by Dr Jack Binns
In March 1539, Richard Ingworth, bishop of Dover, arrived in Scarborough to receive the surrender of the town’s three houses of friars. He did not stay long. On March 9 he dissolved the Franciscan priory of the Friars Minor and the Carmelite priory of the White Friars and the following day performed the same service for the Crown at the Dominican house of the Friars Preachers.
Ever since the collapse of the Pilgrimage of Grace more than two years earlier and the execution of its ring leaders and many priests, monks and friars who had given support to this protest demonstration, all the country’s religious houses were threatened with closure and their inmates with expulsion. Richard Ingworth had been expected.
Unlike Whitby, overlooked, dominated and virtually owned by the great abbey of Benedictines on the east cliff or Bridlington, which was overawed by its Augustinian Black Canons, Scarborough had been spared the powerful presence of a house of monks. The suppression of Bridlington priory meant only that, after a century under the canons, St Mary’s parish church passed to the Crown which from now on collected the profits of the rectory of about £40 a year and appointed its vicar.
Henry’s permanent breach with Rome and the suppression of some 500 monasteries, 186 friaries and 136 nunneries accommodating and sustaining nearly 10,000 men and women had a profound and lasting impact on the nation of three and a half million people, but in Scarborough the consequences were at first superficial rather than long-term.
Henry detested Lutherans and Anabaptists, and was proud to retain the title of Defender of the Faith, given to him by a previous pope. Contrary to the popular assumption, he was never a Protestant. During his later reign, Roman Catholics, such as Sir Thomas More, were executed as traitors, but Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy.
Therefore, since as yet there had been no fundamental changes in Christian doctrine or ritual, Scarborough’s parishioners would not have noticed much difference in church services between the 1530s and the 1540s.
Nor was Scarborough much affected by the closure of Yorkshire’s 23 nunneries, all of which were small, enclosed communities and, compared with some of the great, land-owning abbeys, very poor. For instance, there were only 14 nuns and sisters at Wykeham with a yearly income of only a pound per head and at Yedingham ten ladies lived on only £22 a year. Their closure and dispersal had minimal impact.
Not so that of the friars. Unlike the nuns and many of the monks, the friars had led active religious and charitable lives outside their precinct walls and in a community as small as Scarborough’s their influence was evident in many ways. Their churches provided sanctuary, chantries and cemeteries for the dead; they alone gave sermons at market crosses as well as indoors; in return for bequests, they said masses and administered sacraments; and above all, their lives of austere poverty, abstinence and exemplary devotion were in sharp contrast to the comfort, riches and corruption characteristic of declining monastic orders.
No one accused the Scarborough brothers of self-indulgence or immorality, charges levelled fairly against some Yorkshire houses of monks. All three priories at Scarborough had already sold the wooden screens and stalls in their churches before Ingworth arrived, so that only the stone, glass and lead remained. Their chalices were described by the auditor as “poor”. Their only possession of any value was their roof lead, 40 fothers (about 40 tons) “meetly good” and their church bells.
As for their rental incomes, they were even poorer than the nuns of Wykeham or Yedingham. The Franciscans held land that raised only five shillings and fourpence a year in rent; the Carmelites, ten shillings; and the Dominicans, fifteen shillings and four pence. In advance of the worst, the Grey Friars had already let out their extensive gardens, orchards and flower gardens in July 1538 for 83 years, and similar arrangements had been made by the Black and White Friars for the shorter period of 61 years.
What happened to the friars? Monks and nuns were awarded pensions, some of them surprisingly generous. The last abbot at Whitby, Henry Davell, received 100 marks (£66 13s. 4d.), spent his retirement in the abbey’s former manor at Fyling Old Hall, which he had wisely leased to a kinsman, and died in 1552 at Hackness, a former Benedictine cell.
There were no pensions or retirement homes for friars, but their record and reputation meant that some were soon offered livings as parish priests. The last prior of the Scarborough Dominicans, John Newton, was first vicar at Hutton Buscel and then rector at Walkington until his death in 1576. Even John Borrowby, last prior of the Scarborough Carmelites, was given a curacy in the town and later a vicarage at Cherry Burton.
The only “black sheep” recorded was Richard Wilson, a Friar Minor, who in a defamation case was described as “false priest, lewd priest, naughty priest, drunken priest” and “the falsest priest that ever came to Scarborough”. There are always exceptions.
During these critical times, there is a gap in the history of the vicarage of St Mary’s church. The last vicar to be appointed by Bridlington’s prior in 1536 was William Brabyn and the first vicar to be chosen by the Crown in 1559 was Henry Langdale. Between them is the name of Sir William Newton, born about 1516. Was this the same William Newton, a brother charged with self-abuse in 1536, the rector of Burythorpe in 1540, accused of misconduct with a married woman in 1546 and vicar until his death in 1558?
Blackfriargate has long since given way to Queen Street and Greyfriargate to Globe Street, but ghosts of the friars still frequent Friars’ Gardens and Friars’ Way and the corridors of Friarage school. Some Scarborians have said that their bells can still be heard if you listen carefully enough.