One hotel in Northamptonshire preserves a possibly extraordinary feature within its walls. The Talbot Hotel in Oundle is located some thirteen miles outside Peterborough and is a ten-minute drive from Fotheringhay. And it is the latter location as to why the feature within the Talbot Hotel is quite so remarkable. It preserves the staircase – so legend would have it – down which Mary Queen of Scots walked, towards the doomed fate that awaited her at its foot.
The scene was painted as it appeared to the imagination of Laslett John Pott, who depicted the Scottish Queen descending to her execution in 1871, although he depicted her being led down a flight of stone steps as opposed to a timber staircase. Other artists also picked up their brushes to paint this dramatic scene.
Mary Queen of Scots on the way to the scaffold, by the artist Scipione Vannutelli, 1861
Fotheringhay Castle was a preferred residence of the Yorkist dukes. It was given by Royal Grant to Edmund of Langley, first Duke of York and son of Edward III and, most notably, to Richard, third Duke of York. His wife Cecily Neville, gave birth to her youngest son here on 2 October 1452. The child, a boy, was later to become Richard, Duke of Gloucester in 1461, better known to history as King Richard III.
The castle remained in Yorkist ownership until the defeat of the dynasty at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Thereafter, it became the property of the Tudor monarchs, with Catherine of Aragon being the instigator of some of its remodelling. The 15th century church of St. Mary and All Saints at Fotheringhay preserves the tombs of Richard, Duke of York and Cecily, Duchess of York to the right of its altar and comes under the Oundle deanery. The reason why the monuments of the royal dukes in Fotheringhay Church are so well-preserved today is thanks to the initiative of Queen Elizabeth I, who had visited Fotheringhay in 1566 and expressed dismay at the poor state of the tombs which had been desecrated and ordered that the remains of the royal dukes be reburied and treated with due respect.
Fotheringhay Castle was a Norman motte and bailey castle and now, by an irony of history, only the motte and little more than earthworks and mere masonry of this once great Yorkist stronghold remain visible.
Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned at the Castle where she would be tried on charges of treason. This came in the wake of the infamous Babington Plot, which had sought to proclaim Mary as Queen of England in place of Elizabeth, delivering her from her confinement at Chartley in Staffordshire. Instead, the plotters were executed and Mary was moved from Chartley to Fotheringhay to await trial. With a guilty verdict pronounced, Queen Elizabeth I signed the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots, putting her signature to it with haste whilst signing other documents. Later, she would claim that she had not meant to send the warrant, blaming her secretary Davison with a responsibility that she was anxious to shift onto anyone other than herself.
The execution took place on 8 February 1587, upon a scaffold in the Great Hall of the Castle. Beneath her black outer garments, the Scottish queen wore a bodice, sleeves and a petticoat of crimson. Blood-red, it was the Catholic liturgical colour of martyrdom. Mary’s unburied body lay in the Castle wrapped in lead, until Mary’s son, King James VI of Scotland and I of England, had it transferred to nearby Peterborough Cathedral, where it lay at rest – not far from the tomb of Henry VIII’s first queen Catherine of Aragon. It was later moved, in 1612, at James’s order to a new and splendidly ornate tomb in Westminster Abbey where it has been ever since.
Fotheringhay Castle was allowed to fall into disrepair and by the Elizabethan period was abandoned to a state of neglect. Indeed, following the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, it seems to have had something of a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ quality, with its gates locked and all sense of time frozen.
By the 1630s it was in veritable ruin and demolished at around mid-decade. The site of the castle in the Nene Valley attracted the plentiful growth of snowdrops and then thistles, which acquired the poignant byname of ‘Queen Mary’s tears’. In front of a piece of masonry, today surrounded by iron railings, three plaques commemorate the historical significance of the site. The masonry from the castle keep is recorded as having been protected by the Peterborough Archaeological Society, whilst one plaque recalls the birth of Richard III, erected by the Richard III Society. The third commemorates the trial and execution of Mary Queen of Scots, erected by the Stuart History Society.
Although Fotheringhay Castle was dismantled, its historic stonework did not disappear. This found its way to Oundle. Today, the inner courtyard fronts of the Talbot Hotel – which has a sign bearing the year 1626 – is proudly erected from the stone of Fotheringhay Castle itself. Among other features in the hotel are the mullion windows, said also to come from the Castle and also that wooden staircase. If true, and the footsteps of Mary, Queen of Scots once graced its boards, it is a staircase with a history quite unlike any other.
Photo credits: By Scipione Vannutelli (Galleria d’Arte Moderna) via Wikimedia Commons