Castle of the Week 38 – Fotheringhay Castle

Fotheringhay is a little known, yet somewhat famous castle in Northamptonshire, England. It has substantial royal connections extending from the time of the Norman Conquest to the 1930’s and the visit of Queen Mary. In between, there has been the ownership by the King of Scotland, who was also Earl of Huntingdon, to the birth of a future king.

The first written mention of Fotheringhay was in 1060, listed in the Domesday Book but known as ‘Fodringeia’. The village preceded the Norman Conquest by many years though, and it was held by a Saxon, Turchil. The castle was probably begun in about 1100 by Simon de Senlis, then Earl of Northampton and Huntingdon. In 1124 the then Earl became king of Scotland. Whilst he was a monarch of another country, he paid homage to the English king for the Earldom. The title to Fotheringhay, as the property was called, remained with the Scots until 1294, when John Balliol surrendered himself to Edward I, who then granted everything to his nephew, John of Brittany.

In 1377, Edward III gave Fotheringhay manor and castle to his son, Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York and founder of the powerful House of York. He was responsible for enlarging and rebuilding the castle. The wooden building was replaced with a stone structure. The church here grew from a small community of secular priests established by Edmund in the castle chapel. He intended to create a Collegiate church, but died in 1402 before the plans were carried out.

Little building work was done until the death of Duke Edward, with the title passing to his three year old nephew, Richard. When Richard was 22 he took up the family interest in building. A contract is known about the proposed plans for the church here and it involved a new collegiate church, adjoining the existing church, and a cloister. Nowadays, Fotheringhay church looks rather odd, as if truncated. The Reformation was responsible for this and the appearance reflects half the body of the church removed.

In 1452, Richard III was born at Fotheringhay. At the time of Richard’s birth, Fotheringhay had become one of the principal seats of his parents, Richard Plantagenet and Cecily Neville, Duke and Duchess of York, with Richard III spending his first six years here. Richard Plantagenet was killed during the Battle of Wakefield on 30th December, 1460. ‘The father of Kings, though never a king himself’ is how he was known.

In 1476, the Collegiate Church at Fotheringhay witnessed one of the most spectacular events of the Yorkist age and one that would match any coronation. For approaching fifteen years following the Battle of Wakefield, the bodies of Richard, Duke of York and his son, Edmund of Rutland, had lain in a plain tomb at Pontefract. The bodies were exhumed on the morning of 21st July, 1476 and laid in state in the choir of the church there. The next day the cortège headed for Fotheringhay, taking over a week to reach the castle and church. Met by King Edward, the procession was escorted into the church and the coffins were placed in a vault beneath the chancel, the ceremonies being concluded with the giving of alms to some five thousand people and the serving of dinner to two thousand more.

Following her death in 1495, the Duchess of York joined her husband under the chancel of Fotheringhay. With the death of Cicely, all connection between Fotheringhay, its castle, church and College, and the Royal House of York came to an end.

The property reverted to the crown, although it seems the College remained independent until 1539, when it surrendered its liberties to Henry VIII. The College members continued their duties until 1553.

Mary Queen of Scots was brought to the castle in September 1586 after spending 18 years in captivity across England. Her trial took place in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay on 14th and 15th of October that year, and she was beheaded on 8th February 1587. It took three strokes of the axe to sever Mary’s head from her body. To the horror of all those present, her body then started to move. It was revealed that her little terrier, Geddon, who was Mary’s companion during her last years in prison, had hidden under her voluminous gown all through the execution. The crucifix, writing book, bloodstained clothes which Mary had taken with her to her execution and even the block on which she lay her head were burned in Fotheringhay Castle’s courtyard. There were to be no relics.

The castle seems to have been unused after Mary’s execution. It fell into ruins and stone was stripped and used in the village for building. Only one original piece of masonry is found on the site now. Indeed, very little is left, save the motte embankment. The wooden staircase from the Great Hall has been removed and was incorporated into a coaching house in nearby Oundle.

It is a sad end to a once important castle.

Write-up and download courtesy of Sulis. Additional information courtesy of the Marie Stuart Society. The second castle picture courtesy of Andrew Spratt


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