“Although there is little left at Fotheringhay, it was one of my favourite places to visit. The area is atmospheric and it is easy to picture a young Richard here. I spent several hours here, both at the castle site and at the nearby church.” — Kristi Dean
Richard was born into a country that was on the brink of civil war. His family were destined to be key players in the conflict that would divide the country into the factions of Lancaster and York. This division would find its way even into his own family. While we do not know very much about Richard’s earliest years, most historians agree that he was born at Fotheringhay Castle.
All that is left of this once impressive castle is a grassy mound by the river and a few fragments of masonry from the keep. Standing here, it is hard to picture the busy, bustling place this fortress once was. It is almost as if the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, held in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay in February 1587 left an indelible mark of sadness on the area.
Birthplace of a King
Richard was born on 2 October 1452 in the keep at Fotheringhay. The eleventh child of his parents – Richard, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville, the Rose of Raby – no one expected him to become king. In a poem about the children of the Duke of York, the ‘Clare Roll’ simply stated that ‘Richard liveth yet’. Earlier biographers of Richard took this to mean that he was a sickly child, but that is only one possible interpretation of the meaning of the poem. As Richard was the seventh son, but only the fourth one to survive, it might be the poet was pessimistic about his chances. In any event, this formidable castle on the banks of the River Nene was where Richard spent his formative years.
Richard was born into a world fraught with peril. The Lancastrian Henry VI was an ineffectual king whose weakness allowed competing factions to grow at court. Prior to Richard’s birth, his father had gone to London with more than 5,000 men to make an appeal to the king. He was upset, in part because of his exclusion from the king’s council and because of accusations of treason. A direct appeal to the king seemed to be his only hope. In addition to this, Henry VI did not have an heir, and York felt he should be heir presumptive. This situation was difficult, and was made harder as each side grew more suspicious of the other.
Part of the problem was that York had a claim to the throne that was as strong, if not stronger, than the claim of the king. Henry VI was descended from Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt, but York was a descendant of Edward III’s second son (through the female line) and also Edward III’s fourth son. For a time, York was able to work within the government, but the ascent of Somerset in the king’s favour showed York that he would not be able to institute reform. In 1452, York refused to go to a council meeting and headed instead to London, trying to raise forces. Unfortunately for him, he was not supported, and he had to apologise to the king. For a short time, he stayed out of the public eye, but this temporary solution would not last for long.
Richard’s constant companions in his early years would have been his two siblings closest in age – his sister Margaret, and his brother George. Their parents would have been in and out of Fotheringhay as Cecily often travelled with her husband. There was probably a flurry of excitement every time they visited the castle.
The view from the mound is impressive, with the spires of the collegiate church of St Mary the Virgin and All Saints rising in the distance. The River Nene winds around the mound and disappears into the distance on its way to the Wash. Visitors today will often find canal boats docked on the sleepy river beside the castle site. During Richard’s time, the river would have been humming with activity. On Richard and Edward’s visit in 1469 the view would have been one of constant commotion, as people scurried about in order to greet the king.
A moat surrounded the castle and the entrance would have been through a gatehouse. The great stone keep would have sat atop the mound surrounded by a wall, and would have been accessible through steps leading from the inner bailey to the top. During the time of Marie de St Pol, the castle was said to have a large hall, two chambers, two chapels, a kitchen, a bake house and a porter’s lodge. When Richard lived there, the windows might have been ornamented by a falcon enclosed in a fetterlock, which was an emblem for the House of York.
It is hard to picture the great keep today, as nothing remains. Sitting atop the mound and using your imagination, you can picture the activity below as people wandered in and out of the lodgings, kitchen and chapel.
Even though Richard’s elder brothers had already left home before he was born, it is likely that Richard probably saw his brothers here, at least on great occasions such as Christmas. It is easy to imagine the great hall packed with people enjoying Christmas festivities and a young Richard enthralled by his older brothers.
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Kristie Dean holds a Master’s Degree in History and now enjoys teaching the subject, following a successful career in public relations. She has been published on several online magazines and local newspapers and presented a paper at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. She lives in Tennessee, USA. To learn more about Kristi, visit her website at Kristie Dean.
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