Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre

Archaeological dig off Springfield.
Archaeological dig off Springfield.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

In the year 306AD, Emperor Constantius I died at Eboracum (York), the Roman military headquarters of Lower Britannia. The legion there then proclaimed his son, Constantine, as his successor, unaware that by doing so they were deciding the future of the Christian church. Six years later, Emperor Constantine reversed the policy of his predecessors: instead of persecuting Christians, henceforth they would be favoured throughout the empire, east and west.

One of the consequences of Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity was his encouragement of church building, notably at Byzantium (Constantinople) that of the Holy Peace and the Holy Wisdom, and in Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre. Having decided on the exact site of Christ’s crucifixion and the tomb where he had been laid, a spectacular basilica was raised over the latter to become the most revered and visited place in Christendom.

After the Latin Crusaders captured Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099, they took the next 50 years to construct a new Gothic cathedral of the Holy Sepulchre over Constantine’s basilica. Then once they had fulfilled their original vows by worshipping at the place of Christ’s burial, many Crusaders returned to their homes in western Europe where some of them started to build their own versions of Jerusalem’s.

Constantine’s original shrine had been a miniature temple inside a round domed basilica and some of the earliest surviving churches of the Holy Sepulchre, such as those at Cambridge and Northampton, are round in form. (The most famous or infamous Saint Sepulchre is in Milan. The Italian Fascist movement was born in the Piazza San Sepolcro, so that its founders were called “sansepolcristi”.)

The size, shape and form of Scarborough’s church of the Holy Sepulchre are not yet known. The surveyor’s bird’s-eye sketch of 1538-9 is of a very substantial structure with nave, aisle and tall west tower, but there is no way that this can be verified. Suspiciously, the outline is almost identical to that of St Thomas the Martyr, though it is much bigger than the depictions of the churches of the Dominican and Carmelite friaries. The draughtsman was commissioned to exhibit Scarborough’s land and sea defences, not its ecclesiastical architecture, so perhaps his chapels and churches were merely stylised and notional.

The general location of Scarborough’s church of the Holy Sepulchre has been well known for some time. It once stood within the south-east corner of the precinct wall of the Franciscans, close to an area marked as “St Pulchres churchyard” on maps of the eighteenth century. The “churchyard” then belonged to St Mary’s and was let out and used as a bowling green, possibly Scarborough’s first. Later this ground was cultivated and called Springfield Gardens, until bought by the Primitive Methodists. There they built a series of chapels, the first in 1821 and the last in 1866. After nearly a century, the Methodist version of St Sepulchre was closed, demolished and replaced by new houses in Springfield, fronting a new thoroughfare linking St Sepulchre Street with Longwestgate.

But where exactly was the chapel that gave its name to one of the town’s oldest streets, the medieval St Sepulchregate?

During the winter of 1996-7 intrepid, hardy members of Scarborough’s distinguished Archaeological Society made a number of exciting discoveries during their excavation of the land between Springfield and Cook’s Row. They uncovered a stretch of the stone-lined culverted course of the Damyot or Damgeth that flowed through the middle of the Franciscan priory, footings of the precinct wall, a well-preserved cobble road, a stone building that might have been a mill-house and the massive foundations of what were the residual remains of the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre. As proof of the religious provenance of the last, a piece of stone window tracery was found in the Damgeth gutter.

Scarborough’s own chapel of the Holy Sepulchre did not long survive the Reformation, but it was a casualty of the borough’s impoverishment rather than of Protestant iconoclasm. In October 1552, to raise money for the repair of the harbour defences, the Common Hall ordered that “certain implements and things” were to be offered for sale. Some of these “things” were itemised as “one grete bell”, a lectern of brass and a pelican. These metals later fetched a total of £8 9s. 8d. Though the account is incomplete, it seems reasonable to deduce that the Holy Sepulchre’s metals were being sacrificed for what was then considered a greater need - a safe anchorage in Scarborough’s port.

However, it appears that the money raised was insufficient: in 1562 the Common Hall took the drastic decision to sell the lead from the roofs of both chapels of St Thomas and St Sepulchre, but whereas St Thomas was re-roofed with slate, there was no substitute for St Sepulchre. From then on it was doomed: its stone, timber and remaining furniture sold, pillaged or re-used for secular purposes.

Apart from the recent findings of Scarborough Archaeological Society’s diggers in Springfield, perhaps there is a relic of the Holy Sepulchre still standing above ground. The Butter Cross, near the top of West Sandgate, has been approximately on the same site since at least the seventeenth century. Now ill-treated by time and weather, ignored, neglected and long since deprived of its ornamental finial, it is still just recognisable as the lower part of a pinnacle from the canopy or gable of a medieval religious building. And the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre once stood only a few dozen yards away.

How a piece of unwanted, disrespected Christian sculpture came to be re-used as the focus for a commercial meeting-place, Scarborough’s weekly Saturday market, is one illustration of the revolution we came to call the Reformation.