12th century motte and bailey castle surviving as an earthwork. The castle keep and inner curtain wall were extensively repaired during Edward IVs reign and the castle was well maintained throughout the reigns of the Tudor monarchs. Sold into private hands in 1603, the walling was gradually stripped so that little now remains. Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here from 1586-7, until her execution in the great hall.
In 5 Henry III. (1220), William de Fortibus, Earl of Albemarle and Holderness, surprised and captured this castle, then under Ranulph, Earl of Chester, and putting a garrison into it, despoiled and plundered the adjacent country: in 29 Henry III. the Crown took possession of the castle and the lands. Edward II. granted Fotheringhay to John de Britain, Earl of Richmond, at whose death both castle and manor passed to his granddaughter, Mary de St. Pol, relict of Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, who was killed at a tournament on his third wedding day (see MITFORD, NORTUMBERLAND), and at her death (51 Edward III.) that King conferred the whole upon his fifth son, Edmund Langley, Earl of Cambridge, who was created Duke of York. By an inquisition taken previously this castle is stated to be well built of stone, having one large hall, two chambers, two chapels, kitchen and bakehouse, also a gatehouse with chamber over it, and a drawbridge beneath. Within the castle walls were the manor-house with houses and offices, a gate with a room over it, and an orchard, the whole site covering about ten acres. There was also a great park.
At this date the castle must have fallen into disrepair and decay, and its new possessor set to work to rebuild it; he especially strengthened it by adding the keep on the mound, which seems to have been a shell polygonal tower, with buildings attached at the E. side, so that the building assumed the form known as a “fetter-lock”, by which name it was thereafter called; this, indeed, seems to have been the favourite device of Edmund’s family, and a falcon enclosed in a fetter-lock was depicted on the windows of the church.
Edmund, Duke of York, had two sons, Edward and Richard, and, dying 1402, was succeeded by the elder, Edward, Earl of Rutland, who became Duke of York, and was killed at Agincourt, being pressed on the ground and so stifled in his armour; he was brought home and buried at Fotheringhay. He left no issue, and his brother, Richard, created Earl of Cambridge, 1414, having been beheaded at Southampton, in 1415, for a conspiracy against Henry V., the castle and lands devolved upon his nephew, Richard, the son of his brother who had married Anne Mortimer. This second Richard was the Duke of York who was the leader of the White Rose, and was killed at the battle of Wakefield, the father of Edward IV., and also Richard III., who is said to have been born here. Thus Fotheringhay became the residence of the House of York, and its church their burial place; Duke Richard’s widow, Cicely Neville, “the Rose of Raby”, lived here for many years, holding receptions in the throne-room of Fotheringhay like a Queen. She died thirty-six years after her husband, at Berkhamstead, and was removed hither for burial. In 1469, Edward IV. came here by water from Croyland to join his Queen, who was living at Fotheringhay.
Henry VII. settled this property on his wife, Elizabeth, for her lifetime, and Henry VIII. apportioned it in dower to his Queen, Catherine Parr. In Queen Mary’s reign the castle was used as a State prison, Edward Courtney, the last Earl of Devon of his race, being confined here in 1554 for his alleged share in the Wyatt rebellion; and in the next reign we come to that tragic use of the fortress by Elizabeth, when the blood so ruthlessly shed here by her seemed to demand the utter annihilation of the fabric where the cruel deed was consummated.
Mary Queen of Scots took refuge in England after the battle of Langside under the special promise of assistance sent her by Elizabeth with a token ring. Sailing round from Dumbarton in an open boat, she landed at Workington, on the coast of Cumberland, on May 16, 1568, and was at once pounced on and incarcerated, first at Carlisle and Bolton Castles, in the north, and afterwards at Tutbury and other fortresses in the centre of the kingdom, until her imprisonment was ended by the axe of Fotheringhay, on February 8, 1587, a dreary durance of 18 years, during which process the beautiful young queen of twenty-six summers became a prematurely old, white-haired woman of forty-four. We are concerned, however, here only with that which occurred at Fotheringhay, whither the doomed queen was brought on September 25, 1586, from Chartley, by Sir William Fitzwilliam, of Milton, the governor of the castle, who lodged her in the keep. No time was lost, for on October 11, the Queen’s trial was held by the commissioners sent from London, with Burleigh at their head, to try Mary for complicity in the Babington conspiracy.
