Part of the map of Cliffe Bailiwick, Rockingham Forest circa 1640 © The National Archives

Geophysical survey uncovers new possibilities for the structure of Fotheringhay Castle

Steve Parry

A new survey undertaken by our Northampton team on behalf of the Castle Studies Trust has revealed new details about how Fotheringhay Castle near Peterborough may have developed from a small motte and bailey into the favoured seat of generations of royalty. In this blog, Director of MOLA Northampton Steve Parry shares what has been learned…

Fotheringhay Castle has an illustrious history. It is thought to have been built in the 1100s, following the Norman Conquest, as the seat of the honour of Huntingdon. Whilst many similar castles fell out of use, Fotheringhay instead became the focal point of the House of York and its extensive midlands estates after Edmund Langley, first Duke of York, remodelled the original motte and bailey castle to create a ‘palace-fortress’ to reflect his status. The castle remained prominent throughout the fifteenth century, and in 1495, the castle was given by Henry VII to his queen, Elizabeth of York, establishing a tradition continued by his son, Henry VIII, who granted it to each of his six queens in turn.

The most important historic event associated with the castle is the trial and execution of Mary Queen of Scots on 8 February 1587, which is described as having taken place in a substantial hall 69ft by 21ft, giving a sense of its grandeur. The castle continued in royal possession until 1603 after which point it was sold several times, lost its significance, and was demolished by the early eighteenth century.

The earliest detailed depiction we have of Fotheringhay castle is a c.1640 map shows the main buildings as forming a quadrangle around the curtain walls of the inner bailey. The plan resembles near contemporary northern castles such as those at Lumley and Bolton.

Part of the map of Cliffe Bailiwick, Rockingham Forest, circa 1640 showing Fotheringhay Castle and village © The National Archives
Part of the map of Cliffe Bailiwick, Rockingham Forest, circa 1640 showing Fotheringhay Castle and village © The National Archives

However, the results of our geophysical survey paint quite a different picture. We explored the castle motte and inner bailey, together with parts of its surrounding area using three kinds of technique: earth resistance, magnetometry and ground penetrating radar (GPR). Each added more detail to the overall picture given of the structure, which we were then able to interpret.

The GPR survey identified the foundations of the tower on top of the motte, and its multi-angular ‘fetterlocks’ structure with a flat side facing the inner bailey was largely as expected. The inner bailey, however, seems to contain a range of free-standing buildings and structures, not an open quadrangle, as shown in the map.

The northern building of the range appears to have been a single room which could have served as a hall with smaller chambers to the west, while the southern building which was divided into three rooms may have provided accommodation. The scale of the buildings, and the presence of the linking structure with external corridors, suggests some sophistication and status, albeit with an irregular layout.

It is difficult to reconcile the map and survey evidence. Either the cartographer who drew the c.1640 map was inaccurate in his depiction of the castle (possible given that elements of the image are clearly foreshortened and misplaced), or these irregular, free-standing buildings may well represent a later undocumented phase of activity, after the castle was demolished in the late seventeenth century.

Either way, this new survey data opens up a fascinating avenue of insight into a prominent castle whose form has proved elusive to date.

This project was kindly supported by the Castle Studies Trust. Thanks must go to Michael de Bootman, for his kind loan of Ground Penetrating Radar equipment, and support with the survey.