Written by Dr Jack Binns
If, during the 1620s and 1630s, Catholicism had been eliminated in most Yorkshire parishes and driven into hiding in gentry country houses and remote, isolated places like Eskdale, Protestants had begun to quarrel amongst themselves.
As early as 1626, the appointment of John Cosin as archdeacon of the East Riding marked the start of yet another shift of direction in the zig-zag path of the established Anglican church in Scarborough. Cosin was soon to be known, feared and detested as “the scourge of Puritans”.
Almost immediately, Scarborough’s four churchwardens were faced with a long list of searching questions and peremptory orders designed to restore discipline and reverence to clergy and parishioners. Vicars must be exemplars of godliness and virtue; they should not frequent alehouses, common bowling alleys “or other lewd places”; they should not gamble, fornicate or give themselves up to “base or servile labour”. Inside the church they must wear a clean surplice, deliver the sacrament to kneeling communicants, make the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead at baptism, and always keep strictly to the Book of Common Prayer.
Cosin described the Church of England as “Christ’s Holy Catholic Church” and condemned the “superstitious and gross errors” of Papists and Puritans alike. What impact his new regime had on St Mary’s is not certain, but after the death of Timothy Taylor its Puritan vicar in 1630 his successor, William Simpson, would have been more acceptable to the archdeacon.
Attacks on Puritan clergy and Puritan practice intensified from February 1632 after the appointment as archbishop of York of Richard Neile. He was to become the chief Northern instrument of the reform movement within the established church led by archbishop William Laud, who took over the Canterbury see in 1633.
Their purpose was to “purify” the church by beautifying its building, giving greater importance to sacraments and less to preaching, separating priests from parishioners with altar rails and returning altars to chancels. Within a year, Neile’s visitors had inspected Scarborough’s parish church and found it wanting.
They reported that the fabric of St Mary’s suffered from serious, long-term neglect: its “timber, lead, glasse, roofe and workmanship” were all “in decay”. Stephen Thompson, gentleman, the lay rector, was chastised for “suffring the chancell to be in decay in the roof thereof and glass, some of the windows being walled up”. Nothing was noted about Simpson’s conduct, but the visitors wrote that his church lacked “a book of homilies, a poore man’s box and a booke for the names of straige preachers” and it was “not beautiful with sentences of scripture”.
As for the behaviour of St Mary’s parishioners, the visitors were also less than pleased with what they were told. Edward and Jane Hickson had been unable to wait until they were married; John Newton had fornicated with a woman who had since died; and Robert Fysh, gentleman, was cited for “solliciting the chastity of Frances Bolton, servant to William Batty, as the fame goeth”.
John Wolfe was the only named recusant and John Taylor had been teaching school without the archbishop’s licence.
Misconduct of both men and women inside St Mary’s during divine service seems to have been common. Mirabella Thompson and Maria Matthew had disturbed the congregation with their quarrelling; Catherine Fysh and Elizabeth Batty were accused of “undecent behaviour & talking together”; John Garrett had kicked Aline Russell during one service; and Edward Hodgson had struck Thomas Hinde during another.
One solution to the problem of “undecent behaviour” in church and checking attendance there was to have private, family-allotted pews; and in response to Neile’s visitation, by 1635 all of St Mary’s nave and its side aisles were filled with about 250 wooden pews, each with doors, seats and desks. For centuries there had been no seating for the laity in the parish church, only benches for the elderly and infirm and for scholars from the grammar school. Now, for those who could afford their rents, there were places for about half the town’s population.
Such a radical reform of furnishing might have satisfied the archbishop, yet it also pleased Puritans like Sir Thomas Hoby. For them, sermons mattered more than sacraments and preaching pulpits more than communion tables, so that putting vicar Simpson’s pulpit in the midst of his seated parishioners would have been counted as a major improvement towards “godliness”.
Now also there was no further need of St Mary’s chancel. The high altar at the far eastern end had been brought forward westwards into the crossing. Lofts lately built there and stalls once used by Bridlington’s Black Canons were dismantled and sold off.
Most of this work was done “with all speed” by six carpenters employed 12 hours a day and paid weekly by the Bailiffs. Initially, the cost was raised by borrowing from the 44 members of the Common Hall according to their status in the three Twelves, using the rents from town land leases and £20 taken from “the pier money”. Whereas once the churches of St Sepulchre and St Thomas had lost their lead roofs and furnishings to pay for pier repairs, now the cash and priorities were running in the opposite direction.
Still, St Mary’s belated “reformation” in 1635 was more Puritan and Protestant than Laudian. There was to be no railed-off altar in the eastern chancel, no physical distancing between clergy and laity and more, not less, preaching. Though, as a non-resident, Sir Thomas Hoby was not entitled to one of the new pews, he would have been happier than the archbishops with St Mary’s new look.