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Ex-King Richard II was brutally murdered at Pontefract Castle

Posted in Castles, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Friday, 28 February 2014

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This edited article about Richard II first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Richard II at Pontefract,  picture, image, illustration

Richard II is surprised by his murderers at Pontefract Castle

Parliament was assembled in Westminster Hall. The most important Lords in the land gravely presented a long list of charges against the King, Richard the Second. Then Henry, Duke of Hereford and first cousin to the King, stepped forward. “The King is not fit to rule,” he said. “I claim the throne. It is mine by right of succession and popular demand.” At the same time, a mob of people who had been waiting outside, swept into the Hall, shouting their hatred for Richard. The Duke of Hereford was quickly proclaimed King Henry the Fourth of England.

A deputation went to the Tower of London where Richard lay in prison. The deputation informed him that Henry was now King and that Richard was to be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. Richard shrugged. It was as if he had lost all interest in what was happening.

A few days later, Richard was moved from the Tower of London. Because of the anger of the people against him, he was disguised as a forester. After days of weary travelling up through England, Richard and his armed guard came at last to the grim walls of Pontefract Castle in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Here Richard was put into the custody of Sir Thomas Swinford who took him down to the castle dungeons. Richard was put into one of these and the door slammed shut behind him.

England was never to see its ex-King alive again,

Richard was the grandson of Edward the Third and came to the English throne when he was only eleven years old. During these early years England was in reality ruled by Richard’s uncles, and in particular by the Duke of Lancaster. The other Earls often quarrelled amongst themselves and with the King, but the Duke of Lancaster managed to act as a buffer between them. However, most of Richard’s reign was to be one long struggle for power between himself and his uncles.

England was at this time at war with France. The cost of this could only be met by taxing the people heavily. This was not popular, and eventually they rose in angry rebellion. A large number of them, led by Wat Tyler, marched on London. Lusting for blood, they pillaged and murdered, sweeping their way into London where they set fire to houses and put many eminent people to death.

It was time for Richard to show himself a true King. He realised this and rode out together with the Mayor of London to meet the rebels. At Smithfield he came face to face with the shouting mob. Wat Tyler quietened them and then rode up to meet the King. Angrily he started making demands. The King listened patiently. Eventually Wat Tyler started to become insolent and abusive. Immediately, the Lord Mayor, fearing for Richard’s life, pulled out his dagger and stabbed Wat Tyler to death. The crowd saw their leader fall and started to surge forward menacingly, but Richard rode his horse up to them and without any sign of fear said firmly: “I am your captain and your King! Would you shoot me, then?”

The crowd marvelled at his bravery and soon dispersed. The peasant revolt was all but over.

By his brave action at Smithfield, Richard was probably trying to live up to the reputation of his father, the Black Prince, who had become respected as a courageous soldier. But Richard was no Black Prince. He was only slightly built and would certainly not have had the constitution to make a good soldier.

He had one major fault. In later days he was to be obsessed with the feeling that since he was King he could do no wrong.

In January, 1382, Richard married Anne of Bohemia. He became an affectionate and loyal husband, and for a few years it seemed that he had settled down to become a wise King. But in 1386, the Duke of Lancaster left to attend to his domain in Spain. This left Richard face to face with the hostile Lords and although he tried to assert his power, he was forced in the end to give in to their demands. He never forgave them, and was determined one day to have his revenge.

When the Duke of Lancaster returned to England, Richard appeared to be working in harmony with the Lords, but in reality he was gradually establishing his power. Then in 1394 his wife died and from this date Richard became unbalanced and neurotic. He burned down that part of the manor house in which his wife had died. At his wife’s funeral, the Earl of Arundel arrived late. Richard took this as a personal insult and attacked the Earl there and then in the Church, drawing blood.

Two years later Richard married again, but this was merely a formality, a way of ensuring peace with France. His bride was a French princess and not yet eight years old.

Richard now judged his power to be at its height and acted accordingly. The Dukes of Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick he accused of treason. The Duke of Gloucester, his most hated enemy, he had taken to Calais prison and there, after having been forced to “confess”, he had him murdered. Warwick and Arundel were tried before Parliament and found guilty. Arundel was executed. Warwick was exiled.

Now there were only two great nobles left who were his enemies. One was the Duke of Norfolk, the other was Henry, Duke of Hereford and son of the great Duke of Lancaster, his cousin. These two nobles wished to settle a dispute by a duel. Just as the duel was about to begin, Richard stopped it and exiled Norfolk for life and Henry for ten years. It was obviously an unjust act since no real crime had been proved against either of them.

In 1399 the Duke of Lancaster died. By rights, his son, Henry of Hereford, should have been recalled from exile to take over his father’s lands. Instead, the lands were shared out by Richard amongst his own friends and the ten-year sentence of exile against Henry was extended to banishment for life.

All England had long ago begun to realise that Richard was no fit King to rule the country. Henry of Hereford realised that the time was now right for him to show his hand. When Richard was away on an expedition in Ireland, Henry returned to England. People flocked to follow him and he marched in triumph across England. Richard, having heard the news, had quickly returned and landed in Wales, but his own army deserted him.

Within a few days he had been tricked into an ambush, taken prisoner and carried to the Tower of London and then to Pontefract Castle, sentenced to life imprisonment.

Richard still had friends. Secretly they plotted the assassination of Henry and the release of Richard. But they were betrayed. The plotters were speedily rounded up and put to death without mercy.

However, Henry now realised that there would always be a danger with Richard still alive, even though he was still a prisoner. Richard must die!

Orders were sent to Pontefract Castle in great secrecy.

That night Richard waited for his customary scanty portion of supper. It was not brought to him. He shouted, but his voice merely echoed back at him mockingly from the stone walls. He slept uneasily. Next day he waited again. Still nobody came. Still there was no food. Just silence. This continued day after day. Richard grew progressively weaker until he could no longer drag himself from the stone slab that served as a bed.

Then at last there were footsteps. Richard tried to sit up as the door swung open but he had not the strength. He was only vaguely aware of somebody standing over him, dark and menacing. Then a pillow was pressed down over his face.

Next day it was announced that the ex-King had died, having starved himself to death. His body was brought to London and buried with full honours in Westminster Abbey.

Little of Pontefract Castle remains today. It was one of the last Royalist strongholds to be demolished by Oliver Cromwell. But some of its walls and dungeons still exist to act as a monument to Richard’s memory.

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