Given its size, it’s really rather remarkable what has happened at Fotheringhay. In this lovely stone village with its magnificent perpendicular church across green fields and the River Nene, the Dukes of York made their home; Richard III was born; Richard and Cecily buried – and one hundred years later, Mary Queen of Scots tried and executed.
Home to the Dukes of York
It is a lovely place to visit if you are near the area, a beautiful; stone village by the banks of the river Nene in Northamptonshire. There’s what remains of the castle, a quite magnificent church, a pretty stone bridge, views across the green fields and river, and a good pub for afters. And if you can’t see half a billion falcon images you are not trying hard enough.
Why the falcon? That’s because in the 15th century, the rather backwoods Fotheringhay became the centre of Richard of York’s favourite residence – and the falcon and fetterlock was his favourite badge. It was his father, Edmund of Langley and son of Edward III who converted the castle from a small Motte and Bailey castle to a relatively modest but modern castle. And in 1452, none other than Richard III was born there. That’s claim to fame number 1. There’s almost nothing left of the castle – just the grassy motte and some mounds where you can see the old walls and fish pond; but standing on the motte you can really easily visualise the layout of the castle, and look across lovely views to bridge, river and church.
The Church on the other hand is something special. As the Duke of York’s headquarters, it demanded a magnificentchurch; and it is a lovely church, built by the 2nd Duke of York, Edmund of Langley, who was killed at Agincourt in 1415, and continued by his son Richard who’s sons Edward and Richard would both be kings. It’s built in the clear and light perpendicular style, and in the church is a reconstruction of what it would have looked like and originally a whopper with cloisters attached. but only part of the Church has survived – the Choi and Lady chapel are no longer there, leaving a magnificent – but slightly odd church that looks far wider than it should be.
Inside are treasures. There is a repainted 15th Century wine glass pulpit which is really very lovely in it’s bright livery and badges; the badges include a bull for George of Clarence and a silver boar for Richard of Gloucester. The vaulting under the west tower is fantastic. Dukes of York were originally buried in the church; after Richard’s son Edward IV had gained revenge for his death at the Battle of Towton in 1461, his widow Cecily Neville, his family all the Nevilles gathered at the church and carried out a grand memorial service to lay him to rest; Cecily joined her husband in 1495. As it happens, Elizabeth I visited in 1566; she was appalled to find the tombs smashed and open to the elements, and ordered their bones reburied in magnificent tombs – which you can see on the right and left of the altar.
Trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
Which brings me to Mary Queen of Scots, and Fotheringhay’s second claim to fame. In 1568 Mary Queen of Scots fled her enemies to her cousin, Elizabeth Queen of England, for safety and support to reclaim her throne. but the protestant Elizabeth was less that enthusiastic to support the catholic Mary. By 1586, the approaching threat of the Spanish armada and Mary’s constant plotting meant that Mary was seen by Elizabeth’s advisers as a terrible threat – but Elizabeth would not have her cousin killed.
But in 1586, Elizabeth’s spy master Walsingham caught Mary in a an exchange in incriminating letters. Mary was rushed to Fotheringhay, and there in the Great hall of this relatively small castle, she was put on trial in front of 36 noblemen – and convicted. Still it took months to persuade Elizabeth to sign a warrant for her execution, but finally she gave way. Before she could change her mind, the order was rushed to Fotheringhay and arrived on the morning of 7th February where an astonished Mary was told to prepare herself – for she would die the following morning.
Her execution was the theatre of deepest pathos. When she begged for more time to prepare her will, the countess of Shrewsbury rudely snapped ‘No, no, Madam you must die, you must die!’ A scaffold had been built in the Great hall and an audience the 400 strong was crammed into the hall. Standing on the scaffold, Mary angrily rejected the offer of comfort from a Protestant minister. An eye witness described her last moments:
“One of the women then tied the handkerchief over her eyes. The Queen quickly, and with great courage, knelt dawn, showing no signs of faltering. So great was her bravery that all present were moved, and there were few among them that could refrain from tears. In their hearts they condemned themselves far the injustice that was being done.”
Mary’s entrails were secretly buried in Fotheringhay castle; her son, King James I made sure the rest of her was disinterred from Peterborough Cathedral and laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.
Fotheringhay’s great days were largely over. The Chancel of the massive church was pulled down in 1553 during the dissolution of the monasteries. The castle was levelled in the 1630’s. What’s left is a beautiful echo of it’s former glories – the lovely stone church across the river, and signs of grand stones and carvings in the village houses.