St Mary and All Saints, Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire
As any experienced pub quizzer will be able to tell you, Cambridgeshire shares borders with more other counties than any other English county, and one of the pleasures of exploring its churches by bike is to occasionally pop over a border and cherry-pick some of the best churches nearby. I had long wanted to visit Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, and it is only ten miles west of Peterborough, and so I thought why not? I could also take in its near neighbours Nassington and Warmington, both noted as interesting churches.
Fotheringhay is a haunted place. It is haunted by noble birth and violent death, by its pivotal importance as a place in 15th Century English politics, and by its desolation in later centuries – not to mention by one significant event in the last couple of years.
The view of the church from the south across the River Nene is one of the most famous views of a church in England – there can be few books about churches which do not include it. The tower is a spectacular marriage cake, the square stage surmounted by an octagonal bell stage. This is not an unusual arrangement in the area of the Nene and Ouse Valleys, but nowhere is it on such a scale and with such intricacy as this.
The nave is also vast, a great length of flying buttresses running above each aisle, and walls of glass, great perpendicular windows designed to let in light and drive out superstition. What you cannot see from across the river is that, behind the big oak tree, the church has no chancel.
Inside, it is a square box full of light divided by great arcades that march resolutely eastwards towards a large blank wall. Heraldic shields stand aloof up in the arcades, and the one fabulous spot of colour is the great pulpit nestled in the south arcade, another sign that this building was designed to assert the doctrine of the Holy Catholic Church. This place swallows sound and magnifies light. It is thrilling, awe-inspiring. What happened here?
In the medieval period, Fotheringhay Castle was the powerbase of the House of York. The church was built as a result of a bequest by Edward III, who died in 1370. It was complete by the 1430s, with a college of priests and a large nave for the Catholic devotions of the people.
Over the next century it would house the tombs of, among others, Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York and grandson of Edward III who was killed in 1415 at Agincourt, and Richard Plantaganet, 3rd Duke of York, who was killed in the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. It was Richard’s claim to the throne of England which had led to the Wars of the Roses. His decapitated head was gleefully displayed on a pike above Micklegate Bar in York by the victorious Lancastrian forces. Also killed in the battle was Richard’s 17 year old son Edmund.
But the Lancastrian delight was shortlived, for by the following year Richard’s eldest son had become King as Edward IV. He immediately arranged for the translation of the bodies of his father and brother from their common grave at Pontefract back to Fotheringhay.
It was recorded that on 24 July the bodies were exhumed, that of the Duke garbed in an ermine furred mantle and cap of maintenance, covered with a cloth of gold lay in state under a hearse blazing with candles, guarded by an angel of silver, bearing a crown of gold as a reminder that by right the Duke had been a king.
On its journey, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, with other lords and officers of arms, all dressed in mourning, followed the funeral chariot, drawn by six horses, with trappings of black, charged with the arms of France and England and preceded by a knight bearing the banner of the ducal arms.
Fotheringhay was reached on 29 July, where members of the college and other ecclesiastics went forth to meet the cortege. At the entrance to the churchyard, King Edward waited, together with the Duke of Clarence, the Marquis of Dorset, Earl Rivers, Lord Hastings and other noblemen. Upon its arrival the King made obeisance to the body right humbly and put his hand on the body and kissed it, crying all the time.
The procession moved into the church where two hearses were waiting, one in the choir for the body of the Duke and one in the Lady Chapel for that of the Earl of Rutland, and after the King had retired to his closet and the princes and officers of arms had stationed themselves around the hearses, masses were sung and the King’s chamberlain offered for him seven pieces of cloth of gold ‘which were laid in a cross on the body.
The sorrowing Edward IV donated the great pulpit for the proclamation of the Catholic faith. And then in 1483 he died. He was succeeded as tradition required by his son, the 12 year old Edward V. But three months after his father’s death the younger Edward was also dead, in mysterious circumstances. He was succeeded by his uncle, who had been born here in Fotheringhay in 1452, and who would reign, albeit briefly, as Richard III.
Was Richard III really the villain that history has made him out to be? Did he really murder his nephew to achieve the throne? Within two years he had also been killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and the Lancastrians were finally triumphant. Henry VII established the Tudor dynasty, and, as we all know, history is written by the victors, not by the losers.
