In Pontefract Jonson swapped the boots of a traveller for the eyes of an antiquarian, or what might be termed a tourist, for the journal records that they
‘visited the castle and whatsoever tasted of antiquity’.
Here they were shown around the ancient fortress, their guide telling them tales of past events, an oral version of our present-day interpretation boards. Two were apparently noteworthy enough to merit recording by Jonson’s companion.
The first was of the alleged murder of the unfortunate Richard II in 1400 in Pontefract castle, having been held there in captivity since Henry of Bolingbroke’s invasion the previous year, and his replacement of Richard as king. Following Bolingbroke’s coronation as Henry IV, Richard was apparently starved to death, though the exact manner of his demise is not known. The account of his ‘murder’ by Exton is common to familiar sources, including Holinshed and Shakespeare.
This sad event was the subject of one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays, The Life and Death of King Richard II, first performed in 1595; at its first printing in 1597, its title was The Tragedie of King Richard II.
The castle was the site for several political executions over the centuries, including one described by Camden:
‘here King Richard the Third caused Antony Earl Rivers, King Edward the Fifth, his Uncle by the mother’s side, and Sir Richard Grey Knight, half brother to the same King by the mother’s side, both innocent persons, to lose their heads’ (Camden, 1610, 696)
The other more lascivious tale, was of Henry VIII’s stay at Pontefract in 1541 with his lively young queen, Catherine Howard, and his alleged cuckolding by Thomas Culpeper, when the queen admitted him into her chamber. Both were subsequently executed for the affair, Archbishop Cranmer using an affectionate letter from Catherine to Culpeper as proof.