Some places inspire a sense of curious awe. Though the past is ubiquitous, shaping who and what we all are, there are particular spots on earth where the shades of great events and people gather, jostling for attention. Visiting them is like walking across the hallowed pages of a giant book, catching tantalising glimpses of what might have been between the lines of what is written. Fotheringhay is one of those places: these days it poses as a tiny, peaceful, and evidently comfortable settlement on the north bank of the River Nene in Northamptonshire; yet this apparently one-street village has royal associations and its aging honey-coloured sandstone buildings have witnessed much. It is odd to think it was so familiar to some of the great movers and shakers in Britain’s story.
Most people know Fotheringhay by reputation for its castle, where Mary, Queen of Scots, mother to the first king of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, met her grisly death, and where a certain Richard Plantagenet began the life that would end so violently 32 years later, little more than 40 miles away, at Bosworth Field. But there’s a bit more to it than that. The local area was settled in prehistoric times and there was a Roman villa just to the north of Fotheringhay. At the time of the Conquest, Fodringeia, ‘well-watered land or island used for grazing’, was owned by Thorkil the Dane. I wonder what became of him?
The first Fotheringhay Castle was probably built sometime around 1100 by Simon de Senlis (St Liz), Earl of Huntingdon and Northampton, a simple motte and bailey affair guarding the ford over the river. These days, the crossing is a handsome 18th century bridge. Simon’s widow, Maud, married King David of Scotland. Consequently, Fotheringhay found itself in royal Scots ownership, though this was erratic and the place seems to have changed hands more frequently than a worn fiver. On one occasion, Fotheringhay was attacked across a frozen moat, and taken by the assailants. By the late 13th century, it was owned by John de Balliol, founder of Balliol College, Oxford, and father of the John Balliol who was, briefly, King of Scotland, until toppled by Edward I of England. By 1341, a stone tower stood on the motte, there were two chapels, a great hall, chambers and a kitchen within the inner bailey and a gatehouse and drawbridge over the inner bailey ditch. The owner at this time was a Mary St Pol, widow of Aymer de Valance, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. Mary founded Pembroke College, Cambridge, in memory of her husband. After Mary’s death, the castle passed to Edmund Langley, the 1st Duke of York and the fourth surviving son of Edward III. Fotheringhay was to become a power-base for the House of York. When Edmund died, his son Edward, 2nd Duke of York, inherited and began improvements to the castle, and the church.
Fotheringhay Church, dedicated to St Mary and All Saints, floats on a sea of green as you cross the bridge into the village from the south. Its octagonal lantern tower dominates the skyline. There was already a college of priests at the castle, but Edward set about enlarging this in a new building on the site of the parish church. Edward perished at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (one of the few English nobles to do so) and is interred in the church. The improvements he began were completed by his nephew and successor, Richard, 3rd Duke of York and the son of Edward’s brother Richard, Earl of Cambridge, who had been beheaded for conspiracy against King Henry V. Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, was the father of Richard III – as well as of Richard’s older brother, Edward IV. This might be a good moment to remind readers that I am not responsible for the lack of imagination shown by English monarchs when choosing their children’s names, so please stop sending me those silly, whinging, emails; sorry, you’re just going to have to learn it. (Still, I’ve had a go at producing a shortened House of York family tree, though you will have to click on it to enlarge.)
You can see that the church is now truncated. By the time the 15th century improvements had been completed, it was twice its current size. There was a whole complex of buildings around it, mostly to the south of the present site, including cloisters, a hall, library, kitchens, lodgings, stables and brew-house. Sadly, it was a victim of the Reformation and most of the buildings were subsequently demolished in the 1570s. Alas, no interior shots; A Bit About Britain visited during the Covid crisis and the church was closed.
