Exhibit of the Week: Scarborough Castle 1668 painting

Scarborough Castle 1668 panel in the Scarborough Collections.
Scarborough Castle 1668 panel in the Scarborough Collections.

There isn’t a huge amount to say about the actual painting that is this week’s exhibit from the Scarborough Collections.

It’s a panel, not quite a perfect diamond, oils on canvas, and attributed to the Flemish school.

It depicts Scarborough Castle from the sea, and it looks intact, not the ruined structure we know today – suggesting some artistic licence, given that the keep, particularly, took quite a pounding during the English Civil War some 40 years earlier (both the keep and the curtain walls were further extensively damaged during the German bombardment of the town in 1914).

One thing, though, about which there can be no speculation is when it was painted – the date 1668 is emblazoned boldly at the top, century and decade separated by a golden sun.

The date places the painting and the castle as it might have looked then at the end of a particularly turbulent century in its history.

As already mentioned, the nine-year-long English Civil War had ended in 1651 – and the castle had its own not insignificant part to play in that conflict. At its outbreak in 1642, the castle was put into the hands of Parliamentarian Sir Hugh Cholmley, who was born in Thornton-le-Dale.

A year later Sir Hugh switched sides and soon became an irritating thorn in the side of his former comrades – although the only Royalist commander in the area, he established the town as a stronghold where Royalist ships could find safe haven to bring in imported arms for their troops.

In February 1645, the Parliamentarians, under the command of Sir John Meldrum, took the town, but Sir Hugh and his men retreated to the castle, and the five-month Great Siege of Scarborough Castle, one of the bloodiest of the war, began: Sir John established a position in the ground of St Mary’s Church from where he used the country’s largest cannon, the ‘Cannon Royal’ to attack the castle with cannonballs weighing up to 60lb each.

By July – and now under the command of Sir Matthew Boynton, Meldrum having met his end in May – the Parliamentarians had killed at least half of Cholmley’s original 500 men, and those that were left were in increasingly ill health due to scurvy and lack of food and water. Cholmley surrendered, and was exiled to Holland – and Scarborough Castle came under the command of Cromwell’s men, although it was to switch sides again in 1648, resulting in a second, smaller, siege.

The castle was to play a less bloody but equally uncivilised part in British history just two years prior to our painting. By 1665 the country was back in royal hands – the brief period of Cromwell’s Protectorate had ended in 1659, and Charles II was on the throne.

George Fox was one of the founders of the Society of Friends, known to us now more commonly as the Quakers, in the middle of the 17th century. Although the Friends were treated with at best suspicion and at worst extreme cruelty by many Parliamentarians, Fox himself seems to have established a relationship of some warmth with Cromwell, which can hardly have endeared him to Charles.

Scarborough Castle was at this point being used as a prison, and between April 1665 and September 1666, Fox was held there, one of many periods of incarceration at prisons around the country he endured throughout his adult life.

This one, though, seems to have been particularly harsh – in his journal, Fox recorded: “[My] room was to the sea-side; and since it was lying much open, the wind drove in the rain forcibly so that the water came over my bed, and ran about the room… And when my clothes were wet, I had no fire to dry them; so my body was numbed with cold, and my fingers swelled, so that one grew as big as two.”

Scarborough Castle 1668 is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.