But Fotheringhay had one more dramatic scene to set in English history before settling back into obscurity, and this time it involved the Tudors. In September 1586 a noble woman of middle years arrived at Fotheringhay Castle under special guard, and was imprisoned here. Her name was Mary, and she was on trial for treason.
It is clear today that most of the evidence was entirely fictional, but the powers of the day had Great reason to fear Mary, for she had what appeared to many to be a legitimate claim to the English throne. She was the daughter of James V of Scotland, and had herself become Queen of Scotland at the age of just six weeks. She spent her childhood and youth in France while regents governed the nation in her stead, and she married Francis, the Dauphin of France, who became King of France in 1559. Briefly, Mary was both Queen of Scotland and Queen Consort of France, but in 1561 Francis died, and Mary returned to Scotland to govern her own country.
But there was a problem. Mary was a Catholic. Scotland had led the way in the English-speaking Reformation with a particularly firebrand form of Calvinism, and the protestant merchants of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee were aghast at the prospect of a Catholic monarch.
And there was a further problem. Scotland was currently at peace with its neighbour England, where Queen Elizabeth I had brought some stability to the troubled country. But the Catholic Church did not recognise Elizabeth as the rightful monarch of England, because it was considered that her father Henry VIII’s divorce from his 1st wife Katherine of Aragon was invalid. As he had divorced Katherine to marry Elizabeth’s mother Ann Boleyn, Catholics considered that the rightful line of succession had passed horizontally from Henry VIII to his deceased elder sister and then on to her descendants, the most senior of whom was Mary, Queen of Scotland.
Mary remarried in Scotland, but her husband was murdered, and she was forced to abdicate her throne in favour of their one year old baby. He would be brought up by protestant regents and advisors, and would reign Scotland as James VI. His protestant faith allowed the English crown to recognise the line’s legitimate claims, and in 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England, the 1st monarch to govern both nations.
But that was all in the future. After her abdication, Mary fled south to seek the protection of her cousin Elizabeth. She spent most of the next 18 years in protective custody. A succession of plots and conspiracies implicated her, and finally on 8th February 1587, at the age of 44, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle.
One of her son James’s 1st acts on ascending the English throne was to order that the castle where his mother had been shamefully imprisoned and executed be razed to the ground.
The chancel of Fotheringhay church and its College of Priests were already gone by then, demolished after the Reformation, leaving the York tombs exposed to the elements. it is said that Elizabeth herself, on a visit to Fotheringhay in 1566, insisted that they be brought back into the church.
Fotheringhay church settled back into obscurity. During the long 18th Century sleep of the Church of England it suffered neglect and disuse, but was restored well in the 19th Century. A chapel was designated for the memory of the York dynasty during the 20th Century, a sensitive issue for the Church of England which does not recognise prayers for the dead, but they can happen here in the Catholic tradition.
Today, the population of Fotheringhay cannot be much more than a hundred, an obscure backwater in remote north-east Northamptonshire, consisting of little more than its grand church set above the water meadows of the River Nene. But there was one more day in the public light to come.
In 2012, an archaeological dig in the centre of the city of Leicester, some 30 miles from here, uncovered a skeleton which had been buried in such a manner that it seemed it might be the dead King Richard III. Carbon dating and DNA matching proved that it was so. A controversy erupted about where the dead king might be reburied. Leicester Cathedral seemed the obvious place, although pompous claims were made by, among others, the MP for York, for him to be buried in York Minster. But there was also a case for the remains being returned here, to the quiet peace of Fotheringhay.
In the event reason held sway and Richard was reburied in Leicester, but Fotheringhay church, along with Leicester Cathedral, York Minster and Westminster Abbey, was one of four sites to host books of remembrance for Richard III.
In June 2015 I was surprised to find that the book here was still in use at the west end of the nave, and is still regularly signed by people. Perhaps they think it is the visitors book.
The silence of the church and the quiet peace of the graveyard are in dramatic contrast to the sensationalism of the media over the controversy and the razzamatazz of Richard’s reburial in Leicester Cathedral. But currently the circus has moved on, and Fotheringhay is still here. And white roses are scattered in the church every year on Richard III’s birthday.
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