Persecution of Dissenters

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by Dr Jack Binns

St Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1662, was a day of profound and lasting importance in the history of English Protestantism. By that date Anglican bishops had been restored to the House of Lords and the House of Commons had voted that all MPs, parish priests, schoolmasters, municipal officials and university students and teachers from now on had to receive the sacrament according to the Prayer Book rite of the established church. So one of the major effects of the Act of Uniformity or the St Bartholomew’s Day “massacre” was to exclude nearly a thousand parish clergy from their livings, 155 of them in Yorkshire.

These were the ministers who could not accept the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the royal supremacy over the church or the need to be ordained by a bishop. In denominational terms, they were mainly Presbyterian, Baptist and Independent (Congregational), collectively they were from now on known as Dissenters.

Many of these Dissenters were Yorkshiremen who had served in the Parliamentary armies of Fairfax and Lambert and had been removed from their commissions and deprived of their pensions at the Restoration in 1660. Some ministers had actually been regimental chaplains during the Civil Wars. Such men now saw that all they had fought for and had believed in was denigrated and destroyed. During the late summer of 1663, therefore, several hundred of these disaffected Yorkshiremen assembled in the West and North Ridings to demand liberty of conscience and freedom from religious discrimination. But their “plot” was betrayed and pre-empted and 22 “traitors” were executed at York and Northallerton. This was the final act of Yorkshire’s Civil Wars and the start of even more severe persecution of non-Anglicans. Baptists, Presbyterians and Independents were now pursued and punished as mercilessly as Quakers.

A Conventicle Act of 1664 banned all religious services outside the Church of England and threatened offenders with fines, imprisonment or even transportation to the American colonies as indentured servants. The following year a Five Mile Act forbade Dissenter preachers from going within five miles of any corporate town, which in the North Riding included Richmond, Thirsk, Malton, Northallerton and Scarborough.

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that surviving records of Scarborough’s Dissenter population are rare and elusive. At first the transition from republic to monarchy was scarcely perceptible. Of the three new members of the First Twelve, two, Sir Jordan Crosland and William Wyvill of Osgodby, were Catholic royalists, but the other nine were all municipal veterans who had sat in the Common Hall under the Commonwealth. Further down the oligarchy, the continuity was even more evident and among the Corporation’s many officers, from town clerk, schoolmaster, mace-bearer, netherd, piermaster, bellman and warrener, there were no changes at all.

But it did not last: from 1662 onwards the local Anglican royalists displaced the old Commonwealth stalwarts. Into the Common Hall came active royalists such as Tristram Fysh, Francis Sollitt and Richard Bilbrough and out went the Harrisons, Nesfields and Fowlers. Tristram was elected bailiff as early as 1664 and again in 1670 and 1678. Sollitt and Bilbrough were newcomers who rose rapidly up the hierarchy in the 1660s and 1670s. Vintners now did well: both William Saunders and William Lawson each served as bailiffs three times during these two decades. Presumably, republican non-conformists like the Harrisons, Nesfields and Fowlers disqualified themselves from the Common Hall because they would not take the Anglican sacrament.

We know much more about Scarborough’s Quakers than its Dissenters during these years because their defiance of the law was bolder and more conspicuous and as a result they were the ones who came before the magistrates and went to prison for refusing to pay tithes or take oaths of allegiance to the Crown. Also, the Quakers kept detailed, accurate written records, whereas Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists during these hard times worshipped secretly and did not advertise their hostility to the established religious and political order.

Also, some Dissenters, though not Quakers, regarded themselves as true Anglicans and therefore continued to attend St Mary’s services if only to listen to sermons and not take communion.

Where reliable information about Yorkshire Dissenters has survived, it suggests that they were in significant numbers only in urban centres such as Leeds, Hull and Sheffield and the West Riding cloth-making parishes such as Halifax and Wakefield. In the East and North Ridings, they were concentrated only where land-owning country gentry families gave them protection and encouragement. There is no evidence that Scarborough yet had a resident preaching Dissenter or a safe Dissenter house being used as an illegal conventicle.

So St Mary’s retained its traditional status as the only place where Scarborians resorted for legal baptisms, confirmations, weddings and burials, partly out of necessity because there was no Christian alternative and partly because for the greatest majority the parish church was still a vital part of the social fabric.

However, during the 1680s, the religious issue that dominated national and local politics concerned the status of Roman Catholics more than that of Dissenter Protestants.