Scarborough’s link with Thomas Becket

St Thomas Street
St Thomas Street
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by Dr Jack Binns

The atrocious murder of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, in his own cathedral on December 29, 1170, was a crime that shocked the whole of western Christendom, from Iceland to Sicily, and had consequences even in Scarborough.

Becket was born in Cheapside, London, in 1118, the son of wealthy Norman parents.

Though neither well-versed in Latin nor an ordained priest, he climbed the steep ladder of promotion with remarkable speed. Recognising his exceptional ability, the new king Henry II made him his chancellor in 1155 and seven years later arranged his election to the primate’s see at Canterbury.

However, much to Henry’s disappointment, frustration and, eventually, anger, in his new role Thomas became a stubbornly uncompromising champion of the privileges of the church against the claims of the state; or, as Becket himself put it, from being “a patron of play-actors and a follower of hounds” he had become a devoted and devout “shepherd of souls”.

The quarrel between archbishop and king came to a fatal head at Christmas 1170. After Henry had railed noisily against “a low-born clerk” who had treated him with contempt, four of his court barons took him at his word, hurried across the Channel, and butchered Becket.

Henry disclaimed direct responsibility, but in response to universal howls of outrage, the most powerful monarch in western Europe in penance walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury, allowed himself to be whipped by the monks of Christ Church and spent the whole night in prayer before Becket’s tomb. The four murderers took temporary refuge in Knaresborough castle and for their sacrilege were sent to Palestine as crusaders.

As early as 1173, Pope Alexander III canonised Becket as a martyred saint. All over Christian Europe, churches, chapels, abbeys and altars were named in his honour. His shrine in Canterbury cathedral became a place of pilgrimage surpassed in popularity only by that of St James of Compostella and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Though there is no surviving historical record of the foundation and dedication of the chapel of St Thomas at Scarborough, all the authorities on the town’s history, from Thomas Hinderwell in 1798 to Trevor Pearson in 2009, have assumed that the Thomas in question was the martyred saint of Canterbury and not the Apostle Thomas. The assumption also prevails that, soon after the pope’s canonisation, St Thomas’ was built as a chapel dependent on the parish church of St Mary.

However, more than 80 years ago, the author of the relevant chapter in Rowntree’s celebrated work described the medieval history of St Thomas’ chapel as “a blank”. Apart from scattered references in property deeds to its location and to its fabric funds in 
wills, the chapel of St Thomas does not emerge from “the dark age” until the Reformation.

Not so the hospital of St Thomas which stood just to the north of the chapel inside the Newborough bank and ditch. The hospital was built for the poor and infirm and paid for by the bailiffs and burgesses who chose its master and selected its inmates. Ultimately, it was one of at least half a dozen other religious almshouses in the borough, all dedicated to saints such as Nicholas, James, Stephen, Mary and Our Lady in Paradise, which gave conditional refuge to the poorest in the parish.

For their shelter and sustenance the residents of St Thomas’ poorhouse were required to lead honest, chaste and devotional lives. The first bell of the day rang 
at six in the morning when they were called to prayer and the last at six in the evening when Vespers were celebrated.

Unlike all the other Scarborough almshouses, the hospital of St Thomas survived the Reformation because it was generously endowed with substantial property and in the care of the borough authority. The fields of St Thomas were 20 acres of pasture and arable “on the nether side of the way leading to Seamer”, where during the 1920s Scarborough Council chose to build its first housing estate and call it Edgehill. Also previously known as Marr (Mere) closes because they were on the west side of Scarborough Mere, they brought a regular rental income to the hospital.

Re-built, enlarged and improved in 1575, the hospital of St Thomas continued to provide private accommodation and a small annual pension for Scarborough’s elderly and invalid until it was finally demolished in 1860. Earlier, Hinderwell had described it as “a poor low building” on the other side of the Ropewalk (now North Street) from the workhouse yard, “formerly the burial ground of St Thomas’ church”. A bell was still rung at six in the morning and six in the evening, but it was no longer a summons to prayer.

In 1862 a new hospital was opened by the borough in Hoxton Road at a cost of £400: it provided two-room apartments for only 13 inmates. Finally, in 1955, the Victorian almshouse was knocked down and replaced by a dozen modern flats, now the only contemporary reminder of a medieval religious charity founded in the name of St Thomas.

Otherwise, St Thomas of Canterbury survives in Scarborough only as the name of a street. The medieval St Thomas gate became St Thomas Street and then in the eighteenth century it was re-named Tanner Street. Like Cook’s Row and Merchants’ Row previously, it was virtually monopolised by those engaged in a particular occupation, but by the 1850s it had reverted to St Thomas Street. Finally, what was once St Thomas Walk, a row of Victorian houses, which followed the curve of the Newborough ditch, for centuries known as New Dyke Bank, is now the site of North street car park.