Stafford is a town in which almost nothing sensational happens. Apart from the poor chap whose partner died while making love, and thought the way to handle this was to put her naked body in a wheelie bin, I can’t recall any really sensational development that involved sex, violence and some form of high profile death in the thirty years I have been here.
Whenever a bit of sword and gunshot violence happens, it does not take place in Stafford itself. Stafford Castle is lacking ghosts from a blood stained past, and when a real outbreak of ultra violence came about in the Civil War, it merely amounted to a skirmish – at Hopton on the road to Uttoxeter. Prince Rupert may have shot an arrow from the Bear Inn, but only to hit the weather vane on top of St Mary’s church.
Stafford is simply not a place where history happens, so the best we can do is pick up the crumbs of Big History when it happens just about inside the Borough boundary. And tonight I give you –
STAFFORDS PART IN THE DOWNFALL OF MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS.
Mary was of course a major player in the death and destruction stakes, though she never actually killed anyone, she was personally involved in two major incidents of spectacular murder, one possible rape and the subsequent marriage to the man who might have raped her. The whole sequence lead to her expulsion from Scotland and 19 years in exile in England where she was the centre of a web of violent incidents. Wherever Mary went, Mayhem followed. And she came well inside the Borough boundary at the very moment when her final act was about to be played.
It started so well. She was married to the French Dauphin and became Queen of France in her late teens. But the angel of death was never far away where Mary was concerned, and her husband died in agony of a brain infection before her 18th birthday. She was then packed off back to Scotland, a country which she hardly knew and which she completely misunderstood. However it was not her failure to grasp Scots culture which was the main problem this was her appalling choice of MEN.
She married Lord Darnley, who proved to be up to no good and though he got her pregnant with her son the later King James VI, he demanded the Crown Matrimonial and when she refused to give him a right to the thone they fell out. He then suspected she was having an affair with her Italian secretary Rizzio and with a group of armed men entered the chamber of the pregnant Queen leading to a scuffle in which Rizzio was murdered. A few days later there was a temporary reconciliation, which was incredible, especially once Mary having given birth went to see Lord Bothwell. By the end of 1566 tongues were wagging all over Scotland.
They wagged even more when on the night of 9-10th January 1567 Darnley’s house at Kirk o’ Fields, Edinburgh, was blown up and Darnley found murdered in the grounds. Bothwell was tried but acquitted after no evidence was offered against him, and he then pursued his relationship with Mary by kidnapping and possibly raping her, after which on May 15th 1567 they were married.
The Calvinistic Scots had had enough of this outrageous behaviour. The errant couple were arrested and Bothwell sent into exile, while Mary escaped to England before the judges could assemble to try to find out what part she had played in the death of her second husband and the behaviour of her third. When she got to England she was immediately imprisoned, becoming the biggest headache Elizabeth I had to deal with in the whole of her reign.
THE ROAD TO STAFFORD BOROUGH.
Although she did not know it, Mary had started on the long and winding road that would eventually lead her into Stafford Borough. Her presence in England gave the government major headaches. She was heir to the throne via her mother, Henry VIII’s sister and as a Catholic she was the focus of plots to remove her cousin Elizabeth from the throne either through murder or a foreign invasion or both. She could not be sent back to the Scots, who might lose her again, or allowed to leave for the Continent, where she would immediately be the focus of an attempt to invade England to put her on the throne.
Elizabeth had no choice but to imprison Mary. She was moved around from prison to prison and came to Staffordshire because one of her prisons was Tutbury castle. She was allowed out under armed guard for exercise, and was particularly fond of horse riding. The main attraction of being allowed out of Tutbury was to get away from the privies, which stank so much they could be smelt half a mile away. Meanwhile the Spanish were preparing their Armada invasion which if successful could put her on the throne.
Elizabeth neither wanted to execute her nor have her die in captivity. Tutbury was not healthy and as Mary’s health was poor, a more salubrious place was sought. And this was to be found in Stafford Borough, remote in the C16th but with strong links to the court despite much evidence of inhabitants with surviving Catholic sympathies.
Her jailer, Amyas Paulat, approached Sir John Aston, who owned Tixall Hall. However despite the pride and status which led him to build the still surviving Gate House – his house as such was demolished in 1927 – Aston was a magistrate and did not want to turn his house into Mary’s jail. However there was a smaller but still suitable moated house at Stowe by Chartley. Paulat therefore decided to move Mary from Tutbury, ten miles East of Uttoxeter, to the house next to the castle of Stowe by Chartley ten miles west of Uttoxeter. And so she arrived in Stafford Borough.
STOWE BY CHARTLEY
Mary’s new prison was not the castle itself, which had long been a ruined mediaeval relic. The moated manor was on the site of what is still called Chartley Hall, in the grounds of the castle and built by the owners after the castle was abandoned. The current house is the third to be built on the site but it has abandoned the moat which made the House an ideal prison. It was co-incidentally one of the romantic houses in Elizabethan England.
The house was well known within the court of Elizabeth 1, being one of the homes of Walter Devereux, first Earl of Essex who married Lettice Knollys and in 1565 saw his son born to become his heir. The seond Earl of Essex inherited the property from his father on the latters death in 1576 when he was eleven years old. Two years later his mother married the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Dudley and was clearly an attractive woman. But nowhere near as attractive as her daughter Penelope. Penelope was born around 1562, three years before her brother the second Earl, and was to have a truly amazing love life.
A year before the first Earl died, Elizabeth visited the House on one of her tours round the country. Legend has it that one of the members of the Party was Sir Robert Sidney, who met the thirteen year old Penelope, fell in love with her, and made her his muse. There is no doubt Penelope become the subject of the second greatest sonnet sequence of the Elizabethan age, Astrophil and Stella, (ie Starlove and Star). Like Petrarch’s Laura sequence this was about unrequited love. Stella or Penelope went on to have an astonishing series of liasons, but Sir Philip Sidney never requited his love for her. What happened in Chartley stayed in Chartley.
Thus Mary came to be imprisoned in Essex’s house because of the accident that the second Earl was in charge at Stowe and after his presentation at Court in 1585, he was amenable to allowing his Chartley home to be used as a prison. Already a favourite of the Queen (he would become master of the Queen’s horses in 1587) he was starting the rise to fame which would lead him to have his head cut off in 1601, but that too is another story. The point is that on Christmas Eve 1585 the sick and controversial Mary arrived at Stowe-by-Chartely for imprisonment in Chartley Hall.
At this time the latest conspiracy involving her was being mooted, the Babington Plot, What Mary did not know was that the spymaster Walsingham was reading all her letters, and when she finally wrote down her agreement to have Elizabeth assassinated, Walsingham could at last overcome Elizabeth’s reluctance to take action against Mary. And finally she came to her closest point to the town of Stafford.
In |August 1586 Walsingham ordered Paulet to take her hunting, while leading members of her household were arrested and her papers searched. Thus on 11th August she was hunting near Tixall when she was finally taken into custody and imprisoned at Tixall, Sir John Aston being the Sherriff of the County having no choice but to allow this. She was at Tixall for two weeks before being taken back to Chartley and then to Fotheringay for her trial and execution.
Nothing much ever happens in Stafford. But at least the violent and conspiratorial web of intrigue arround Mary Queen of Scots did have a Staffordian tinge – she did at least spend some time in Tixall.
Trevor Fisher 23 4 13
First read at the Staffordshire Knot Story Telling Club 23 4 13
© Trevor Fisher 3/2013