by Dr Jack Binns
In 1646, Scarborough’s parish vicar since 1630, Mr William Simpson, was denounced by the town’s new ruling bailiffs, John Harrison and Thomas Gill, as an inveterate Royalist and they had deprived him of his living. Among the several accusations they levelled against him was one that from St Mary’s pulpit he had cursed “Anabaptists, Brownists, Separatists and Schismaticks” as worse even than papists. They were he had said “caterpillars, canker worms and cursed Achitophells”.
The Civil War between King Charles and Parliament, which began in 1642 and had just ended in his defeat, was to have profound religious as well as political consequences. Parliament’s victory led directly to a revolution in thinking and belief which turned the old world upside down and shattered the established order. And the church of England was one of the principal targets and victims of this revolution.
Archbishops and bishops, deans and chapters were swept away; the Book of Common Prayer was banned in churches; the Thirty-Nine Articles were discarded; and, finally, the Supreme Governor of the established church, King Charles I, was found guilty of waging war against his own people and, in 1649, executed. The Anglican church had lost its head, its hierarchy, its courts and its religious monopoly. Attendance at parish churches was no longer compulsory. All Christian faiths, except the Roman Catholic, were now tolerated by the state. A 400-year-old law excluding Jews was rescinded by Oliver Cromwell.
The Reverend Simpson’s list of reviled Protestant sects was therefore long out of date by 1646. Brownists, Separatists and Schismatics were anachronistic terms formerly used to describe the tiny numbers of nonconformist Puritans who could not accept Queen Elizabeth’s state church. By 1646, after four years of mayhem and bloody civil war and the lifting of press censorship, there had been an extraordinary explosion of religious free-thinking and sectarian expression. To add to Anabaptists or Baptists, there were now Familists, Independents, Presbyterians, Ranters, Seekers, Diggers and Quakers. But of all these many splinter groups only one had an early and significant following in Scarborough.
When George Fox first came into Yorkshire in 1651 his notorious reputation preceded him. For the past eight years he had been a wandering preacher and his subversive messages had already landed him in prison at Nottingham and in Derby. After he had told a Derby justice in 1650 “to tremble at the word of the Lord”, by his enemies his followers were nicknamed Quakers, whereas they preferred to call themselves “Children of the Light” or “Friends of Truth”.
From York, where he had been forcibly ejected down the steps from the Minster’s south transept, and now only on foot he walked northwards into Cleveland and then down the coast from Staithes to Whitby and Scarborough. His message was indeed revolutionary. The light of Jesus Christ was already within everyone; there was no need of clergy or churches. Church buildings, he said disparagingly, were merely “steeple-houses”.
Clergymen were liars, deluders of the people, Baal’s priests, Babylon’s merchants and false prophets. Quakers denied the validity of all the sacraments, refused to pay tithes or fees for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Most alarming to the social elite, Fox’s followers showed no deference to their “superiors”, addressed all as equals by the familiar “thou” instead of the formal “you”, would not swear oaths of any kind, even on the Bible, and accepted gender equality without qualification.
Surprisingly, therefore, when George Fox first walked into Scarborough he was welcomed there by one of the town’s leaders. Peter Hodgson, master mariner, rich corn merchant and member of the Common Hall, offered him hospitality in his mansion house on the west side of Cargate (Cross Street). And there, from an upper floor gallery, Fox preached to a local gathering.
Hodgson had bought one of the best pews in St Mary’s in 1635 and as late as 1650 he had paid for a replacement for his family.
But, like so many others who heard Fox for the first time, he was immediately and enthusiastically converted: it was a life-changing encounter.
In these early years, the Quakers were tolerated by the government in London because in the North especially Royalism was still feared as a threat to the new republic and many of Fox’s followers had served in Cromwell’s army. So Hodgson’s conversion was at first no impediment to his local advancement.
At Michaelmas 1653 he was chosen junior bailiff to sit alongside his senior and business partner, William Foord. The following year, according to custom, the two then became borough coroners. However, from Michaelmas 1656, Hodgson’s name disappeared altogether from the list of Common Hall members. Persecution of the Friends had begun in Scarborough as everywhere else in the country.
The reason for the regime’s change of policy is clear enough. Whereas all the other sects had faded away or continued in secret, the Quakers had prospered conspicuously everywhere in England. And as they grew in number and strength, their bold, aggressive religious dissent and lawlessness aroused increasing fear and retaliation.
In particular, in Yorkshire, there were many reported cases that came before the courts of verbal and even physical assaults on ministers in their pulpits and magistrates on the bench made by women as well as men.
By 1660, as dangerous, law-breaking rebels, more than 500 Friends were locked up in castles at York, Pickering and Scarborough. After 15,000 had signed a petition to abolish church tithes in June 1659, it was now commonly believed by other nonconformists as well as Anglicans that only a restored monarchy could obliterate Quakerism.