Some stone with a fence around it is now all that remains of Fotheringhay Castle. Three signs tell part of its story; one states the name of the former castle, a second that King Richard III was born there in 1452 and the third reminds the visitor that Mary, Queen of Scots was executed there on 8 February 1587.
Mary had fled to England in hopes of receiving England’s help with regaining her crown. However, Queen Elizabeth perceived her as a threat as Mary had once claimed England’s throne as her own (through her descent from Margaret Tudor, the sister of King Henry VIII). She became Elizabeth’s prisoner for many years, and she was kept in many different castles and manors over the years.
On 5 September 1586, a special tribunal was set up to hear the evidence against Mary, in yet another plot against Elizabeth. Mary herself was not informed of where she was going, and she arrived at Fotheringhay Castle on 25 September. She was accompanied by five or six servants. Mary refused to confess her guilt, and on 12 October a letter arrived from Elizabeth.
“You have in various ways, and manners attempted to take my life and to bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed. I have never proceeded so harshly against you but have, on the contrary, protected and maintained you like myself. These treasons will be proved to you, and all made manifest. Yet it is my will, that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I were myself present. I therefore require, charge, and command that you make answer for I have been well informed of your arrogance. Act plainly and without reserve, and you will sooner be able to obtain favour of me. Elizabeth R.”
The following trial took place in a room above the Great Hall but her statement was not of her guilt. She said, “I am an absolute Queen, and will do nothing which will prejudice either mine own royal majesty, or other princes of my place and rank or my son. My mind is not yet dejected nor will I sink under my calamity… The laws and statutes of England are to me most unknown; I am destitute of counsellors, and who shall be my peers, I am utterly ignored. My papers and notes are taken from me, and no man dareth step forth as my advocate. I am clear of all crimes against the Queen. I have excited no man against her, and I am not to be charged but by mine own word or writing, which cannot be produced against me. Yet can I not deny but I have commended myself and my cause to foreign princes.”
On 19 November, the news arrived that parliament had passed the sentence of death on her. Mary was stripped of her honours and cloth of state. She was now “but a dead woman, without the honours and dignity of a Queen.” Mary replaced her cloth of state with pictures of the Passion of the Christ, and the building of a scaffold was begun in the Great Hall. Mary wrote to Elizabeth asking to be buried with the “other Queens of France” or near her mother. Yet Elizabeth waited to confirm the order of execution. She finally signed the order in early February.
Mary was told on 7 February that she was to die the following morning. She began to settle her affairs and wrote to her brother-in-law, King Henry III of France. At six in the morning, Mary dressed for her final performance. She wore a skirt and bodice of black satin over a russet brown petticoat and an overmantle of black satin embroidered with gold and trimmed with fur. She wore a white crepe headdress and a long lace veil. A gold rosary hung from her waist. She spent some time at prayer.
She walked down to the Great Hall, where the scaffold was now complete. Over 300 people had come to watch her die. She climbed the scaffold and took the pins out of her hair herself. Her outer clothes were removed, and she received fresh sleeves in russet, and so she was now dressed in red – signifying a Catholic martyr. She bade farewell to her weeping servants and forgave the executioner. A silk handkerchief was then tied over her eyes, and she laid her head down on the block. She spoke the words, “In manus tuas, domine, commendo spiritum meum” (Into your hands I commend my spirit) several times before the axe fell. It took two strikes to decapitate her except for a small part of sinew, which the executioner sawed through. He then lifted her head and declared, “God save the Queen.” Her head then fell from his grasp, leaving him holding her auburn wig.
Mary’s body was removed to another room while the scaffold, block and her clothes were burned. Her head was put on a velvet cushion and put on display in one of the windows so that the crowds outside could see it. Her body was hastily embalmed the following morning before being placed in a double coffin of oak and lead.
It wasn’t until 30 July 1587 that Mary’s body was moved to Peterborough. She was buried in a grave opposite of that of Catherine of Aragon. She was moved to Westminster Abbey on 28 October 1612. Fotheringhay Castle was abandoned after Mary’s execution, and it was mostly gone by the end of the 18th century.
The site is open for visitors.1
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