Nostalgia: Impression of emptiness

John Speeds map of the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire 1610.
John Speeds map of the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire 1610.
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After all, everything is the past. The present is merely a fleeting moment; the future hasn’t yet happened and is unpredictable; only the past is real and substantial. It is within us and all around us; we are all its inescapable product. Whether we are aware of it or not, whether we like it or not, we are all what time and place have made us. If we have the misfortune to lose our personal memories, the disease is called dementia; there appears to be no word to describe the loss of community memory. As George Orwell explained in 1984, when the past is manipulated and distorted for political purposes, the result is tyranny. With these thoughts in mind, 400 years after the death of William Shakespeare, it seemed not entirely inappropriate to take a long look at how our predecessors here in Yorkshire lived, loved, worked, traded, suffered and died all those years ago.

If it is true that the past is a foreign country and that they do things differently there, to what extent are our ancestors strange or familiar to us? Would it be possible to communicate with people who were alive in Scarborough four centuries ago? Did they speak our language? What did they look like? What did they wear, eat and drink? How did they cook and shop? How did they keep warm and dry? How many of them could read and write? If they had any leisure, how did they spend it? How did they manage without gas and electricity? Did they believe in God and if so how and where did they worship? And many, many more questions to ask, their number depending on my life span and your endurance.

Portrait engraving of John Speed.

Portrait engraving of John Speed.

If transported back 400 years, our first impression of the country then would be its emptiness. Today we are concerned with the rapid growth of our population caused mainly by our ever-lengthening lives and the number and fertility of immigrants. According to recent official estimates, by 2024 our number is expected to grow to 65 million. In 1616, there were probably no more than four million inhabitants in England. So for everyone of them there are about 14 of us. They would be astonished and alarmed by our masses.

England, and especially northern England, was overwhelmingly rural and agricultural. By our standards, the only truly urban concentration was the 200,000 or so who lived in London. Only four other towns, Norwich, York, Bristol and Newcastle, could claim to have more than 10,000 and only 20 exceeded 5,000 residents. As one social historian of the time wrote: “England was a large rural hinterland attached to a vast metropolis [London] through a network of insignificant local centres.” Almost nine out of ten of Shakespeare’s contemporaries lived in small market towns, villages, hamlets and scattered farmsteads. Generally speaking, the further north in England, the wilder the country and the fewer its inhabitants. Enormous moorland and mountainous tracts in Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland and Durham were uncultivated and almost unoccupied. Of the six northern counties, Yorkshire was by far the most extensive and the most populated. Whereas Lancashire had 64 parishes in 1600, the three Ridings of Yorkshire had 459!

John Speed’s map of the North and East Ridings, dated 1610, shows a remarkable density of familiar place-names. Inland from Scarborough, it identifies not only Scauby (Scalby), Walgrave (Falsgrave), Burniston, Cloughton and Hackness, but even smaller communities at Newby, Throxenby, Yeveley (Everley), Langdale End, Silfy (Silpho), Suffield, Broxey (Broxa), Osgodby and Cayton.

Over time, spellings have changed and in a few cases, such as Everley, communities have shrunk, but it is fairly safe to assume that 400 years ago all these villages, with the certain exception of Falsgrave, were little more than clusters of farmsteads. Nevertheless, the continuity is striking. Speed’s map also identifies all the settlements known to us on both north and south sides of the Vale of Pickering. The discrepancies are minor: East and West Heslerton were formerly Heslerton Little and Heslerton Great; Hutton Buscel was only Hutton; Ayton was then only on the west bank of the Derwent; Semer (Seamer) then still had a mere; and Thornton-le-Dale today was two separate townships, Roxby and Thornton.

Despite frequent visitations of the Black Death and several outbreaks of fatal, infectious diseases, England’s population we know had actually grown from about three to just over four million between 1558 and 1603 during the reign of Elizabeth. So that the reported decline of Scarborough’s population throughout the Tudor century was therefore against the national trend.

In 1485, the death of Richard III, Scarborough’s best ever royal patron, was a severe blow. The Tudors were no friends of the town: they tore up the generous charter that Richard had given it. The dissolution of the monasteries and the borough’s three friaries, Franciscan, Dominican and Carmelite, had left empty and derelict properties in its heart. More seriously, Scarborough failed conspicuously to compete with its east-coast rivals, Lynn, Boston, Yarmouth and especially Hull, in both commerce and fishing. Whereas the great Yorkshire abbeys, Rievaulx, Byland, Fountains and Jervaulx, had once exported their fleeces to Flanders, through Scarborough, now the Dales wool was being woven in Halifax, Leeds and Bradford. Even the deep-sea fishing of herring and cod was now in the hooks and nets of Flemings and Hollanders.

So, by 1600, Scarborough was a decayed, depopulated borough, living on its richer past. Recently, it had only just managed, at great expense, to suppress the market competition of Seamer. It was now unable even to maintain its principal public buildings and its vital, protective harbour piers. The church of the Holy Sepulchre had been demolished to pay the costs and fill the holes in sea defences. The western towers of St Mary’s had not been restored after a gale blew them down and the “great chapelle” of St Thomas the Martyr had lost its roof lead and been reduced to a Thursday lecture hall. Where once Scarborough and Falsgrave were homes for 2,500, they now had scarcely more than 1,600 residents.