Richard III’S Childhood Home: Fotheringhay Castle
by Peggy M. Baker
Today, almost nothing remains of Fotheringhay Castle. A steep grassy embankment slopes down to the River Nene, where sits a small piece of ruined masonry. On the day of our visit, we had the castle site totally to ourselves. The peaceful misty day encouraged wandering and imagination.
Memories are almost all that are left at Fotheringhay. For us it was, nevertheless, a site of unexpected power and resonance.
Fotheringhay lies in England’s Midlands, about 85 miles north of London. An ancient stronghold with a small surrounding village, the castle was rebuilt in the late 14th and early 15th centuries by Edmund of Langley, Earl of Cambridge and Duke of York.
It was one of the principal seats of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (1411-1460) and his duchess, Cecily Neville (1415-1495). Thirteen children were born to the couple between 1438 and 1455; seven of them lived to adulthood. Five of the children, including youngest son Richard, were born at Fotheringhay. Richard (1452-1485), later Duke of Gloucester and Richard III, spent the first six years of his life at the castle.
As we stood on Fotheringhay’s highest vantage point, the grassy hill that covers the castle’s foundations, we looked over a green and gentle countryside that dips to a winding river. It was easy to imagine a large, noisy, close-knit noble household and a young boy, whom we now know (thanks to the recent DNA testing) was fair-haired and blue-eyed, riding out on his first pony, stopping to wave to his duchess mother as she leaned over the parapet admiringly.
The moment may have happened. If it did, however, it was not a usual event. Duchess Cecily travelled with her husband and was often apart from her many children. She did remain, however, closely involved in their upbringing (even if at a distance) and was an important force in their adult lives.
As a young child, Fotheringhay provided Richard with a peaceful and privileged aristocratic upbringing. Outside his secure nursery, however, it was a tumultuous time.
Richard’s father, the Duke of York
Richard’s father, the Duke of York, had been named Lord Protector of England in 1454 after Henry VI suffered a mental collapse. York’s position in the government was continually challenged. The troubled times forced the family to leave Fotheringhay when Richard was six. With the rest of his family (or, at least, those still unmarried and living at home), he moved to the more secure Ludlow Castle.
York had become involved with dangerous business indeed! Accompanied by his two older sons, Edward and Edmund, he actively challenged the Lancastrian king, Henry VI. York was not successful and, in late 1459, was forced to abandon Ludlow. He and his son Edmund fled to Ireland while his oldest son, Edward, sought refuge in Calais.
The victorious King Henry VI put Cecily and her three younger children, Margaret, George and Richard, into the custody of the Lancastrian Duke of Buckingham, whose wife was Cecily’s sister, Anne.
Then, in June 1460, Edward returned to England from Calais with an army. He captured Henry VI at the Battle of Northampton. Cecily immediately moved to London with Margaret, George and Richard to be with her son at his moment of triumph. She was only in residence for two days, however, when news came that her husband, the Duke of York, had returned from Ireland.
Cecily hurried westwards to meet him, leaving Margaret, George and Richard safely housed (and well-supervised) in London. The Yorks truly were a close-knit family. Eighteen-year-old Edward, busy military leader that he was, found time to visit his younger siblings each and every day.
The family was reunited when the Duke of York, with Duchess Cecily at his side, returned to London. York now openly attempted to gain the throne. He lacked sufficient support for this audacious move, but was able to pressure Henry VI into agreeing that York and his heirs (not Henry VI’s own son) would succeed him.
Other Lancastrians were infuriated and began attacking York’s properties in the north of England. York set off, with his son Edmund, to deal with the disruption. York and Edmund were killed at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460.
Off to Burgandy
Richard’s boyhood, already made anxious and insecure, now came to an abrupt halt. Although Cecily remained in England to support her son, Edward, as he carried on the fight as the new head of the House of York, she could not risk her two youngest boys.
George, 11, and Richard, 8, were sent to safety to the court of Philip of Burgundy. A Yorkist ally, Philip was also a canny politician. He offered the boys a safe haven some distance from the court, but did not personally welcome them until their brother, Edward, had won the throne.
Edward called his two young brothers home to participate in his coronation. Three months later, shortly after his ninth birthday, Richard was named Duke of Gloucester. The youngest child of York was now the third highest-ranking individual in the kingdom, second only to his brother the King, and his older brother George, now Duke of Clarence.
An Unhappy Legacy
Richard remained in London until he was sent, for mentoring, to Middleham Castle and the guardianship of the Duke of Warwick. He did not return to Fotheringhay Castle which, in the first year of his reign, Edward IV had granted to his widowed mother, Duchess Cecily.
After the death of Edward IV, and Richard III’s brief reign, the new king, Henry VII, gave Fotheringhay to his wife, Elizabeth of York, as part of her dower. Their son, Henry VIII, granted it, in turn, to five of his six wives (Anne Boleyn missed out). Under the reign of Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth I, the castle began to fall into disarray.
Fotheringhay sprang briefly back into prominence in 1586, when Elizabeth chose it as the site for the trial and execution of Mary Queen of Scots. As a 25-year old, Mary had fled from her rebellious kingdom in Scotland to the illusion of safety in England. Taken immediately into custody, she spent 18 years as a captive. Constantly scheming to gain her freedom, she was eventually drawn into a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I.
Mary’s two-day trial for treason was held in Fotheringhay’s Great Hall, filled with some thirty peers and privy councilors, in mid-October 1586. She was found guilty and sentenced to die. On 8 February 1586/7, Mary walked in procession to Fotheringhay’s Great Hall, where a black-draped scaffold had been erected.
Several hundred spectators were present as Mary was beheaded. After Mary’s death, Fotheringhay was allowed to completely decay, gradually becoming today’s atmospheric, melancholy, lonely site.
The only visible remains of Fotheringhay Castle itself is a piece of masonry inside a wrought iron fence. Plaques commemorate King Richard III, the work of the Peterborough Archaeological Society, and Mary Queen of Scots. On the day of our visit, a single rose with a tartan ribbon was tied to the fence.