Civil War siege and surrender

Aerial shot of Scarborough Castle.
Aerial shot of Scarborough Castle.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

When news of the fall of Scarborough town and harbour to Parliament’s forces on Shrove Tuesday, February 18, 1645, reached London, there was great rejoicing in the capital. The messenger who conveyed the glad tidings received a reward of £20. Parliament’s general at Scarborough, Sir John Meldrum, was promised £1,000; one of its newsheets, Mercurius Britanicus, declared that “god was visible at Scarborough”; and March 12 was made a day of national thanksgiving for Scarborough’s deliverance from the Royalists.

It was also a relief for the people of Scarborough. Early one morning in November 1644, Sir Hugh Cholmley, the Royalist governor, had convened a meeting at St Mary’s where he promised the townspeople that he would not condemn them to a siege. Should Parliament’s soldiers attack Scarborough he would withdraw his troops to the castle: there would be no bombardment, no street fighting, no plunder of property or hurt to civilians. And he had been as good as his word: in a planned, orderly retreat, 500 of Cholmley’s armed men had retreated swiftly to the sanctuary of the castle.

However, one of Sir Hugh’s majors put up a fierce rearguard action. After surrendering Helmsley castle at the end of the previous November “on honourable terms”, Sir Jordan Crosland had been allowed to join Cholmley at Scarborough “without molestation”. And on February 18, instead of retreating through the castle’s main gate, with about 80 of his followers, the major had occupied St Mary’s. Soon outnumbered and completely surrounded there, Crosland had to make another “honourable” surrender; but this episode underlined the vital and vulnerable location of the parish church in relation to the nearby castle.

On February 18, 1645, nobody on either side expected the castle siege to last 22 weeks. The Royalists were hugely outnumbered without any hope of reinforcement or means of escape.

Also, though there were longer Civil War sieges elsewhere, none was so intensive, continuous and more costly than that of Scarborough castle. And Scarborough’s residents and buildings were to be its chief casualties.

That nearly four centuries later, the castle keep remains a ruined wreck, without roof, floors, or a fourth wall; that its once magnificent parish church has no chancel, no north transept and only a truncated bell tower; and that St Thomas has only a street and not a chapel named after the martyr – all these were victims of the Civil Wars of the 1640s.

Neither Royalists nor Roundheads respected church fabric. During the prolonged siege of the city of York in the summer of 1644, Parliament’s heaviest, long-range cannon targeted at least five of its parish churches which were all badly mauled. Holy Trinity at Skipton and All Saints’ at Pontefract were used and abused by both sides when it suited their military priorities.

So it was at Scarborough. Because St Mary’s had stout stone walls, a high bell tower and was little more than 100 yards from the castle’s entrance, after its capture from Crosland, Meldrum’s men turned it into a forward bulwark and artillery platform.

After Cholmley had hautily rejected Meldrum’s invitation to surrender, the veteran Scotsman had no choice but to ask his masters in London for more firepower. He then told the Royalist garrison that with “great ordnance” he would “endeavour to make your strong walls spue you out at the broadside”.

Accordingly, since Parliament regarded Scarborough castle to be “of very great concernment and future influence”, Meldrum soon got “the best battering piece” available. This whole or royal-cannon, weighing 3½ tons and requiring eight pairs of horse or 90 men to pull it even over firm, level ground, arrived from York in the middle of March. According to one report, under cover of darkness, the monster was dragged through the west door of St Mary’s, down the long nave and mounted at the east end of the chancel where the high altar had once been.

Finally, after a delay caused by Meldrum’s accidental fall down South Steel cliff, at the beginning of May the royal-cannon began to fire its 65-pound shot directly at the castle keep. And at point-blank range, after three days of pounding, the western wall of the keep collapsed, bringing down the men with it. As Cholmley later wrote: “The fall of the Tower was a very terrible spectacle”.

But the 
destruction of the great keep did not end the siege. On the contrary, a wall 100ft high and 15ft thick had fallen down on to the narrow, steep approach, providing the defenders with both protection and an arsenal of ready-made stone missiles. Meldrum launched infantry attack after attack but to no avail and was killed in hand-to-hand fighting. Sir Hugh gave in finally 10 weeks later, but only after the garrison had run out of powder and water and his men were dying of scurvy.

When the governor and survivors walked, or were carried, out on July 25, 1645, they passed a church that had been reduced to a shattered wreck. Of St Mary’s chancel, only its bare walls were still standing; all its glass windows, restored less than 10 years earlier, had been smashed and its roof was full of holes.

The north transept and the north St Nicholas aisle were damaged beyond repair and, as events were to prove, the tall, central bell tower had been fatally weakened by vibration. As for all those 155 pews, which had been so well and proudly erected by 1635, most had been re-used for bedding, shelter or even firewood.

The total cost of renovating and repairing St Mary’s was estimated to be £600, but the pews would have to be rebuilt at the expense of their former owners. St Mary’s plate could never be recovered. Sir Hugh had paid his men “12 pence a week besides dyett” and sixpence for every day’s work by cutting silver “plaits” into crude shapes and stamping their value by weight.

These so-called siege coins are extremely rare, very valuable and often counterfeited. The only pre-war silver plate still belonging to St Mary’s is a large cup given to the church by the Thompsons in 1637.