In the Ellis Letters is preserved a plan of the great banqueting hall, as it was ordered by Burleigh to be arranged for the function. It was a large place, 69 feet long and 21 feet wide in the centre, with two side aisles, as at Oakham, divided by columns and arches. At the upper end was laid a cloth of state with “a chayr for the Queen of England” (who may have been represented by a robe), with four benches right and left for fourteen earls, thirteen barons, four justices, and the ” lerned counsell”. This occupied 45 feet of the length, at which distance was placed a rail or bar, in front of which .was “a chayr for the Queen of Scots”, while behind the bar were the lookers on. Hither, racked with rheumatism, the effect of long confinement in damp, cold castles, came the poor Queen, and made her dignified reply to the accusations, which were supported only by alleged copies of letters. For two days she bravely withstood alone her thirty-six adversaries, and on being refused by Burleigh the services of an advocate, or even another day to prepare her defence, she arose in scorn and left the hall, demanding to be heard in full Parliament in presence of the Queen of England. The sentence of this predetermined and mock trial was given in the Star Chamber in London, but it was January 31 before Elizabeth signed, at Greenwich, the death warrant, for she awaited the support of a new and subservient Parliament. On February 7, arrived George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, and Henry Grey, Earl of Kent, and communicated to the forlorn lady the fact that her execution was to take place the next day. Mary received their news very bravely, and, the lords having left, ordered her supper, “at time whereof she drank to her servants and comforted them because she saw them much troubled for her”. Then she perused her will, and at her usual hour went to bed, but she seems to have added a codicil to the will at two A.M., and the rest of the night was spent in rest and in prayer. On the fatal morning the Queen first read her will to her servants, showing them their legacies. “Then did she apparel herself after this manner—in borrowed hair, a bourn, having on her head a dressing of lawn edged with bone-lace, and above that a vail of same, bowed out with wier, and her cuffs suitable; about her neck a pomander chain, and an Agnus Dei hanging at a black ribband, a crucifix in her hand, a pair of beads at her girdle with golden cross at the end. Her uppermost gown was of black satin, printed, training upon the ground, with long hanging sleeves trimmed with akorn buttons of jet and pearl, the sleeves over her arm being cut, to give sight to a pair of purple velvet underneath; her kirtle as her gown was of black printed satin, her boddice of crimson satin unlaced in the back, the skirt being of crimson velvet: her stockings of worsted, watchet, clocked and edged at top with silver, and next her legg a payer of Jarsey hose whit; her shoes of Spanish leather with the rough side outward. Thus attired she came forth of her chamber to the commissioners, who were ready in the passage to receive her, and accompany her, making as yet no show of sadness until Sir Andrew Melville, the master of her household, presented himself on his knees, bewailing not only hers but also his own misfortune that he was to be a sad reporter to Scotland of her death; then with some flux of tears she comforted him, that he should shortly see the troubles of Marie Stuart have an end”. On asking for the presence of her servants, this was at first refused but afterwards granted to six of them. “After that she proceeded towards the great hall in the castle, Melville bearing up her train; the scaffold was at the upper end of the hall 2 foot high and 12 foot broad, with railes round about, hanged with black, and she seemed to mount it with as much willingness as ease, and took her seat, the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent standing on her right hand, Mr. Andrews, the sheriff, on her left, and the two executioners opposite before her”. Then there was the reading of the commission and the warrant, to which Mary paid no attention, followed by a villanous speech by Kent, and a like exhortation to her by Fletcher, the Dean of Peterborough, against her sins and her religion, and a Puritanical prayer in which this worthy dean added what insult he could, but during which the poor Queen was fortunately absorbed in her own last devotions. This ended, the two executioners and her two women began to disrobe her. “Whereat she said with a smiling countenance that she was never served by such grooms before; nor was she wont to put off her cloaths before such a company. Her women, with a Corpus Christi cloth wrapped up three-cornerwise, covered her head and face, which done they departed, and the Queen was left alone to close up the tragedy of her life by her own self, which she did with her wonted courage and devotion, kneeling down upon the cushion, and saying in Latin, ‘In te, Domine, speravi, ne confundar in aeternum’”. Then groping for the block, which was a small low one and entailed a perfectly prone attitude, “she laid herself on the block most quietly, and stretching out her arms and legs cried out three or four times, ‘In manus tuas, Domine, &c.’, when the executioner at two stroakes” (the first blow falling clumsily on the back of her head and wounding her), “separated her head from her body, saving a sinew, which a third stroke parted also, at which time she made very small noyse, and stirred not anie part of herself; her lippes stirred up and down almost a quarter-of-an-hour after her head was cut off”. The executioner took up the head and showed it to the assembly, and the Dean cried “So perish all the Queen’s enemies”, to which Kent said, “Amen”. “Her head coming out of her dressing appeared very gray, as if she had been much elder than she was; it was polled very short, which made her (as hath been said) to wear borrowed hair. The executioner that went about to pluck off her stockings, found her little dog crept under her coat, which being put from thence went and laid himself down betwixt her head and body, and being besmeared with her blood was caused to be washed, as were other things whereon any blood .was, except those things which were burned”. Miss Strickland tells us that the little Skye terrier refused his food afterwards and soon pined himself to death. “The executioners were dismissed with fees, not having anything that was hers. Her body with the head was conveyed into the great chamber by the sheriff, where it was by the chirugeons embalmed until its interment”.
