The Hand of History? Not Quite.

Fotheringhay, as anyone who has studied Tudor history knows, is where Mary Queen of Scots was executed. The foolish Catholic pretender to the English throne, caught in a treason plot by spymaster Francis Walsingham, met her end in the great hall of the castle there, a few miles west of Peterborough. On one of my all to frequent trips to Peterborough this year, I was diverted by bad weather and had seen signs to the place. I resolved to come back, and did so several weeks later.

It was a warm day and I had all the windows open as I roared down the bypass at 70mph and onto the A605 towards Oundle. I followed the brown signs for Fotheringhay, pleased by the change in landscape: after the bleak flatness of the Fens, it was back to more “English” scenery of rolling farmland and woods.

Fotheringhay is a quaint old village with many thatched buildings built of a yellow-cream stone with an unusually wide main street. I parked near the church and walked back. Along a pitted track for a short distance, then over a stile by a farm where there was an information board. There was little to see, with only the small mound giving any impression that there had been anything here, this small field pressed against the limpid waters of the river Nene. Closer to the river were some railings with plaques fixed to them, commemorating the birth of Richard III in 1452 and Mary’s execution 135 years later. Adjacent to the latter, a faded tartan scarf was tied to the rust speckled metal.

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Even with the artist’s impression on the info board, it was hard to get a sense of the place: the word “castle” conjures up images of a large building with immense stone walls, towers, keep, battlements and moat. Unless it had the properties of a Tardis, to describe this place as a castle seems grandiloquent, as does “great hall”. The area seemed simply too small, too insignificant for such titles. Too insignificant for what turned out to be an significant historical event.

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With some head shaking, I climbed the small mound. The flanks were thick with large pink thistles, with large leaves of a strange dirty green-white. There was no one else around and it was peaceful, with just the gentle rustle of the river for company. I couldn’t reconcile this beautiful, quiet spot with such a violent deed as beheading. Try as I did, I got no feel for the place. It wasn’t the distance of time, as I’ve got strong senses from Medieval churches and neolithic sites (such as the stone circle at Stanton Drew in Somerset). It was as if a conscious attempt had been made to erase the place from history. If that is true, it’s almost succeeded. My last image of the place was of two red kites languidly circling the village, and who obligingly flew off as soon as I got my camera out. The hand of history? No. At best, the lightest of breaths shaking a few hairs.

 

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