The 3rd Duke and his wife Cecily Neville made Fotheringhay one of their favourite homes, along with Ludlow Castle in the west. At least six of their twelve or thirteen children were born there, including, Anne, Duchess of Exeter in 1439, Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy in 1446, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) on 2 October 1452 and William, Thomas and Ursula in 1447, 1451 and 1455 respectively, all of whom died in infancy. Their births are commemorated on a plaque over a blocked doorway in the village. This was once the entrance to ‘The New Inn’ constructed by Edward IV to provide additional guest accommodation for visitors to the castle. It is now a private property. Indeed, though at first site the castle appears to have been relatively basic and compact, it has been described as ‘a palace’ and its boundaries were once far more extensive; a kind of Yorkist Windsor. What a hive of activity there must have once been, though there is very little left of the castle now. Situated at the east end of the village, the lumpy motte is easy to spot, surrounded by a ditch. You reach it along a grassy path that follows the line of the old moat. From the summit of the motte, where the castle tower once stood, the outline of the inner bailey and its ditch below on the east side are clearly visible. The motte is covered generously with thistles – specially seeded, I wondered, to make Scottish visitors feel at home? To the west is the village, the distinctive church tower dominating the skyline. Below, there were once more castle buildings, described on the site map as ‘lodging and wardrobe’, and now occupied by Castle Farm Bed and Breakfast. The surrounding countryside is flat, but lushly green, the views of the river lovely. There is one piece of crumbling castle masonry left, near the river, fenced in behind iron railings. Despite the scant remains, Fotheringhay Castle is a curiously evocative place; atmosphere by association, possibly.
Richard Plantagenet, the 3rd Duke of York, had a strong claim on the English throne; both of his parents were descended from King Edward III. He was also immensely wealthy, powerful, and developed strong ties with the formidable Neville family. In the 1440s, he emerged as leader of the opposition to what was perceived as the misrule of King Henry VI and his advisors, which culminated in the bitter and bloody dynastic struggles between the Houses of York and Lancaster now known as the Wars of the Roses. Richard died at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. The fighting took place outside his own castle of Sandal and the Duke was probably killed in battle, though some say he was summarily beheaded afterwards. His 17-year old son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, was captured trying to escape, and murdered. York’s ally and brother-in-law, Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury (father of the famous Warwick the Kingmaker), was also captured – and later executed by a mob in Pontefract. The heads of all three were displayed over the City of York’s Micklegate, York’s head apparently adorned with a mocking paper crown.
Richard and Cecily’s eldest son was declared King Edward IV in 1461, and avenged his father and brother at Towton. When some semblance of peace had returned to England, in 1476, he arranged to have their bodies exhumed from where they had been buried in Pontefract, and reburied in the York mausoleum at Fotheringhay church. After a solemn procession south, a grand funeral service took place attended by the great and good of the day, including the Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future King Richard III. It is recorded that a sumptuous feast was held at the castle, which lasted two days and is said to have been attended by between 15,000 to 20,000 people. Staggering numbers – and I imagine one or two staggering people as well. Even allowing for the erection of temporary pavilions or tents, you do wonder where they all slept, ate – and how they organised the sanitary arrangements.
Edward obviously knew Fotheringhay, and presumably he and his queen stayed there. After his brother Richard’s defeat at Bosworth, and respectfully after their mother, Cecily, had died at Berkhamsted and been buried next to her husband at Fotheringhay, the new King Henry Tudor, Henry VII, handed Fotheringhay to his wife, Elizabeth of York – daughter of Edward and Elizabeth Woodville. King Henry VIII, son of Henry and Elizabeth, gave the castle to his wife Katherine of Aragon and she spent a good deal of money on it. In fact, Henry bestowed the castle on each of his next five wives in turn as well; he must have visited. Katherine was buried at nearby Peterborough Cathedral.
So, we wind the clock forward to the last great act in Fotheringhay’s long history, the one everybody remembers.
Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary’s life should have been so much more joyous than it was. She was one of the stars of her age. Born at Linlithgow in 1542, she was Queen of Scotland at six days old and, briefly, Queen of France at sixteen. As Henry VII’s great-granddaughter she had a strong claim to the English throne too; a stronger claim, depending on your point of view, than that of her cousin, Elizabeth, whose rule of England began in 1558. Forced to abdicate the Scottish throne in favour of her infant son, James, and subsequently flee the country, Mary sought refuge in England in 1568. She was just twenty-five years old and was to spend the next nineteen years, as a captive guest of the English queen, in a succession of castles and manor houses in the north and midlands of England, most notably at the now largely invisible Sheffield Castle. Though treated as befitted her status, she was nonetheless a prisoner. She spent much time on embroidery and, I read somewhere, learning English; her most fluent language was French. The problem with Mary was nothing to do with any feud between England and Scotland, as sometimes asserted by ignorant nationalists, nor even really a difference in religious dogma between Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth: it was a simple matter of power. Many Catholics – including the king of England’s No 1 Enemy at the time, Spain – regarded Elizabeth as a bastard who should not be sitting on England’s throne at all. And Mary, with her claim to the title, became the focus of every Catholic plot – of which there were several – against Elizabeth. Eventually, she was proven to have been involved in the Babington Plot, a plan to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. The Queen of Scots was transferred to Fotheringhay in September 1586. Fotheringhay had held distinguished prisoners before, including during the reign of Elizabeth’s half-sister and predecessor, Mary, and in the distant past after the battles of Dunbar and Agincourt. Some believe its location in a wet and marshy terrain made rescue attempts more difficult.
The trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, took place in the great hall of Fotheringhay over 15 and 16 October 1586. She was, inevitably, found guilty and sentenced to death, though Elizabeth prevaricated over signing the death warrant. Regicide was a terrible crime; Mary was an anointed queen; what would the reaction of Europe’s Catholic powers be? She finally signed the document in February 1587 and it was taken to Fotheringhay apparently without her knowledge. On Tuesday 7 February, Mary was informed that she would be executed the following morning.
The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots is one of the harrowing tales of British history. She was called for at 8 o’clock on the morning of 8 February and emerged from her chambers wearing a velvet trimmed black satin robe. A scaffold, 2½ feet high and 12 feet square, had been erected in the great hall. The executioner’s axe leant against the rail. The room was packed. Mary removed her robes to reveal crimson underclothes – blood-red, the colour of martyrdom. Bidding her sobbing ladies au revoir, her eyes were bound and she knelt on a cushion, feeling blindly for the block. One of the two executioners held her arms while the other raised the axe. But he bodged it, hitting the back of her head. The second blow didn’t quite do it, either; “one little gristle” still attached the head, according to an eye-witness. Then, her luxuriant hair was found to be a wig, which fell off to reveal short, grey, tufts; the visage of a much older woman than her forty-four years. The same eye-witness noted that her lips kept moving for a quarter of an hour after her head had been removed. As a final macabre touch, her small dog was found under her skirts and lay in the blood at her shoulders refusing to leave until being taken away and washed. All her belongings were burned; no relics would survive, so it is said. I don’t know what happened to the dog.
It was only while writing this that I realised Mary, of course, already had a connection with Fotheringhay before she was taken there. She was Richard, 3rd Duke of York’s, great, great granddaughter. Her mother, Margaret Tudor, was the daughter of Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. She was not buried for nearly six months. Her embalmed body lay in a lead coffin in the castle, her entrails buried somewhere in the grounds, before she was eventually laid to rest in Peterborough Cathedral on 1 August. Twenty-five years later, her son, as James I of England and VI of Scotland, had his mother’s body re-interred in an ornate marble tomb in Westminster Abbey, not far from her cousin, Elizabeth.
Fotheringhay Castle did not even survive long enough to be wrecked during the Civil War. It was in a bad state of decay by the early 17th century. It’s said that parts, including the staircase, were reused in the Talbot Inn at Oundle. Furnishings from the great hall were moved to Conington Castle in Huntingdonshire, which was demolished in 1955.
Just to round our visit off, it seems appropriate to leave you with Fotheringay by the incomparable Sandy Denny (1947-78).