During the last three tnonths of her life at Fotheringhay, that is, after the trial and sentence, much indignity was thrown upon the Queen of Scots, and petty annoyances were adopted towards her. Sir Amyas Paulett, her keeper, covered his head in her presence, and he took away the billiard table which had been supplied for her use, its green cloth indeed was used soon after to shroud her remains; and they hung her room and her bed with black. There were 2000 soldiers quartered in the castle and about it, and the standing order to them was to shoot the Queen in case of any attempted rescue, or of even any disturbance, or of any attempt on her part to escape. All that Elizabeth craved for was Mary’s death, and it is recorded in history that she was enraged with Paulett because he declined to carry out a private assassination, to which his Queen pointed. The Tudors were indeed a bloodthirsty race, both men and women. And having thus done to death her victim, Elizabeth wrote a week after to King James VI. calling his mother’s execution “that miserable accident, which (far contrary to my meaninge) hath befalen”. As the whole of the buildings of this castle have disappeared, and nothing remains to mark its site but portions of its moats and the original earthen mound, it was said that this destruction had been caused by King James in vindication of his mother, but that he did not take this condign vengeance is proved by the survey of 1625, which declared the place to be even then “a capital house”. This report states that: “The castle is very strong, built of stone and with a double moat. The river Nene on the S. serves for the outer moat, and the mill brook on the E. side, between the little park and the castle yard, serves here for the outer moat. (The outer moat on the N. was 75 feet wide). The gate and forepart of the house fronts N., and as soon as you are past the drawbridge, at the gate there is a pair of stairs, leading up to some fair lodgings, and up higher to the wardrobe, and so on to the fetter-lock on the top of the mound at the N.W. corner of the castle, which is built round of 8 or 16 square, with chambers lower and upper ones round about but somewhat decayed. … When you go down again and go towards the hall, which is won¬derful spacious, there is a goodly and fair court within the midst of the castle. On the left hand is the chapel, goodly lodgings, the great dining-room, and a large room at this present well furnished with pictures. Near the hall is the buttery and kitchen, and at the end of this a yard convenient for wood and such purposes, with large brewhouse, and bakehouses, and houses convenient for offices”. This description of the vanished castle is all we now have, and is of interest. Soon after this survey, however, the castle seems to have been consigned to ruin. James I. granted the property to Charles Lord Mountjoy, K.G., Earl of Devon, who dying s.p. Sir Henry Baker was certified as his heir on the female side, and his eldest son Mountjoy succeeded to Fotheringhay, being created (4 Charles I.), Earl of Newport. He died while in garrison at Oxford in 1645, and was succeeded by his son Henry, last Lord Newport. Meantime, his father had dismantled the castle, and alienated the manor by purchase to Sir George Savile, Bart., afterwards Marquis of Halifax, whose son, the second Marquis, dying s.p. 1700, the extensive lordship was sold, since when it has passed through several hands until purchased by the late Lord Overstone.
Gough (Camden’s ” Britannia”) says that at the dismantlement of the castle, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, the great antiquary, who, deriving from the Bruce family was connected by blood with the Stuarts, purchased the old banqueting hall, the scene of the execution, and moving the materials, rebuilt the whole at the new mansion he was erecting at Conington (q.v.) in Hunts, at no great distance from Fotheringhay. Here, on the exterior of that castle, on its N. and W. fronts, are eleven of the ancient columns and arches which divided the aisles of Fotheringhay Hall. Conington in its turn fell into ruin, and these are now all the remains of the chamber that witnessed the judicial murder of Mary Queen of Scots. The entrance porch at Conington also, with two fine pillars at the side of the entrance gates on the Great North Road, are from Fotheringhay; and in Conington church is preserved a grand throne chair, which is said to have come from thence also, and to have been the very one in which Mary sat before she was beheaded. It is quite possible that Cotton obtained and preserved this relic likewise.
Much of the castle stone was bought for building a chapel at Fineshade, in the neighbourhood, and its last remains were carted away in the middle of the 18th century for repairing the Nene navigation. In the year 1820, in digging for stones in the mound, a very curious relic was found: a ring, with the initials H. and M. entwined upon it, with true lovers’ knots, the Royal Arms of Scotland, and Henri L. Darnley, being no less than the betrothal ring of Darnley and Mary, dropped perhaps, as Miss Strickland suggests, in the sawdust of the shambles. To return to the fabric, it is related by Dr. Fuller, the historian, who was born within ten miles of Fotheringhay in 1608, that visiting the castle he saw written on one of the windows, evidently by Mary with a diamond, this couplet from an old ballad:
From the top of all my trust,
Mishap hath laid me in the dust”.
(Castles Of England, Sir James D. Mackenzie, 1896)