Pontefract Castle: the beginning of Catherine Howard’s downfall
Kate McCaffrey explains how Catherine Howard’s 12-day stay at Pontefract Castle marked the beginning of the end for her queenship – and her life…
The heritage space I would recommend that is connected to Catherine Howard is Pontefract Castle. It sits just below Leeds in the north of England, and it's one of the great English castles throughout our history. Catherine first visited Pontefract in the summer of 1541 when she was a part of the very successful Northern Progress with her husband, Henry VIII.
Before Catherine visited, Pontefract had a rich medieval history. King Edward I once called it “the key to the north”. Catherine stayed at Pontefract Castle for 12 nights, which was one of the longest times that she spent in any one place throughout her Northern Progress.
Crucially, for us, it was where she began to see Thomas Culpeper, who was one of the gentlemen of the Privy Chamber of Henry VIII and soon became her supposed lover. Culpeper would visit Catherine in her rooms at Pontefract almost every night that she stayed there, before escaping back to the king's chambers to help him get ready for bed.
Today, Pontefract is mainly just beautiful ruins, but it also has fantastic and terrifying dungeons that you can walk around that were there in Katherine's time and during the civil wars as well.
Another important point that links Catherine to Pontefract is that while she was staying there, Francis Dereham, her manipulative and jealous ex-lover, came to visit her unannounced and demanded to be a part of her household. Catherine felt obliged to say yes. He knew too much about her past, and when she made him a part of her household as a gentleman usher, the rest of the household raised their eyebrows. So, unbeknown to Culpeper, Catherine, Lady Rochford and Dereham, Pontefract was really the beginning of the end for them all.
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Kate McCaffrey is the Assistant Curator at Hever Castle
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