How Richard II’s connection to Yorkshire will be highlighted in film set at Pontefract Castle

The prison speech of Richard II in Shakespeare’s play is set at Pontefract Castle and for the first time, has now been filmed at the historic site. Laura Drysdale reports.

Thursday, 14th February 2019, 6:00 am
Mark Burghagen as Richard II in a new film called The Sacred King showing the Pontefract Castle prison speech of Shakespeare's play. Picture by Ben Porter who filmed the piece.

Since it was written in the late 16th century, William Shakespeare’s Richard II has been performed on stages all over the world, including more than 30 times at Royal Shakespeare Company theatres in the playwright’s birth town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

But only once has a production of the play ever taken place at Pontefract Castle - despite the historic site being the setting for a soliloquy which sees the former king look back on his life. Now, the speech has been read again at the castle ruins, this time, in another first, for a new short film entitled The Sacred King.

Released today, on the anniversary of Richard’s supposed death - he is understood to have died on or around February 14, 1400 - it captures what is often called ‘the prison speech’ in Shakespeare’s tragedy, performed by York-based actor Mark Burghagen in the castle dungeon.

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“The scene of the king’s final speech is set at Pontefract Castle and has never before been filmed at the historic site,” he says.

“The short film is intended as a stand-alone piece, aiming to make a wider audience aware of the fairly unknown connection between Shakespeare, Richard II and Pontefract Castle.”

Richard inherited the throne from his grandfather at the age of ten in 1377 and reigned for 22 years as king. In 1399, his cousin Henry Bolingbroke deposed Richard and had himself crowned Henry IV.

“When his crown was taken off him by the future Henry IV, he was quietly shipped up north to move him out the way because no one dared touch a king,” Mark says.

“They dressed him up as a forester and shipped him up north for him to die at Pomfret Castle (as it was then known).”

Richard was imprisoned within the Gascoigne Tower at the castle from late 1399 until his death, the cause of which is not known.

Theories include that he was poisoned, murdered by starvation with his gaolers denying him food or that he starved himself as a protest.

Mark played Richard II in a performance of the play at Pontefract Castle in 2015 by York company Bronzehead Theatre.

“Theatre always seems to happen in the South, In London, so it’s cool to take something to the North that actually happened here.

“The play since it was written has been performed millions of times by different people all over the world. But [this scene] is set in Pontefract, nowhere else.”

The 2015 performance attracted much interest, he says, hence his idea for a stand-alone film piece.

Shot in January, it was directed by Yvonne Morley of the Royal Shakespeare Company, filmed by Ben Porter of York production company Hewitt and Walker, and features music written English Renaissance composer John Dowland and performed by tenor John Potter and lutenist Jacob Heringman.

“We felt there was quite a bit of interest in [the connection between the castle, Shakespeare and Richard II] so we thought wouldn’t it be great to circulate this to a wider audience by filming this particular piece where it is set at Pontefract Castle.”

The film comes amid restoration and conservation work at the medieval castle. A new visitor centre has already been created as part of the multi-million pound Key to the North project which will also mean parts of the castle not seen by the public since 1649 can be opened up.

The castle will be able to use it for marketing purposes and show it at the visitor centre, Mark says, as a contribution to the site’s legacy.

To see the film, search @the_sacredking on Twitter or visit