for Historic England (the government’s statutory advisor on the historic environment in England) in York for fourteen years, as a Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Yorkshire. He was responsible for delivery of Historic England’s statutory advice on planning, listed building and scheduled monument consent applications in the region. He has an M.Phil in Archaeological Heritage Management and Museums (University of Cambridge), and a BA (Hons) in Geography and Archaeology (University of Manchester).

He has over 20 years’ experience of cultural heritage management, archaeological fieldwork, survey and assessment and museum practice through working for English Heritage, the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) and the Wordsworth Trust. He is particularly interested in the practical and philosophical challenges faced in enhancing participation, securing the conservation and enhancement of heritage places and articulating their full social economic value to the wider community.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Neil Redfern about :

  • By the time Shakespeare was writing his play, Richard III, in 1593, Pomfret had earned over centuries a notorious reputation for death and imprisonment. Neil, I thought this was a castle? Is Pontefract also a prison? 

  • Do we know where in the castle Richard II was kept?

  • Today the castle is in ruins, making its former glory somewhat hard to imagine. Neil, I would like to ask you to describe for us the castle’s physical description. What did the castle look like when it was in good condition and fully operational?

  • … and more!

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.

He's follow'd both with body and with mind;
And doth enlarge his rising with the blood
Of fair King Richard, scrap'd from Pomfret stones…

Morton

Henry IV Part II (I.1)

Reconstruction of Pontefract Castle. Initial photograph by Rept0n1x, cleaned up and adapted by Hchc2009. Source

Notorious Castle Prison and Home

Comparing Pontefract Castle to Windsor today, Pontefract was both a notorious prison as well as a well established home. Neil explains that inside the castle there were several elaborate apartments fit for royalty within the castle itself.

In addition to these significant apartments where many people called home and lived on purpose, there were several dark dungeons down beneath the walls of his location which housed criminals who were just one step short of being sent to the Tower of London.

It was a big castle, and Neil shares that to understand what it looked like originally, you have to

“try and imagine that it sat on this knoll, or hill, which had a large cliff face to it, and then the castle would have risen up above it. When it was built, it would have been so much bigger than everything else around it, [the position] magnifified its size and appearance. But it was traditional as well as imposing; it was a Norman castle with a bailey hill with a keep, the earth hill is later enclosed by a wall at Pontefract… The keep tower was very impressive, with an inner bailey and two outer bailies. It was not only a fearsome place, but it also contained royal apartments for the King and Queen making it write a high status building similar to Windsor Castle. It was a residence, and it is not wholly defensive but also a place for living. Pontefract had chapels, halls, amd there was even a garden.”

Some of the dungeons of Pontefract Castle have survived the desecration over the years and can still be toured at Pontefract today. As Neil shares, they are still dark and dank and nasty as they were when Pontefract was striking fear into the hearts of Shakespeare's theater goers in the 16th century.

Related Episode You Might Enjoy

He's follow'd both with body and with mind;
And doth enlarge his rising with the blood
Of fair King Richard, scrap'd from Pomfret stones;
Morton

Henry IV Part II (I.1)

17th century painting of Pontefract Castle by Alexander Keirincx (1600-1652). dated 1640-1641. Pontefract Castle, Pontefract, West Yorkshire, England. Source

Pontefract's role in War of the Roses

In the mid 1300s, Pontefract Castle belonged to John of Gaunt, who used the castle as his primary residence. When John of Gaunt died in 1399, was Pontefract Castle part of the properties Henry Bolingbroke returned to England to claim.

Neil explains that not only did Pontefract serve in the start of the War of the Roses for being the home of Henry Bolingbroke, but it continued to be important throughout the war.

In England, the land and how it was controlled was reflected through the castles. The north of England was a huge power area. The North was fought over, and the site of Pontefract Castle is  less than 20 miles from the Battle of Towton–the battle known as “probably the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil”* 

At the Battle of Towton, an estimated 50,000 soldiers fought through a snow storm. The result of the battle was Edward IV displacing Henry VI and establishing the House of York.

Neil explains that “we know the Yorkist army came across the river near Pontefract” and specifically, “you can see [the river] from the castle, so this site played a role in the War of the Roses.”

