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A Staircase with a Royal History?

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. It preserves the staircase which is traditionally believed to be the one down which Mary Queen of Scots walked to her execution in 1587.

The scene was painted as it appeared to the romantic imagination of Laslett John Pott, who depicted the Scottish Queen descending to her execution, although he depicted her being led down a flight of stone steps as opposed to the timber staircase of tradition. Other artists also picked up their brushes to paint this dramatic scene, including Robert Inerarity Herdman and Scipione Vannutelli. The Herdman portrait seems to show the foot of a wooden staircase, with the escort waiting at the bottom, whilst Vannutelli shows the Scottish queen descending down stone steps, like Pott’s portrait.

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 the future King Richard III there on 2 October 1452. The castle remained in Yorkist ownership until the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Thereafter, it became the property of the Tudor monarchs and Henry VII granted it to his queen, Elizabeth of York. Henry VIII in turn, gifted it to his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, who was responsible for much of its remodelling. It duly became the property of Elizabeth I, on her accession to the throne in 1558. The fifteenth 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. On 8 February 2017, a memorial service was held at Fotheringhay Church to commemorate Mary, Queen of Scots, followed by the laying of a wreath on the mound which is now all that remains of Fotheringhay Castle.  The Castle was a Norman motte and bailey castle and now in 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, detachable 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, James I had it transferred to nearby Peterborough Cathedral, where it lay at rest – in the opposite aisle to the tomb of Henry VIII’s first queen Catherine of Aragon. It was later moved in 1612 by order of James I, to Westminster Abbey where a magnificent canopy tomb was erected over it in the south aisle of the Lady Chapel, where it has been ever since. The recumbent effigy of the Queen of Scots depicts her wearing a ruff and mantle fastened with a brooch, with the Scottish lion at the foot of her tomb. The sculptors were William and Cornelius Cure. Mary’s tomb is closely positioned to that of her former mother-in-law, the redoubtable Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox and mother of Henry, Lord Darnley, as well as being near that of the great Tudor ancestress, Lady Margaret Beaufort. Mary’s tomb however does not contain her body alone – but in fact centres around her as a great ancestress, forming the nucleus of a Stuart vault which she shares with many of her descendants, including the lamented Henry, Prince of Wales, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Elizabeth, the ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia and perhaps most poignantly, the eighteen babies of Queen Anne – the last of the Stuart monarchs – who died in infancy.

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 touchingly poignant byname of ‘Queen Mary’s tears’ in oral folklore. In front of a surviving 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.

But although Fotheringhay Castle was dismantled, its historic stonework did not disappear, which found its way to nearby Oundle. Today, the inner courtyard of the Talbot Hotel – which has a sign bearing the year 1626 – is thought to be built from the demolished stones of Fotheringhay Castle itself. Among other features in the hotel are the mullion windows, traditionally believed to come from the castle and also the wooden staircase. At the top of the staircase is a hotel suite named after Mary, Queen of Scots. Yet is there any supporting evidence for this extraordinary claim? In his biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, the historian John Guy mentions her descending “stairs” to the Castle’s Great Hall and then in a spontaneous action having looked “back up the stairs” in a sudden change of mood, having had to lean on the arms of two soldiers for support. (Guy, My Heart is My Own, Pg 3). There is also a reference to the Queen’s body having been taking “upstairs” after the departure of Henry Talbot for London, in order for it to be embalmed; if stairs at all are mentioned, they do not appear to be described in any detail. (Ibid, Pg 9). Walking up these stairs and then down when I visited in 2015,  I was struck by the significance of my action and the quietness of the hotel at lunch in the Eatery allowed me to reflect on the procession that may have also gone down these stairs that February morning in 1587. Halfway down the staircase is a framed copy of the warrant for Mary, Queen of Scots’ execution and also a romantic, nineteenth century portrait of the Queen prior to her execution, which again helps the historically-minded visitor to ponder further.

If the original staircase is from Fotheringhay, it is surely a staircase with a history quite unlike any other.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.


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