THE DAY after the king was killed on the battlefield at Bosworth in Leicestershire, on August 23 1485, York council recorded its dismay that Richard III had been “pitiously slane and murdered to the grete hevynesse of this Cittie.”
York’s reaction to this baleful news was probably much the same in Scarborough. Like York, Scarborough’s long economic decay and demographic decline since the Black Death seemed to be at an end once Richard had become king only two years earlier. As with York, so with Scarborough, Richard’s patronage and royal protection had promised a most welcome revival. Just as York’s councillors described him as “the most special of their good lords,” in his charter to Scarborough of April 1485 Richard had declared his ‘special affection’ for the town.
So what did Richard do for Scarborough and Scarborough for Richard?
Long before he was crowned king in July 1483 Richard already had a close association and familiarity with the town. Nearly ten years earlier, from his elder brother Edward IV, as the duke of Gloucester he had acquired the lordship of the borough and neighbouring Falsgrave, the royal castle at Scarborough and the manor of Northstead. Soon afterwards, to these he added the derelict manor of Hatterboard out of his brother’s duchy of Lancaster estate. From then on, Northstead and Hatterboard, on Scarborough’s north boundary beyond Peasholm beck, were counted as one united, royal manor of nearly 500 acres.
Yet Richard’s interest in Scarborough was mainly maritime rather than territorial. As Lord High Admiral and later king he was concerned to develop the harbour with its Yorkshire hinterland into a secure anchorage for ships of all kinds, warships, fishing boats, merchantmen and privateers.
The many orders that he issued during his final visits to Scarborough in May, June and July 1484 give a clear indication of how and why he valued its port. From there supplies of wheat, beer, fish and meat all collected in Yorkshire were sent by sea to the English garrison besieged by the Scots at Dunbar and to that at Calais, the kingdom’s lookout and outpost on the continent.
It was also at Scarborough that Richard stationed and provisioned his war fleet for operations against Scottish ships. Whether he took personal command of his fighting ships to inflict defeat on the Scots is not certain, but one source attributed the victory at sea to Richard’s ‘own skill.’
And thirdly, it was from Scarborough that Richard sent out his armed vessels to guard convoys of English fishing boats returning with their catches from Iceland waters.
Accordingly, Richard did all he could during the short time allowed to strengthen Scarborough’s port against both Scots and storms. He ordered 300 oak trees from Pickering’s royal forest to be used to buttress the quay on Sandside and built a ‘bulwark’ on the shore which might have been a pier or a fort, the surviving evidence is inconclusive.
As for Scarborough’s land defences, Richard re-built and re-inforced the two town gateways at Newborough and Oldborough Bars and began to construct a wall of squared stone between them. Whether this wall was strong enough to withstand contemporary artillery seems unlikely, but in the event it was never completed. At the time of Richard’s death a gap of earth rampart and ditch still remained in a crescent running across what is today North Street car park. For centuries afterwards the rampart was called New Dyke Bank.
Unfortunately, only a short length of Richard’s town wall has survived, though at least it now carries a Civic Society blue plaque to identify it.
If Richard had not been killed at Bosworth and the usurper Henry Tudor taken his crown, Scarborough would have had a very different and more promising future. His royal charter of 1485, which Henry VII subsequently refused to endorse, would have transformed the borough’s status and self-government. Scarborough would have become a county with its own sheriff, its seaport no longer subordinate to Hull, and its new office of mayor with the additional, grand title of admiral responsible for the whole coast of north-east Yorkshire. Scarborough would have enjoyed the profits of a monopoly of wool exports between Teesmouth and Filey at a time when north Yorkshire supported far many more sheep than people.
Finally, whereas previous monarchs had increased Scarborough’s ‘rent’ to the crown in return for their grants of privilege, Richard actually reduced it from £91 to £81 a year. He insisted only that £42 11s of the sum should go to King’s Hall at Cambridge and more than 500 years later the Town Hall still pays Trinity College, its successor, £42.55 every year.
After Richard’s untimely departure, Scarborough’s decline continued and accelerated. The old Common Hall regime on Sandside was restored and the quay rotted. Eventually, the town and port were rescued a century later, first by the sea-coal coastal trade and then later still by spa waters.
No English monarch visited Scarborough again until 500 years later Queen Elizabeth II passed through it on her way to her duchy of Lancaster estate. The popular vision of Richard III is still strongly shaped by Shakespeare’s demonisation of a cruel murderer, but he was the best royal friend Scarborough has ever had.