Additionally, the Battle of Wakefield which is where Richard of York ultimately died, happened nearby Pontefract Castle. So this entire area was hugely important to the War of the Roses and focused on controlling land, including the land of Pontefract. Although we don’t actually know if the castle itself was fought over directly, Neil shares that

“we do know certainly that troops and the family stayed there and the power emanating from here during the war was very real.”

*Gravett, Christopher (2003). Towton 1461: England's Bloodiest Battle (PDF). Campaign. 120. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing (published 20 April 2003). ISBN 978-1-84176-513-6. Accessed by me, Cassidy Cash, on 5 June 2020. Find the book version here on Amazon

RELATED EPISODE YOU MIGHT ENJOY

GET THE APP

Immediately access the entire video library of That Shakespeare Life, PLUS Bonus content, exclusive interviews, documentaries, activities, and more! 

The eldest son and heir of John of Gaunt,
Crown'd by the name of Henry the Fourth,
Seized on the realm, deposed the rightful king,
Sent his poor queen to France, from whence she came,
And him to Pomfret; where, as all you know,
Harmless Richard was murder'd traitorously.

Richard Plantagenet

Henry VI Part II (II.2)

Early 15th C drawing showing Henry Bolinbroke and Richard II. This drawing was based on an eye witness account of the capture of Richard II and places his capture at Flint Castle.  Harley MS 1319 1401-1767, La Prinse et mort du roy Richart (ff. 1r-78v). Added descriptions of the miniatures written in 1767 by Dr Thomas Percy (ff. 79r-80v). composed by Jean Creton (fl. 1386–1420), historian and poet; see J. J. N. Palmer, ‘Creton, Jean (fl. 1386–1420)’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004), [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/50197, accessed 19 Oct 2010]. This work was commissioned between November 1401 and March 1402 by Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy. In April 1399 Creton was sent by Charles VI of France (r. 1380-1422) to accompany Richard II to Ireland. Creton sailed with the earl of Salisbury to north Wales, and gave an eyewitness account of the capture of the king. This is one of seven copies of the texts: see Jean Creton, Archives de littérature du Moyen Âge (ARLIMA) , http://www.arlima.net/il/jean_creton.html#prinse [accessed on 19 October 2011]. The subjects of the miniatures are: the author Jean Creton and a French knight (f. 2r); Henry of Monmouth knighted in the field by Richard II (f. 5r); the relief ships (f. 7v); MacMorogh, the Irish chieftian, approaching the duke of Gloucester (f. 9r); Archbishop Arundel preaching (f. 12r); Salisbury's arrival at Conway (f. 14v); Richard II's fleet (f. 18r), Richard II at Conway (f. 19v); the dukes of Exeter and Salisbury (f. 25r); Henry Bolingbroke and the dukes (f. 30v); Richard II and the earl of Northumberland (37v); Northumberland's oath (f. 41v); Richard II and the soldiers of the earl of Northumberland on the road to Chester (f. 44r); Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke at Flint Castle (f. 50r); Richard II delivered to the citizens of London (f. 53v); Henry Bolingbroke recognized as king by the parliament (f. 57r). 1 large initial in colours and gold ‘A'(u) with foliate motifs (f. 2r). More information and full source here at The British Library. 

The Place where Richard II was murdered (supposedly)

In his history plays, William Shakespeare makes an elaborate and epic case for the death of Richard II, which ultimately takes place at Pontefract Castle in the works of the bard. 

As Neil explains, history is less definite on that point in terms of actual evidence for where Richard II was in fact, killed. 

We know Richard II was held at Pontefract Castle, that’s documented in primary sources. Exactly what happens to him is enigmatic and obscure. 

Neil explains,

“[It is] difficult to categorically say whether he was actually murdered there, but Shakespeare must have had some sense of what happened and he was closer to the events than we are today.”

We may never know for certain where precisely Richard II died, or how he met with his end, but it is certain that Shakespeare's version is as tantalizing as it is immortalizing for one of England's most notorious kings to have died in one of their most notorious castles. 

Related Products from That Shakespeare Shop:

Looking to learn more and explore further into the history of this week's topic? Here are some great places to start.

My lord, the mind of Bolingbroke is changed:
You must to Pomfret, not unto the Tower.

