Fotheringhay Castle is a fine example of a large motte and bailey castle strategically placed beside a river crossing. The earthworks of the site are largely undisturbed and documentary evidence indicates that a diversity of archaeological features are likely to be preserved on the site. The castle has well documented royal connections from the Norman period and also has particular historical significance as the prison and execution place of Mary Queen of Scots.
The motte and bailey castle at Fotheringhay lies at the south eastern end of the present village close to the River Nene. The castle consists of a substantial earthwork motte, an inner bailey and the remains of the outer bailey earthworks. The motte is a steep-sided round mound approximately 7m high and about 70m in diameter. The top of the mound is flattened and about 30m across with an irregular surface, indicating the remains of the stone keep. A ditch up to 4m deep and 20m wide is visible on the north and west sides of the motte. Originally this ditch is thought to have encircled the mound. A ditch of similar size surrounds the inner and outer bailey areas. The inner bailey is sub-rectangular and measures about 50m x 65m and retains traces of an earthern rampart. At the north east corner of the outer bailey near the river are the remains of a sluice gate associated with the water management system of the bailey ditches. The outer bailey ditch on the north and west sides has been largely infilled.
The castle is considered to have been built by Simon de St Liz, Earl of Huntingdon and Northampton, who married Judith, a niece of William the Conqueror. From the late 13th century the castle took on the dual role of royal palace and state prison. The castle was enlarged and rebuilt in the late 14th century by Edmund Langley, son of Edward III, and it is thought that the outer bailey dates from this period, as does the infilling of the east side of the motte ditch. Records indicate that in 1341 a stone tower stood on the motte, and within the inner bailey were two chapels, a great hall, chambers and a kitchen. A gatehouse stood beside a drawbridge over the inner bailey ditch. A further gatehouse existed in the north west corner of the outer bailey, and a group of buildings known as The Manor lay north west of the motte on the site of Castle Farm. Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned in the castle in 1586, and eventually executed there in 1587. The castle was abandoned in the 17th century and by the early 18th century was demolished. In the 19th century the moat on the west side was infilled. (Scheduling Report)
Fotheringhay Castle (TL 062929) lies at the S.E. end of the village, adjacent to the R. Nene, on gravel at 50 ft. above OD. It was probably built by Simon de St. Liz, Earl of Huntingdon and Northampton, who married the daughter of Judith, Countess of Huntingdon and niece of the Conqueror. The present motte and inner bailey or court are probably his work. It does not appear to have been important as a military stronghold, and from the late 13th century it took on the dual role of royal palace and State prison. It was apparently considerably rebuilt and enlarged in the late 14th century by Edmund Langley, son of Edward III, and the outer bailey or court may date from this period, as perhaps does the infilling of the motte ditch on the E. side. Other alterations and additions were made in the 15th century but these do not now survive. The castle was abandoned in the 17th century and a gradual process of demolition of all its walls and buildings was largely completed by the early 18th century. The few remaining building fragments still standing by the late 19th century were incorporated into the barns of the present Castle Farm by Lord Overstone who also filled in the former moat on the W. side of the site. There are a number of descriptions of the castle at various dates. The most complete is that of 1341 before it was enlarged, and this seems to indicate that only the motte, then with a stone tower, and the present inner bailey existed. Within the bailey were two chapels, a great hall, chambers and the kitchen, together with a gatehouse over a drawbridge. However there is mention of another group of buildings outside the castle, then called The Manor. These probably lay N.W. of the motte on the site of Castle Farm. A later account, dating from just before Mary Queen of Scots was sent to Fotheringhay in 1586, notes the existence of the outer moat and two separate gates. The last detailed description was made in 1625 just before demolition started, and is clear enough to enable a conjectural reconstruction to be made of the castle's lay-out at that time. The castle was then said to be '. . . . very strong, built of stone, and moated about with a double moat. The R. Nen on the S. side serves for the outer moat, and the Mill-brook on the E. side between the little park and the Castle-yard, called the old orchard or garden, serves for the outer moat on that side; between which mill-brook and the Castle there has been a great pond, landed up, on the E. side of the Castle. The gate and forepart of the house fronts the N., and as soon as you are passed the drawbridge, at the gate there is a pair of stairs, leading up to some fair lodgings and up higher to the wardrobe, and so on to the fetterlock on top of the mound on the N.W. corner of the castle, which is built round of 8 or 16 square with chambers lower and upper ones roundabout, but somewhat decayed and so are the leads on the top; in the very midst of the round yard in the same there has been a well, now landed up. When you come down again and go towards the hall, which is wonderful spacious, there is a goodly and fair court, within the midst of the castle. Of the left-hand is the chapel, goodly lodgings, the great dining-room, and a large room at this present well garnished with pictures. Near the hall is the buttery and kitchen; and at the other end of the kitchen a yard, convenient for wood and such purposes, with large brewhouses and bake-houses and houses convenient for offices. From the gate going out of that yard, there is another yard half-encompassing the castle, going roundabout to the first gate and a great barn in the W. side of the said yard. A gate-house and another ruinous house in the E. corner of the same.' (H. K. Bonney, Fotheringhay,
The remains of the original motte and bailey are now in good condition but the moated outer court or bailey has been greatly mutilated. The motte is now a steep-sided mound, 7 m. high and up to 70 m. in diam., rising to a flat top, 30 m. across. The summit is very irregular, probably due to a combination of stone robbings and later excavations. The motte is bounded on two sides by a wide ditch, up to 4 m. deep, now partly filled in on the W. It probably once encircled the motte. The ditch now runs S.E. from the motte, and is partly filled in to make a modern entrance which is probably the site of the original one; it continues S.E. and then swings S.W. to meet the R. Nene and so encloses the inner bailey or court. Here it is up to 2 m. deep, with traces of an inner rampart. The junction of the ditch with the river is now blocked by a low bank but, in times of flood, water from the Nene still partly fills the ditch. Parallel to the river on the S. side of the bailey is a well-marked scarp 1 m.-3 m. high. Below it, close to the river, is a large block of limestone rubble, with a small area of squared ashlar on the S. side. This is said to have come from the summit of the motte and was set up here in 1913.
The inner motte and bailey were originally surrounded by an outer moat on three sides. To the S.E. this survives as a deeply-cut ditch up to 2.5 m. deep, through which a stream still runs. At its N. end the modern track crosses the stream on a bridge, the limestone ashlar abutments of which retain the slots for a sluice. This sluice probably held the water in the 'great pond' described in the 1625 survey, and is also the site of the eastern gatehouse. N.W. of the sluice the outer bailey ditch is traceable as a broad shallow depression as far as the N. side of Castle Farm. It originally appears to have continued N. as far as the present farm entrance and then turned S.W. in front of the farm to reach the river. No trace remains there now except for part of a shallow depression close to the river. (VCH Northants.,
II (1906), 5704; H. K. Bonney, Fotheringhay, (1821), 1833; P. M. G. Dickinson, Historic Fotheringhay