IN MY VIEW: Pontefract Castle’s role in a Tudor tragedy

Pontefract Castle
Pontefract Castle

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I have a few interests that amount almost to obsession, writes Rob Atkinson.

The two most prominent of these, which pretty much define me as a person, are sport — especially football — and local theatre, mainly as an active participant. These are the preoccupations I’ve been in thrall to for over four decades. I’m lucky in that I gravitated towards two areas wherein I could find fulfilment both as a player and as a spectator.

However, it wouldn’t do to divide my whole life between two interests, no matter how absorbing they may be. I’m happy to say that I do dabble in other areas; in fact, in some of these subsidiary matters, I can get quite immersed. One of them is Tudor history, something I’m currently deeply into after a spell away. I’ve found a few tolerably well-made TV series, telling a fictionalised tale of the real-life events from the end of the 15th century to the start of the 17th. That era saw England ruled by the house of Tudor, and it was a richly eventful time, bringing with it changes that helped shape the nation we know today.

The chief protagonist in this hundred plus years drama, despite the rival claims of half sisters and Queens, Mary and Elizabeth, was undoubtedly King Henry VIII. Famous for having married six times, with two of those wives coming to an abrupt end at the hands of the King’s executioners, Henry ruled as an absolute monarch, wielding supreme power during what it’s fair to describe as a reign of terror. In putting aside his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to woo and wed Anne Boleyn, Henry brought about a break from the religious authority of Rome, making himself head of a newly-established Church of England. Without these changes, the whole of subsequent history would be very different indeed. It’s probably the biggest “What If” alternate history project imaginable, for anyone with the time, talent and diligence to produce it.

As many will know, after the enormous lengths Henry went to in order to make Anne Boleyn his second queen, within three years or so of her coronation, Anne lost her head on Tower Green, a victim of trumped-up charges to pander to the King’s desire to dispense with another wife. That’s a sad enough story in itself, but perhaps even more tragic is the tale of Henry’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. And here is where we find a local connection.

Pontefract Castle was in its pomp when Henry VIII was on the throne. Another century would pass before Oliver Cromwell, in local parlance, “knocked it about a bit”. It was here, while Henry’s court was on a northern progress, that Catherine sowed the seeds of her own doom by conducting a clandestine affair at our own Ponte Castle with Thomas Culpeper, one of the King’s closest aides. Once discovered, the affair cost the lovers their lives; poor little Catherine was barely out of her teens when she died at the block in 1542.

It’s an eerie thing to walk around our recently refurbished castle on a sunny 21st century day, and reflect upon its occasionally grisly history. To walk where Henry VIII walked, and wonder what tales those weathered old stones could tell. Tragic tales, no doubt — but how lucky we are to live in a region where such important and formative history was made.