Its History Actually – Fotheringay Castle: Birthplace of a King, Execution Place of a Queen
September 5, 2023

About 5 miles west of Stilton, famous for its (not made locally) cheese, lies the village of Fotheringay and its ruined castle. I first heard of the village from reading Jean Plaidy’s novel ‘Royal Road to Fotheringay’, but where does the castle figure in our review of local history? Unfortunately, there is not much left to see as it was largely demolished in the 1630s having fallen into disrepair, but there is a lot to tell about events there before that.

The castle was established around 1100 by Simon de Senlis, who was made Earl of Huntingdon. After his death, his widow Maud married Prince David of Scotland, who thereby acquired the castle (he subsequently became King of Scotland). Fotheringay remained in the hands of Scottish princes until confiscated by King John and thereafter remained in royal hands.

In 1385, King Edward III created his son Edward Langley Duke of York, and he made Fotheringay Castle his principal seat and residence. The castle and title passed to his son, but he died without an heir, so a nephew Richard inherited. The new Duke and his wife had 12 children (not unusual in families at the time), 7 of whom survived infancy. The youngest of their children, christened Richard and made Duke of Gloucester, was born in Fotheringay on 2nd October 1452. The young Duke was destined to become the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) King Richard III.

Richard spent the first 7 years of his life at the castle. He would not have seen much of his parents or older siblings. He was very much in the shadow of his older brothers Edward (subsequently King Edward IV), Edmund, and George. Richard would have been brought up by his sister Margaret. In 1459, Richard moved with his mother and younger siblings to London. By then, the ‘Wars of the Roses’ (although not known by that name at the time) were well underway, and when Richard was 9, his father, the Duke of York, and brother Edmund were killed at the battle of Wakefield. This is not a story of the wars, but within 23 years, Richard was King, his reign blighted by the death of the Princes in the Tower, allegedly at his hands, until his death at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

We will return to Richard of Fotheringay another time.

The other famous (or again infamous, according to your point of view) resident at Fotheringay was Mary Queen of Scots. The problem for the Tudor dynasty was a shortage of heirs. Henry VII did okay, and Henry VIII had 3 children, although his son Edward died relatively young and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth were both childless, Elizabeth refusing even to marry. Henry VIII had given priority in succession after his own children to the children of his younger sister Mary Duchess of Suffolk. Her eldest daughter, Lady Jane Grey, had already lost her head trying to claim the throne from Henry’s daughter Mary. The next in line was Lady Catherine Grey, but she was subsequently disgraced.

Henry’s elder sister Margaret had married King James IV of Scotland, and her only child was Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Mary was a very controversial character (and that again is another story), and by 1568, she was twice married, had one son, had been deposed as Queen, and was in exile in Carlisle. The problem for Elizabeth was what to do with her. On the one hand, should she treat her as an honored guest, a fellow monarch who needed help to regain her throne, or as a threat? Mary would have a claim to the English throne and was a Catholic, with support in England and from some powerful European monarchs. Over the next 19 years, Mary was at the centre of virtually every plot against Elizabeth, and it was clear that Mary would stop at nothing to claim the throne. Anyone else would have been executed for treason, but Elizabeth was reluctant to authorise the execution of a fellow monarch and cousin. However, her patience eventually ran out.

Throughout her stay in England, Mary had been kept under house arrest. Eventually, she was moved to Fotheringay Castle, and there, in February 1587, Mary was executed. Her body was buried in Peterborough Cathedral on the opposite side from Henry VIII’s first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon.

Although Mary did not become Queen of England, her son James became King James I upon Elizabeth’s death. Following his accession to the throne, he had his mother’s body moved from Peterborough Cathedral to Westminster Abbey, where Mary now lies within a few metres of her rival Elizabeth.

There may not be much left of Fotheringay Castle, but visiting and reflecting on those including King Richard III and Mary Queen of Scots who have gone before can be a truly profound experience.