Nostalgia: ‘A great, uplandish town’

Reading of the Seamer charter at the annual horse fair which takes place in July.
Reading of the Seamer charter at the annual horse fair which takes place in July.

In his 1811 guide to the history and antiquities of the vicinity of Scarborough, Thomas Hinderwell could find little of interest to write about Seamer and even less that was accurate.

Like all accounts of Seamer, he began his with a footnote quoting the reference to it in John Leland’s Itinerary, describing his journey through the village in 1544. According to Leland’s observation, Seamer was then “a great uplandish town, having a large lake on the south-west side of it, whence the town taketh name.” What precisely Leland meant by “uplandish” is disputed, but he was right about the “lake” and derivation of Seamer’s place-name, though by that time Seamer Mere, a relic of the last ice age, was shrinking: by 1735 it was said to be only 24 acres in area and “worth little”.

Leland was not favourably impressed by what he saw at Seamer. The parish church, dedicated to St Martin of Tours, he described as “mean”, by which he meant modest or neglected, and “the manor house of the Percys at the west end of the church-yard” was “large but not a rich building”. Only the chapel there was “well built”.

What John Leland witnessed was at the end of an era: as recently as 1542, the last of the Percy family, the dowager countess Catherine, had died there in the manor house. She was the last of a family who had been lords of the manor of Seamer since soon after the Norman conquest. Time and time again, as latterly the earls of Northumberland, they had rebelled against the Crown. Some had died in battle, some had been assassinated and several had been executed by royal command, but for nearly 500 years, Seamer had been one of their most valued lordships in Yorkshire.

All that remain today of the Percy’s medieval manor house are a 12-metre stone wall pierced by a doorway, massive wall footings and many intriguing mounds. The site deserves a thorough, professional examination.

Apart from these stone fragments, the Percys left one other permanent reminder of their long presence at Seamer - the annual fair. In 1377, Sir Henry Percy was created earl of Northumberland for services to the kingdom and, five years later, as reward for his part in suppressing a riot in Scarborough, Richard II granted him the right to hold a weekly Monday market and an annual eight-day fair at Seamer. Scarborough had already forced the closure of markets at Filey, Sherburn and Brompton and Seamer’s seems to have soon suffered the same fate. But the annual fair, held early in July, at the time of St Martin’s feast, has survived almost continuously to this day. On the king’s highway and placed conveniently between Wolds and Moors in the Vale of Pickering, Seamer was ideally situated to attract traders of all kinds.

After the Percys, Seamer reverted to the Crown. Then, in 1558, Queen Elizabeth gave the manor and lordship to Sir Henry Gate, a reliable Protestant in a still strongly Catholic district. Two years later, he acquired the rectory of St Martin’s together with the chapels at Cayton and East Ayton. Confident of his backing, Sir Henry then tried to exploit the commercial decline of Scarborough by restoring the weekly market at Seamer.

From 1577 until 1612 a commercial war to the death was waged between the Gates at Seamer and Scarborough’s ruling body, the Common Hall on Sandside. At one point, when William Fysh, a leading Scarborough merchant, set up a shop at Seamer, it seemed that the Gates were winning. Scarborough retaliated by imposing a penalty fine of £3 6s 8d on any inhabitant who dared to go to Seamer on a Monday and all 44 members of the Common Hall were required to swear that Seamer market was “a great hyndrance to the towne of Scardburgh”. Sir Henry’s response was to arrange for a petition, endorsed by at least 31 of the villages in the area, from Wilton, Ebberston and Snainton in the west to as far south as Cranswick, in favour of the maintenance of his market. After his death in 1588, his son and heir, Edward, continued the struggle.

Yet it is clear from Scarborough’s many complaints that its grievances against Seamer went much further than the Monday market. The Gates were accused of forcing entry to Falsgrave Moor where it was alleged that Scarborough had prior grazing rights. Worse still, it was also contended that Seamer men had altered the course of Edgehill Beck which was the main source of supply to Scarborough Mere. The result of this breach of boundaries was that the corn mills in Ramsdale could grind only half of what they had done previously. In 1584 there had been a violent confrontation between the two sides on the disputed boundary between Falsgrave and Seamer Moors at Oxcliff.

The dispute dragged on relentlessly. Without verdict or final conclusion it was referred to the Exchequer, the court of Queen’s Bench, the Privy Council, the Council in the North at York and a jury of North Riding gentry which met at Hutton Buscel. In 1599, Edward’s sister, Lady Gate, argued Seamer’s case in a letter to Robert Cecil, the Queen’s principal secretary. Seamer’s Monday market, she wrote, did not compete with Scarborough’s on Thursdays and Saturdays. Unlike Scarborough, Seamer was a natural meeting place for the people of Blackamore (North York Moors) from the north who needed corn and those of Yorkswold (Yorkshire Wolds) from the south who produced it in surplus, but wanted “ploughs, carts, wains and other such necessities for husbandry” in exchange. In contrast, Scarborough was difficult to reach from inland “as almost no horse with burden in winter can pass without danger”. Finally, she reminded Sir Robert that her brother’s eldest son, Henry Gate, as heir to the lordship of Seamer, had exclusive hereditary right by royal charter to hold a market there.

But the odds were always in favour of Scarborough which, at its own expense, provided a harbour of safe refuge, paid £91 a year to the Crown for its privileges, had two representatives in the House of Commons, and had ten times the population and resources of Seamer.

Finally, at great legal costs, Scarborough won and ended what had been the most prosperous period in Seamer’s history. Where once there had been only two alehouses in the village, by the 1590s there were 16, some of them inns offering bed and board. And this protracted duel effectively bankrupted the Gates who were compelled to sell their manor and lordship. Seamer was to remain a rural village and not become a country town.

(to be continued)