For a short series related to Mary Queen of Scots, I’m pleased to welcome Laura Adkins, creator of the For The Love of History Blog. I have been able to do a few guests posts for myself. She has worked at many historical sites and mainly posts about sites found in Essex, her home county. Do check her blog out if you can, I promise you it’s a very enjoyable read.
This post also follows on from a previous post on the Babington Plot, for which Mary was convicted of treason for exchanging letters. That can be found here. To find out more about Francis Walsingham, the spymaster who helped discover the plot and arrest Mary for Treason, please click here.
Standing on top of the mound which was once part of the castle of Fotheringhay one feels at peace. The surrounding views of the countryside and the River Nene are picturesque and calming. Unfortunately like many castles, Fotheringhay lost its purpose and was eventually dismantled with its stonework being repurposed elsewhere. Today all that remains is the mound and a piece of stonework. Not much for a place with such a history, one event in particular, the execution of an anointed queen – Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary had been a prisoner in England ever since fleeing Scotland in April 1568. She thought she would get assistance from her cousin Elizabeth I, however, things turned out differently. Mary and Elizabeth were both descended from Henry VII (Elizabeth his granddaughter and Mary his great-granddaughter) and so Mary had a claim to the English throne and more dangerous to Elizabeth she was a Catholic. What led to Elizabeth finally agreeing to execute Mary was the evidence of her part in the Babington plot. A catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. Letters were intercepted between Mary and Anthony Babington discussing said plot by Elizabeth’s spy Francis Walsingham and it was these letters that sealed her fate. Mary was moved to Fotheringhay on 25th September 1586.
In its heyday Fotheringhay was the main home of the Dukes of York. It entered the hands of the Earl of Northampton in the 12th century and was incorporated into the Dukedom of York from 1385 which is where it stayed for many centuries. It was where the future King Richard III was born.
Fotheringhay is primarily a motte and bailey castle in design with a double moat. Like many castles, it had a number of changes and developments in its time with the biggest changes by Edmund of Langley (1st Duke of York). He had the castle rebuilt and enlarged. Its shape was that of a fetterlock, the symbol of the Yorks. Within its walls were accommodation suites, kitchens, breweries, bakehouses, drawbridge, chapel, stables and a number of other buildings one expects in the function of a castle estate. Sadly none now remain. The great hall, where the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, was held is thought to be located to the south-east of the mound.
In July 1476 the Castle was host to one of the biggest events in its history – the reburial of Richard, Duke of York and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland. They were both killed in the battle of Wakefield with Richard’s head being placed on a pike at Micklegate, York. He was initially buried in Pontefract. Around 1,500 guests would attend the service including the king and royal family, nobles and bishops. Fotheringhay would have never seen anything like it (Hicks, M 2001). It is said that ‘King Edward IV, dressed in a dark blue hooded mourning habit trimmed with fur. The King ‘very humbly did his obeisance to the said body and laid his hand on the body and kissed it, weeping’. (Wakefield historical society)
Nearby the Castle and still in existence today is the New Inn, a beautiful 15th-century farmhouse. This would have been where some of the guests stayed for the reburial. It is even believed that Mary’s executioner may have been there the night before her death.
Maybe the Castle’s life went with Mary on that fateful day of 8th February 1587, Mary had only been informed the previous day that she was to be executed the following morning. ‘this was to be her greatest performance, her greatest triumph; she had considered every detail’(Guy, J 2004, p2). Her execution was well documented from her words, actions and what she wore.
About nine a.m., came that sweet saint and martyr, led like a lamb to the butchery, attired in a gown of black satin embroidered with a French kind of embroidery of black velvet; her hair seemly trussed up with a veil of white lawn, which covered her head and all her other apparel down to the foot. (Catholic report of queen mary’s execution by an anonymous “Catholic witness” present at the execution.)
[She asked her servants to] rejoice and pray for her…’
‘… I die a true woman to my religion and like a true scot woman and true french women’ – to Sir Amias Paulet, her steward.
The scaffold was 2 foot high by 12-foot square covered in black cotton sheets. The story goes that It was not one blow of the axe but two in addition to the executioner having to use his dagger to cut through the remaining cartilage which finally removed her head from her body. Upon lifting her head up to show the witnesses her lips were still moving in prayer and her head fell from the executioner’s grasp, revealing a head of grey hair and leaving the auburn wig held aloft.
Although she had lost everything in her life she left behind a son who became King James I of England on the death of Elizabeth. A king who, if raised by his mother, would most likely have been catholic and brought about a different course of history.
Fotheringhay today may be a peaceful, picturesque location but a place where history was made and the walls may no longer be standing but the earth underneath remembers.
Dunn, J (2004) Elizabeth and Mary. Harper Perennial; London
Guy, J (2004) My heart is my own; London
Hicks, M (2001) Richard III. The History Press; Gloucester.
Licence, A (2015) Cecily Neville. Amberly; Gloucester
Wier, A (2009) Lancaster and York. Vintage Books; London
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Anon (2019) Fotheringhay Castle. Available from: http://www.castlesfortsbattles.co.uk/midlands/fotheringhay_castle.html [accessed 01/12/2021]
Anon (nd) Fotheringhay – The Mausoleum of the House of York. Available from: https://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/fotheringhay.html [accessed 10/12/2021]
Morris, S (2019) Fotheringhay Castle: The Final Dark Act of a Scottish Tragedy
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Wakefield Historical Society. (nd) Pontefract to Fotheringhay. Available from: https://www.wakefieldhistoricalsociety.org.uk/ [accessed 27/12/2021]
White, L 2014) The Fotheringhay Boars. Available from: https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/the-fotheringhay-boars/ [Accessed 03/01/2022]