Earl of Northumberland

Richard II (V.1)

Ruins of St. Clement's Chapel at Pontefract Castle. Submitted to Wikimedia Commons by Tim Green from Bradford. Source.

Active Preservation of Present Ruins

Though once a powerful citadel on a hill today the site of this impressive castle is in ruins. Neil shares the story of how it came to be neglected and even intentionally torn down:

“The important thing coming out of Guant’s ownership is Pontefract becomes royal land belonging to the crown. Skip through history to the 17th century and the English Civil War, the castle with parliament fighting against Charles II, the castle is held by the royal faction and it is besieged. Ulimately over the civil war, Pontefract castle suffers three seiges. Basically the parliamentarians drug defensive siege worlds (trenches, forts) soldiers encamped there for years on end as part of hte seige. It is shot to pieces from artillery which come sinto the military at this time, and part of the archaeological digs find canon fballs buried into the walls from this period.”

The consequence of all of this fighting at the castle is that the town itself becomes exhausted with the seiges. The castle itself takes on a reputation for rebellion, and a symbol for anyone wanting to fight against the government. The government seeks to tear down the castle to disuade anyone else from rising up, and the townspeople seek to have it torn down because they are weary of the government's aggression, so in mutual agreement on all sides, the castle is torn down. 

The city of Pontefract needed materials to rebuild their homes which had been damaged or destroyed as a result of the fighting and consequently, many of the stones which used to be part of Pontefract Castle can now be found in homes all around the town. 

While the actual castle is now in ruins, some parts of hte original structure remain and present day Pontefract is home to many organizations actively working to preserve what is left of the powerful castle. The dungeons of Pontefract remain in tact and are tourable at the site, as are a number of chambers beneath the keep and the dungeon from the civil war.

Most recently, a company called DigVentures worked with the Council for British Archaelogy to conduct an excavation of the Gate House at Pontefract Castle, interviews for which along with exclusive footage of the dig itself can be found inside the “Virtual Tours and Museum Footage” section of That Shakespeare Life app. Stream that here.

GET THE APP

Immediately access the entire video library of That Shakespeare Life, PLUS Bonus content, exclusive interviews, documentaries, activities, and more! 

Books & Resources Neil Redfern recommends:

 

Pontefract Castle and the de Lacy Family

Wakefield Council – Pontefract Castle – Web site with history and information on visiting the castle

 https://www.pontefractcastle.co.uk/

Dig Ventures – Unearthing the medieval gatehouse at one of England’s strongest fortresses – results and information on the recent archaeological excavation of Pontefract Castle Gatehouse and discovery of the original drawbridge pit.

https://digventures.com/pontefract-castle/

Wessex Archaeology – Pontefract Castle: The Key to The North – archaeological investigations and recording around the castle undertaken during the recent conservation works.

https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/news/pontefract-castle-key-north

The de Lacy Chronicles – The Story of the de Lacy Family and Pontefract Castle – The Key to the North

https://www.delacychronicles.com/pontefract.html

Get into Archaeology

Council for British Archaeology – An independent charity, the Council for British Archaeology brings together members, supporters and partners to give archaeology a voice and safeguard it for future generations.

https://new.archaeologyuk.org/

Pontefract Young Archaeologist Clubhttps://www.yac-uk.org/clubs/pontefract

Dig School – Dig School a new online programme of lively extra-curricular in-school workshops themed around archaeology. Week by week, students can enjoy developing new knowledge, ideas and transferrable skills for life and learning, including excavation. 

http://digschool.org.uk/

Books Cassidy Thought You Might Enjoy:

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


Comment and Share

Please consider rating the podcast with 5 stars and leaving a one- or two-sentence review in iTunes or on Stitcher.  Rating the podcast helps tremendously with bringing the podcast to the attention of others.

We encourage you to join the That Shakespeare Life community on Facebook. It’s a community of fans of That Shakespeare Life and a meeting place of professional Shakespeareans and Shakespeare enthusiasts.

You can tell your friends on Twitter about your love of Shakespeare and our new podcast by simply clicking this link and sharing the tweet you’ll find at the other end.

And, by all means, if you know someone you think would love to learn about the life of William Shakespeare, please spread the word by using the share buttons on this page.

And remember: In order to really know William Shakespeare, you have to go behind the curtain, and into That Shakespeare Life. 

%d bloggers like this: