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Fotheringhay – another missing Northamptonshire castle

Mike Ingram reveals the history of Fotheringhay Castle, a forgotten jewel in Northamptonshire’s crown…

Northamptonshire just drips with history. Almost every town, village and church has a story to tell, many connected to national history and events. However, if there is one village that encapsulates the whole history of not just of England, but the whole of Britain in one small place, it is Fotheringhay; situated around six kilometres (3.7 mi) north-east of Oundle and 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) west of Peterborough, at a crossing of the River Nene. As a testament to its past, Historian John Nicholls described the now sleepy village as; ‘distinguished beyond any other place in Britain, except the Capital, by the aggravated misfortunes of Royalty.’

The name Fotheringhay is probably derived from the old English ‘the island of the people of Forthere’. The earliest written reference to a settlement there was in 1060, when it was called Fodringeya. During the medieval period it was variously recorded as Fodrigeya, Fodringay, Fodringham and Fodringhay. John Leland writing in the sixteenth century called it  ‘Foderingeye’ or “Fodering inclosure”. The modern spelling dates to the seventeenth century.

The area was first settled in prehistoric times and is notable for the large number of ring ditches and Bronze age burials. There was also a Roman ‘village’ and villa nearby. By the time of William the Conqueror’s Domesday book compiled in 1086, there were nineteen villagers, six smallholders, three slaves and one 1 priest. At this time, the tenant in chief was Judith of Lens, the Conqueror’s niece, who was married to Waltheof, second earl of Northampton and Huntingdon.

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All that remains of Fotheringhay Castle today

Waltheof’s and Judith’s daughter Maud married Simon Senlis I, who then became the third earl. And, it was he who built the first castle around 1100 to guard the river crossing. Around the same time, he founded the first Cluniac nunnery in England in the village.  After Simon I’s death, his son, Simon Senlis II, would move the abbey to Northampton, where it was called the Abbey of St Mary de la Pré, or “St Mary in the Meadow”, but now known as Delapré Abbey.

Soon after Simon I’s death, his widow married again, this time to David, youngest son of Malcolm III, king of Scotland. As will be seen, it is from this marriage that all of Scotland’s most famous kings descend, which also means they descend from the Earls of Northampton directly through the female line. David was recognized as the Earl of Northampton and Huntingdon to the exclusion of his half-brother, Simon Senlis II. By right of his wife, David inherited Fotheringhay and all her lands in the county. When David became king of Scotland in 1124, Northampton and its castle was taken back into English hands. For many years the earldom was the subject of a dispute between Simon II and David’s son, and was held by both at various times. In the reign of Henry II, following the death of Simon II, it was finally settled on the Scottish house, and the sons of Prince Henry: first Malcolm, then William, both later becoming kings of Scotland.  Fotheringhay and all their other manors in Northants were then settled on David, Prince Henry’s youngest son, who made Yardley Hastings in Northants his main residence.

Stained glass from Fotheringhay Church is now in the church at King’s Cliffe

Earl David’s lands in Northamptonshire including Fotheringhay Castle, were confiscated by King John in 1212. John wrote to the earl, saying “You have given us your son as a hostage, therefore we require you to yield to us your castle at Fotheringhay”. John gave the castle to the first ever Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Simon of Pattishall (also in Northants). John returned it to David in June 1215. However, during the Baron’s War in March 1216, it was confiscated again.

John gave Fotheringhay to Gerard de Sottegham, then after John’s death it was given to William Marshal jnr, 2nd Earl of Pembroke. Once the war was over, Earl David’s Northamptonshire lands were given to King Alexander II of Scotland, who in turn gave them back to Earl David. However, Pembroke refused to give up Fotheringhay and William de Forz, Earl of Aumarle clung onto Rockingham castle. Anarchy broke out in Northamptonshire, and for a while it looked like civil war would begin again. In June 1218, the Sheriff of Northampton Faulkes de Bréauté was ordered to take all the lands back into royal hands and seize anyone offering opposition. Rockingham fell after a short siege.

When Earl David died at Yardley Hastings in June 1219, his lands and title were given to his son John le Scot. Within days Marshal’s men from Fotheringhay seized Yardley Hastings. In September 1220, King Henry wrote to Marshal expressing his anger and astonishment that he had still not given up Fotheringhay. It was finally relinquished that December, when Pembroke needed royal support against Llewelyn. The castle had not yet been transferred back into the hands of the King of Scotland so was still effectively an English castle held under Henry III. During January 1221, William de Forz, Earl of Aumarle, still smarting over the loss of Rockingham, seized Fotheringhay. It was poorly garrisoned, and helped by a frozen moat, he attacked it on all sides, setting fire to the door and killing two soldiers. His men then ravaged the county in all directions.  Henry III, summoned all the magnates and all the armed forces he could raise to Northampton and took Fotheringhay back by force. Aumarle fled. As a consequence of his actions, he was excommunicated by the Papal legate and 10 bishops.

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The 15th century font at Fotheringhay Church

John le Scot died on 6 June 1237 after having been poisoned by his wife Helen, daughter of Llewellyn, Prince of North Wales. As John was childless, his lands were divided amongst his three nieces. The majority of the Northamptonshire estates were given to David’s second daughter Ada who had married Sir Henry de Hastings, and their son Henry became the first Baron Hastings.

Isobel of Huntingdon was Earl David’s fifth child. She married Robert Bruce, 4th Lord of Annandale and were given the Harrowdens, Broughton, Great Oakley and Clipston. It was their great-grandson who became the most famous of Scottish kings, Robert Bruce, 7th Lord of Annandale.

John’s eldest sister, Margaret of Huntingdon had married Alan, Lord of Galloway in 1209, and they had a son and two daughters. The elder daughter, Christiana, married William de Forz, son of the Earl of Aumarle who had captured Fotheringhay. The younger daughter, Dervorguilla married John de Balliol. Their estates in the county included Lilford, Great Oakley, Spratton and Wilby. However, it was at Fotheringhay they spent most of their time. In 1263, John founded Balliol College at Oxford with the College’s first master, Walter of Fotheringhay. It was their son, John Balliol II who was briefly king of Scotland until unseated by Edward I.

Katharine of Aragon was given Fotheringhay by Henry VIII, she is buried at Peterborough Cathedral

In 1264, at the start of the Second Barons’ War, Simon de Montfort and his followers saw John Balliol as a threat to their cause and the only precaution they could take was to secure Balliol’s strongest castle – Fotheringhay. Robert de Ferrers, 6th Earl of Derby and Baldwin Wake of Blisworth, ‘an enemy of the king,’ attacked the village and castle. Wake and his men had also burned several houses and drove Balliol’s cattle away. Balliol would not recover Fotheringhay until 1267. However, when John Balliol II, rebelled against King Edward I, Fotheringhay was forfeited to the crown. In 1296, Edward fought John’s forces at the battle of Dunbar. The English routed the disorganised Scots in a single charge and a number of the prisoners taken were contemptibly held at Fotheringhay. More were held at Northampton and Rockingham.

Edward II then granted Fotheringhay to John of Brittany, Earl of Richmond, which he held until his death in 1334. It then passed to his granddaughter, Marie de St. Pol dowager Countess of Pembroke.  Marie lived at Fotheringhay in her widowhood devoting herself to religion. In a charter from King Edward III dated 1347, she was given the authority to found a house of scholars in Cambridge. It was known as the Hall of Valence-Marie, and is known today as Pembroke College, This makes it the oldest Cambridge College with an unbroken constitution from its foundation to survive on its original site.

At this time Fotheringhay castle was described as ” with a certain tower, is built of stone, walled in, embattled, and encompassed with a good moat. Within are one large hall, two chambers, two chapels, a kitchen and bakehouse, built all of stone; with a porter’s lodge and chambers over it, and, a drawbridge beneath. Within the castle walls is another place, called the manor; in which are houses and office’s, and an outer gate with a room over it. The site of the whole contains ten acres.

On the death of Mary in 1377, Edward III gave her property including Fotheringhay, over to his son, Edmund of Langley, the future first Duke of York. When he died, Fotheringhay and the title passed to his son Edward, who made it his home. Edward set about building a new church and college. A college of priests, dedicated to the Annunciation and St. Edward the Confessor, is known to have existed in the castle before 1398. It was probably founded, or perhaps refounded, by the first Duke of York and his son Edward, and consisted of a Master, twelve chaplains and four clerks. In 1411 Edward petitioned the Pope for licence to increase the college by four clerks and thirteen choristers, to change the dedication to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and All Saints, and to make Henry VI the principal founder. The new building was built on the site of an existing parish church, traces of which can be seen in the fabric of the present church. Edward also set about enlarging the castle, and the outer bailey may date from this period.

Building work must have started at once. A commission was issued by the king for building workers in February 1414 probably under Stephen Lote, the King’s Master-Mason at Westminster and the Tower of London. Lote also worked at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, where he completed the nave, built the cloisters, continued work on the transepts, and probably designed the pulpitum. However, Edward died at the Battle of Agincourt on 25 October 1415. His death has been variously attributed to a head wound and to being ‘smouldered to death’ by ‘much heat and pressing’. His work at Fotheringhay unfinished. Edward’s body was brought back to Fotheringhay and buried in the church under a simple marble slab tomb. The French commanders, Marshal Boucicaut, the Counts of Eu and Richemont were also brought to Fotheringhay and held in the castle.

The Dukedom passed to Edward’s nephew Richard and work was re-started on the church and college in September 1434, under William Horwood of Fotheringhay. The contract refers to Horwood as a ‘free-mason’, (the earliest known reference to the masons in England) and he was to be paid £300 for the work. It was also stipulated that the work was to be done “by oversight of masters of the same craft.” In addition, if Horwood should complete the work on time, he was to be given a bonus. However, if he was late, “he shall yield his body to prison at my lords will and all his moveable goods and heritages at my said Lord’s disposition and ordenance.”

The aisled quire and Lady Chapel became the preserve of the nobility and college, whilst the remainder of the church was used by the parish. A detailed description of the college buildings as they were in 1550 survives. Among the places mentioned are ‘the cloister’, with at least nine chambers around it, ‘a house called The Vestry’, with a chamber over, a library, a hall, kitchens, lodgings, wood-yard, courts, brew-house, stables, barns, etc.

Richard and his wife Cecily Neville made Fotheringhay one of their two principle homes (the other being Ludlow). Seven of their twelve children were born there including Anne, later Duchess of Exeter; Margaret, later Duchess of Burgundy (called the diabolical duchess by Henry VII) and most famously Richard who was to become King Richard III. Henry, Thomas, William and Ursula who all died young were buried at Fotheringhay. Sadly, their grave sites are no longer known. Their father Richard, clearly intended this church to be the family mausoleum, and would himself along with his wife, and second son, be later buried there.

This was the time of what is now known as the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, and his second son Edmund were killed at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460 and buried in Pontefract. Richard’s eldest son became King Edward IV. Cecily Neville continued to live at Fotheringhay and often entertained guests there until she moved to Berkhamstead Castle in 1468. She then passed the Fotheringhay estates over to her son, Edward IV but would return there in her later years. The nave and the tower were completed in the 1460s, with the spectacular octagonal tower, holding lanterns to guide hunters back from Rockingham Forest. Edward IV also re-founded the college in his own name and dedicated to his mother and his late father.  In 1469, Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen, resided at the castle.

In 1476, Richard and Edmund’s bodies were exhumed and with great ceremony brought back to Fotheringhay. One source says that over twenty thousand people came to Fotheringhay for the reburial, including all the nobility of England and heads of state from all over Europe. Five thousand people were given alms of a penny each.  Over fifteen hundred people were accommodated in pavilions and tents specially constructed under the supervision of the King’s pavilioner, Richard Garnet, and the feast that followed included 49 cows, 90 calves, 210 sheep and 200 piglets. It is very hard to imagine that many people in Fotheringhay today.

On 11 June 1482, the exiled brother of Scottish King James III, Alexander, duke of Albany, met with Edward IV and his brother Richard at Fotheringhay castle. Together they undertook to recognize Edward IV as overlord of Scotland if an English army set him on its throne in what is now known as the Treaty of Fotheringhay. The army, led by Richard reached Edinburgh, capturing Berwick before Albany renounced the treaty.

Soon after, Edward IV died, and his brother Richard became king. When he was killed at the battle of Bosworth all the lands were passed on to the Tudors, and the new king Henry VII granted Fotheringhay to his wife, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV. When her grandmother Cecily died in 1495, she too was buried at Fotheringhay.

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In 1509, the village became the property of Henry VIII’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon. Leland wrote soon after that ‘ she did great costs of refreshing it.’ He describes it as being at that time ‘ a castle fair, and meatly strong, with very good lodgings in it, defended by double ditches, with a very ancient and strong keep. It was probably under her patronage that the magnificent fan vaulting under the church tower was built by Henry Semark in 1529. When Katherine died at Kimbolton Castle in 1533, she was buried in the nearby Peterborough Cathedral, which at the time was part of Northamptonshire. Henry VIII then gave Fotheringhay to all his subsequent wives. Few stayed there and without noble patronage, the church quire and Lady Chapel began to fall out of use and the college was dissolved in 1548.

When Queen Mary I ascended the throne, Fotheringhay Castle once again became a state prison, this time for Edward Courtney, Earl of Devon, after he was implicated in Wyatt’s rebellion of late January 1554.

In 1566 Queen Elizabeth I visited Fotheringhay. She obviously noted the poor condition of the quire and Lady Chapel, for in 1572 she commissioned a report into its condition. The commissioners declared that these parts of the building were far from sound, and it was worth more in scrap value, than to try and restore the fabric of the building. They estimated it would cost at least £100 to restore the church to its pre-Reformation state, whereas the value of the roof leading of the choir, its two side aisles, and the Lady Chapel and its aisles, was in the region of £200. The parishioners, wrote their own report, which stated that although the windows were in a bad state, the rest of the building was structurally sound. They estimated the necessary repairs at no more than £52. However, despite pleas from the locals, this part of the church was demolished. Some of the stalls still remain in the neighbouring churches of Hemington and Tansor, and the pulpit in Kings Cliffe is reputably built with wood from the church. New tombs were built for Richard and Cecily and for Edward, either side of the high altar.   

An account of such a place would not be complete without its mysteries and the Commissioners’ reports make no reference to Richard, Duke of York, only to Cecily, his duchess. Another account mentions the opening of Cecily’s tomb but not Richard’s. So where is Richard? Are his remains in the tomb or lost somewhere in the churchyard? There is no mention of their son Edmund, returned to Fotheringhay at the same time as Richard either. So where is he buried? In June 1983, during conversion of a series of farm buildings to the west of the church, part of a graveyard was discovered. One body, dated to around the fifteenth century and aged as eighteen to twenty-five had its skull smashed in. Was this Edmund? We will probably never know, as the bodies were re-interred where they were found.

On 11 August 1586, after being implicated in the Babington Plot, Mary, Queen of Scots was arrested while out riding and taken to Tixall. From coded letters it was clear that Mary had sanctioned the attempted assassination of Queen Elizabeth. She was moved to Fotheringhay Castle in a four-day journey ending on 25 September, and in October was put on trial at Fotheringhay for treason under the Act for the Queen’s Safety before a court of 36 noblemen, including Cecil, Shrewsbury, and Walsingham. Only one commissioner, Lord Zouche of Harringworth from Northants, expressing any form of dissent.


On the evening of 7 February 1587, Mary was told that she was to be executed the next day. She spent the last hours of her life in prayer, distributing her belongings to her household, and writing her will and a letter to the King of France. A scaffold was erected in Fotheringhay castle’s Great Hall which was two feet high and draped in black. The next morning, Mary Mary was led up the steps on to the wooden stage. She knelt on a cushion and with arms outstretched she placed her head on the block.

The executioner swung his axe. The first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head. The second blow severed the neck, except for a small bit of sinew, which the executioner cut through using the axe. Afterwards, he held her head aloft and declared, “God save the Queen.” However, the auburn hair in his hand turned out to be a wig and the head fell to the ground, revealing that Mary had very short, grey hair. A small dog owned by the queen is said to have emerged from hiding among her skirts.

Her body was embalmed and left in a secure lead coffin until her burial, in a Protestant service, at Peterborough Cathedral in late July 1587. Her entrails, removed as part of the embalming process, were buried secretly within Fotheringhay Castle. Her body was exhumed in 1612, when her son, King James I, ordered that she be re-interred in Westminster Abbey in a chapel opposite the tomb of Elizabeth I.

During the reign of James I. Fotheringhay was granted to Charles, Lord Mountjoy, later Earl of Devonshire, Sir Edward Blount, and Joseph Earth. When the Earl died four years later, the other two proprietors conveyed the castle and lordship to his son, Mountjoy, who became Earl of Newport. By this time, the castle had fallen out of use and the stone was taken away to be used in new buildings.

All that remains of the castle today is its massive mound, ditches that were once its moat and a large block of limestone rubble surrounded by an iron fence that sits beside the river. There are three plaques on the fence. One states this is all that remains of Fotheringhay castle, another placed there by the Stuart History Society commemorates the death of Mary Queen of Scots. The third plaque was set up by the Richard III Society and commemorates the birth of King Richard.

There may be little left today, but you can still visit the church or climb to the top of the mount and look over the quiet countryside and it is easy to imagine all of England’s history playing out before you.

Note: The church is currently undergoing extensive renovations and may be closed to the public.

I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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