The murders at Seamer

Aerial view of Seamer

Aerial view of Seamer

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by Dr Jack Binns

At York, on September 21, 1549, Thomas Dale, John Dale, Robert Wright, William Peacock, (?) Wetherell and 
Edmund Buttrie were all hanged, drawn and quartered. All of them had been found guilty of high treason and murder and all were locals from such villages as Seamer, East Heslerton, Wintringham and Hunmanby.

At the York assizes they were charged with rebellion against “the King’s most godly proceeding in advancing and reforming the true honour of God and of religion”; of spreading false, malicious and treasonable prophecies that the king would be overthrown, noblemen and gentlemen 
destroyed and the country ruled by four governors 
elected by the commons; and of the foul murder of four innocent men at Seamer.

The four dead victims were Matthew White of Seamer, his wife’s brother called Clopton, a York merchant called Savage and Berry, a servant of Sir Walter Mildmay.

White was a chantry commissioner who for £1,294 had bought local chantry property, mainly in York, but also at East Ayton, Seamer and Osgodby. Sir Walter Mildmay was a “forward protestant”, subsequently Queen Elizabeth’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and founder of the Puritan Emmanuel College at Cambridge.

White had tried to escape on horseback from his house at Seamer, but the rebels caught him and then took all four “one mile from Semer towards the Wold”, butchered them and then stripped them of their clothes and purses. Their naked bodies were left “in the fields for crows to feed on”, until the wives of White and Savage brought them back to Seamer for burial.

In the words of Holinshead, the Elizabethan chronicler, “the principal doers and raisers up was (sic) William Ombler of Easthesserton, yeoman, and Thomas Dale, 
parish clerk of Semer, with one Stevenson of Seamer, neighbour to Dale and nephew to Ombler”. Stevenson had run messages between Ombler and Dale. At night they had set fire to the beacon on Staxton hill, normally lit only to warn the coastal community of the imminence of seaborne invasion, in the hope that they could gather together “a rude rout of rascals out of the towns near by”.

The clue to an explanation of this extraordinary atrocity is the occupation of Matthew White as a chantry commissioner.

Henry VIII had died in January 1547 and been succeeded by his nine-year-old son Edward VI. Henry had steadfastly and successfully resisted continental Protestantism. His preferred definition of the Christian faith and practice as set out in the Six Acts of 1539 reaffirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation, forbade clerical marriage and reasserted the validity of the sacraments of baptism, confession and masses for the souls of the dead. But the succession of Edward allowed the reformers further opportunity to denounce and denigrate Catholic beliefs and customs that were centuries old.

Of these the most vital was belief in purgatory and the value of prayers of the living for the souls of the deceased. There were probably as many as 4,000 chantries in England, each supporting at least one priest, some housed in parish churches, others in independent chantry chapels. From the early 1300s, when Reginald the Miller left a house in Burwellgate to support masses for the souls of his family, scarcely a year passed when a town will did not endow some “honest chaplain” to say daily mass for the dead. By 1400 St Mary’s had at least four purpose-built permanent chantries and there were two more in the nearby charnel chapel.

The Seamer Rising, as it is called, was only a very minor episode in a whole series of major, popular rebellions in 1549.

Almost every county in England south of the Trent was involved, though there was no cohesion in motive or organisation from area to area. Events in Dickering and Pickering Lythe were the most northerly and seem to have been driven solely by reaction to the forcible closure and sale of the chantries.

As for parish church services, these were crucial years when archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer replaced the Latin mass and became integral to public worship and the critical moments in life and death. His literary genius gave the English-speaking world words and phrases which once heard can never be forgotten, from “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part” to “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

It was one of the purposes of the reformers, such as Robert Holgate, archbishop of York, to have a better informed and more literate clergy. Now they were required to read the new English Bible, declared to be the only source of Christian truth, and to forbid all those “superstitious” practices such as pilgrimages and offering of money and candles to images, shrines, effigies and pictures.

St Mary’s now became an almost empty, white-washed lecture hall. The high stone altar in the chancel was abandoned in favour of a wooden table near the crossing; the chantry chapels were cleared of altars and images; the rood screen, separating cleric from laity, was demolished; the sepulchre covered or destroyed; and a poor box displaced the offertory tributes to saints. Scarborough’s vicar was obliged to shed his colourful vestments for a plain white surplice and flowers that once decorated the church such as roses at Corpus Christi, garlands at Ascension and holly and ivy at Christmas were no longer tolerated. Centuries-old rituals, such as candles at Candlemas, ashes on Ash Wednesday, veiling images during Lent, palms on Palm Sunday, creeping to the cross on Good Friday and ringing for the dead on All Saints’ Night, were now condemned as papist or pagan superstitions.

Even some of the semi-
religious rituals of the 
calendar, such as Plough Monday gatherings, community plays, pageants, processions, and church ales, seem to have died out at this time. No wonder that in 1552 a leading Catholic cleric deplored the end of “merry England”.