‘Bad’ King John

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IS IT only a coincidence that England’s two most infamous medieval kings, John (1199-1216) and Richard III (1483-5), were also Scarborough’s most illustrious and greatest benefactors? Whatever their ill-repute in national memory, these two monarchs made a significant and lasting contribution to the town’s historical importance.

The more historians and archaeologists learn about the reign of King John, and in particular his close association with Scarborough, the larger appears our debt to him.

From his first visit to Scarborough as its earliest royalist resident in February 1201, to his last, just 15 years later, John stays in his castle four times. Though he never slept more than two nights there on each occasion, this was no adverse comment on the castle’s accommodation. Rarely was he in any one place more than a few days and during and after every visit to Scarborough he ordered further improvement and enlargement to its defences and services.

In the 10 years between 1159 and 1169, John’s father, Henry II, had spent nearly £700 on the castle, most of it on the construction of the great tower or keep. When annual royal income was then only about £10,000, this was a colossal sum to invest in one building.

During a reign of 10 years from 1189 until 1199, John’s elder brother, Richard Lionheart, was in England only twice, once to be crowned and then later after his release from imprisonment in 1194. As far as Scarborough was concerned, he was worse than an absentee: the burgesses of the town would have been altogether better off without him. He had given the fish tithe revenues of St Mary’s church to the foreign religious house of Citeaux and in 1195 the borough had to find £100 to pay for his ransom. John’s succession in 1199 was probably greeted with relief.

If Henry’s treasury had doled out a small fortune on Scarborough castle, on it John spent nearly £3,000, almost four times as much. Henry’s tower is still the most familiar feature of the headland castle, but John’s curtain wall, though less conspicuous, is even more impressive.

Next time you look down Westborough and up to the sky-line from the keep to the sea-cliff think of ‘bad’ King John. Forget about Magna Carta and rebellious barons and marvel at these massive, buttressed walls of sandstone and limestone with their 11 interval towers. They have stood there for 800 years.

Originally there was a 12th tower called Cockhill overlooking South Steel where George Fox was incarcerated, but it collapsed after the cliff crumbled away after 1745.

The walls have been repeatedly bombarded in several sieges and were much damaged by German shells in 1914, yet essentially they are still John’s works.

Less well preserved are John’s three halls or chamber blocks which he had built within the shelter of these new walls. King’s Hall in the outer ward was not discovered until 1888 and not fully revealed until 1973; a second hall, against the inner bailey wall, has almost entirely gone; but Mosdale Hall, though it received several direct hits in 1914, has survived because it was partly rebuilt in brick as a military barracks in 1746. John liked his comforts as well as his security.

John put the highest value on Scarborough castle because it was a key outpost of royal power in the midst of a rebellious Yorkshire. Of the 25 barons who forced him to seal Magna Carta in 1215, at least five of them, Vesci, Mowbray, Ros, Bruce and Percy, were local lords with their own private castles. Almost alone and isolated, the king’s loyal governor at Scarborough, Geoffrey de Neville, well provisioned with a garrison of nearly 100 soldiers, was too strong even to be attacked.

Also, unlike his other royal stronghold, Pickering castle, Scarborough’s overlooked and protected John’s fleet of galley warships based in the harbour. John was the first monarch to appreciate Scarborough’s potential as a naval refuge for fighting ships as well as fishing boats.

John’s splendid new castle at Scarborough might have been a mixed blessing for the burgesses who lived under its shadow, yet there is no doubt that the infant town profited in the long run from his grant to it of 60 acres of the royal manor of Falsgrave. Though they had to pay heavily for them in increased taxation, the arable fields and pastures gained now provided Scarborians with all of their land food. Not least of their gains were three water mills in Ramsdale and access to the extensive grazing of Weaponness (Oliver’s Mount).

John’s purpose was mainly to raise ready cash. Nevertheless, his grant was a major step in the long process by which Scarborough, once merely a parcel of royal Falsgrave, gradually spread further and further inland. Starting life as a trespasser, it became the landlord.

Having made Scarborough’s into the most formidable royal fortress on England’s North-east coast, in effect, John committed his successors to invest in its future care and maintenance for the next three centuries. So in the beginning, Scarborough was the castle and the castle was Scarborough.

Finally, King John might have been responsible indirectly for an architectural anomaly which continues to puzzle historians. Why is there such a crude, irregular break in the design and style of the south arcade of St Mary’s nave? From the east, the third, fourth and fifth piers are all different from each other and unlike the first and second as well as all the others on the opposite north side. We know that the nave, like the castle curtain wall and towers, was built during the first two decades of the 13th century. Was the work there interrupted during the years between 1208 and 1214 when the Pope imposed an interdict on John’s kingdom? As a result of John’s stubborn refusal to accept the Pope’s choice of a new archbishop of Canterbury, for six years priests in England were forbidden to say mass, bury the dead, baptise babies or marry couples and all the churches were closed.