Royal Heritage: Fotheringhay Castle

29 March 2014 - 08:56pm
Edited by Cindy Stockman - Spotted an Error?


Royal Heritage will discuss the castles, cathedrals, homes, abbeys, gardens and historic sites that have Royal significance, historical background and other bits found along the way. Join us on this journey through the UK.

Fotheringhay Castle in Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire is known as Richard III’s birthplace as well as the execution site for Mary, Queen of Scots.

View of the motte

View of the motte

Unfortunately all that remains are the fortifications and conical motte of the original castle. The castle is local above the River Nene and was founded approximately 1100 AD by the Earl of Northampton and Huntingdon, Simon de St Liz. He chose the site in order to control the river crossing which was pivotal.

Fotheringhay was emblematic of the Norman motte and bailey style. It consisted of a tapering mound safeguarded by a bank and trenches and capped by a timber keep. A motte and bailey castle is a fortification with a wooden or stone keep positioned on a raised fortification called a motte together with a walled courtyard, or bailey, cordoned off by a protective trench or ditch. A keep is an augmented tower constructed within castles during the Middle Ages.

When St Liz died his widow Margaret married King David of Scotland and Fotheringhay was handed over to the Scottish crown. It was sieged and secured in 1221 by the Earl of Abermarle, Wiliam de Fortibus, who captured the casern by surprise after traversing the iced up moat in midwinter. In 1294 it was surrendered to the English crown. In other words, it was seized by Edward I.

Around 1340 the wooden keep was restored with a immense stone keep called ‘The Fetterlock’. By this time the castle was comprised of the keep, a great hall, numerous kitchens, two chapels and a fair amount of secondary buildings. It was protected by a moat and drawbridge which led to the gatehouse.

The castle was in a poor state by 1377 but it was given to Edmund Langley, son of Edward III, who mended the keep and converted it from a military fortress into a livable castle.

Edmund Langley’s son Edward founded a college of priests at the castle. In or around 1415 the college moved east and was joined with an old Norman church. During the Reformation, the church was disbanded. Today the nave of the old church is now part of the existing parish church.

The Church of St Mary and All Saints, Fotheringhay.

The Church of St Mary and All Saints, Fotheringhay.

On 2 October 1452 Richard III was born at the castle. He only lived at Fotheringray for six years as he was moved to Ludlow Castle for safety reasons. Following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 the castle was beginning to deteriorate.


Catherine of Aragon was given the castle by Henry VIII. She spent a good deal of money to refurbish and renovate the decayed castle and thus brought it back to its original splendour. Of course her marriage did not last with the King and the castle was given to each of the next five wives. Eventually it was used as a prison and soon became infamous for who would be locked up in the coming years.

In 1586 Mary, Queen of Scots was brought to Fotheringhay.

In 1586 Mary, Queen of Scots was brought to Fotheringhay.

Mary, Queen of Scots was brought to Fotheringhay to stand trial for treason in 1586. The castle was chosen since it was rather inaccessible sitting on a marshy area especially during the harsh winters. It would be a daunting challenge to try to aid in her escape.

She was tried at the castle on 14 and 15 October 1587 and found guilty on 25 October. Not immediately executed since Queen Elizabeth I was hesitant to sign her name on the death warrant. On 8 April 1588 Mary was executed in the great hall. She entered the hall dressed in black and scarlet to signify martyrdom.

Historical accounts of her execution vary from the executioner being nervous and botching the job a bit, that she wore a wig and when her head was picked up it came off and another account that Mary’s dog was hidden in her skirt and would not leave her body.

Mary’s body was on display at Fotheringhay until July when it was finally moved to Peterborough Cathedral for burial. When her son became James I of England, he transported her body to Westminster Abbey where she is buried in Henry VII’s chapel.

The following years the castle began its steady decline. It was sold but was robbed of much of it stone. It was dismantled in 1628 and some of the stone was used in the construction of an inn in Oundle. The great hall was bought and stripped of its furnishings by Sir Richard Cotton.

Rumours persist that James VI of Scotland had the castle demolished after he became King of England. Historians believe that to be a tale passed down and in reality the castle was is such disrepair it was falling apart. Part of the moat was filled in during the 19th century and parts of the castle make up the neighbouring Castle Farm.

Masonry wall of the castle.

Masonry wall of the castle.

What remains of Fotheringray Castle is a low mound of earth which is flat on top. It is surrounded by a ditch and has an outer bailey fortification. As one walks closer to the River Nene, there is a lesser piece of a stonework wall surrounded by an iron railing. Three commemorative plaques may be found here. The first marks the castle keep, the second observes the death of Mary, Queen of Scots and the third plaque is to honour the birth of Richard III.

photo credit: The Wilky Bar KidDutch Simbalisby1 and The Wilky Bar Kid via photopin cc

  • carolina4321

    thanks for the history!

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