In the beginning

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Written by Dr Jack Binns

As, it seems, with everything else in Scarborough’s past, the origins of the town’s Christianity are to be found on the headland, long before there was a castle up there.

During the excavations undertaken by FG Simpson between 1919 and 1926 near the sea-cliff on the east side of the headland, remains of a Roman fortlet or signal-station were discovered. This station proved to be one of several running like a beaded necklace down the Yorkshire coast which had been found at Huntcliff and Goldsborough north of Whitby, at Peak (Ravenscar) and Filey on the Carr Naze. These warning outposts were part of a new shore-line defence system all built to the same pattern after 370AD, towards the end of the Roman occupation of Britain in 410.

We do not know what the Romans called each of these coastal stations, but Scarborough’s massive structure with perimeter walls nearly two metres thick and a central stone tower standing nearly 20 metres high so close to the cliff edge must have been a most prominent sight from land or sea for many centuries after it was abandoned. Its existence might well explain the meaning of “burgh”, a fortress or fortified place, in Scarborough’s later Anglo-Saxon name.

Within the foundations of the central beacon tower Simpson found what he thought was a later Christian chapel: a small, aisleless building with an oblong nave and a square-ended chancel. Though there is now general agreement that this chapel was re-built and extended in the 12th century, the date and purpose of the original structure are disputed. One suggestion, endorsed by English Heritage in one of its recent guides, that the first chapel was “associated with a Saxon monastery then situated on the headland”, has received little support. More generally accepted is the view that a Christian chapel on this conspicuous site would not have survived the murderous and marauding intentions of King Harald Hardrada when his Viking warriors pillaged the neighbourhood in 1066.

No one nowadays believes much of the tall, heroic stories written down much later as Scandinavian sagas; and there is yet no historical or archaeological evidence to suggest that in 1066 Scarborough was a populous town which Hardrada incinerated. However, at that time there certainly was a substantial community living inland at Falsgrave, a royal manor with jurisdiction (“soke”) of 21 smaller, scattered settlements from Staintondale to Filey and westwards as far as Ruston. If we discount the Anglo-Saxon minster church at Hackness, then it was in Falsgrave that our area had its earliest place of Christian worship, long before Scarborough existed.

One intriguing possibility is that Falsgrave’s pre-Conquest chapel was in Westbourne Park which in later centuries was called Chapel Close and that its dedication then or later was to St Clement, the early pope whose emblem is an anchor because it was believed that he had been tied to one and then thrown into the Black Sea. If so, Falsgrave was therefore the pastoral as well as the manorial capital of its extensive soke.

The royal manor and soke of “Walesgrif” (Falsgrave) are described in the Domesday survey of 1086, but there is no mention there of any settlement called Scarborough.

The foundation of the first headland castle and the tiny community that supported and sheltered under it were the work of William le Gros (the Fat), Count of Aumale, about 1135, early in the disorderly reign of Stephen. The count was entrusted by the king with the southern and eastern part of the soke of Falsgrave, so it was probably he who had a place of Christian worship built on the top of the shoulder of ground leading to his new castle and close to its only entrance.

In 1970 amateur excavations under the nave of St Mary’s church revealed an earlier building about 40ft long and 24ft wide, roughly half the length of the present nave but approximately equal to its width. These were probably the footing remains of Aumale’s simple aisleless church, built to serve the occupants of his motte and bailey, earth and timber castle, and his nascent township below it. That the church was sited just outside the headland castle, yet distantly inaccessible from the seashore down below it, indicates that Aumale’s purposes were mainly military and political, rather than civilian or commercial. For the last 900 years Christian worshippers at St Mary’s have had to pay an exhausting price for the Count’s priorities.

There is no reference to a parish church at Scarborough until 1189. By that year, Aumale had been displaced and his properties and possessions in the neighbourhood restored to the crown by Henry II, soon after the start of his reign in 1154. Then, between 1157 and 1169, Henry spent the colossal sum of £650 on the construction of “a large and magnificent castle”, consisting mostly of a tall, stone tower and “a great ditch”, which we know as the castle dykes.

About the same time, Henry founded two adjacent boroughs, the Old and the New, and to them he granted a royal charter of liberties modelled on that of York’s. So that within the space of a generation Scarborough had become a flourishing port, defended by walls and ditches, and populated by a rapidly growing number of merchants, tradesmen and seafaring fishermen and their families.

In these dynamic circumstances, it would have been surprising if Aumale’s little church had been anymore sufficient than his primitive wooden tower. When Richard Lionheart succeeded in 1189, Scarborough had a parish church dedicated to St Mary, already an imposing building to complement his father’s great castle.