Days of sexual intolerance

Longwestgate ... women who conceived illegitimate children were led, stripped naked to the waist, along this street and whipped
Longwestgate ... women who conceived illegitimate children were led, stripped naked to the waist, along this street and whipped

If Scarborough’s female scolds, eavesdroppers and malicious gossips were punished by public humiliation in the stocks, the treatment meted out to their sisters who conceived illegitimate children was far more painful and cruel. Four hundred years ago, the mothers of bastard babies were whipped half-naked through the streets of the town.

At the general sessions held in the Common Hall on Sandside in January 1637, Elizabeth Wilson, spinster, alleged that Robert Whitticars of Malton, “pettichapman” [travelling salesman], had “the use and carnall knowe[ledge]” of her body “in most lewd & wicked manner about Michaelmas last”.

This “naughty deed” had been done in the house of Anthony Bisickle of Scarborough and the result was that the said Robert had gotten her with a bastard she was 
now carrying in her 

Elizabeth might have been foolish to allow Robert to take advantage of her, yet she was wise to declare her condition well in advance of her bastard’s birth. On the strength of a long-standing common law custom, she could plead “benefit of belly”. Any pregnant defendant was excused physical punishment and brought to trial only after the birth of her child. Unless Robert came forward to acknowledge his paternity and agree to marry Elizabeth, she would have been held a prisoner in the town gaol until her baby was delivered there. Unfortunately, the record of Elizabeth’s subsequent fate has not been found.

There is a fuller account of Ann Barry’s predicament. She too was a Scarborough spinster who had been seduced “divers times” by Robert Thompson, a joiner from Beverley. According to Ann’s testimony, she had committed “that wicked & sinfull acte” only on Robert’s deceitful promises of marriage. The so-called wicked and sinful act had taken place “a fortnight before Lammas 1636” [in mid-July], but Ann’s baby had been born by the time in April 1637 she came before the court. So the bailiffs ordered Ann’s punishment to be inflicted on or before September 1.

She was to be brought by one of the constables “to the east end of the street called Longwestgaite...and their (sic) her bodie [was] to be stripped naked from the midle uppward...and to be openly whipped alonge the said streete unto the west...untill her bodie be bloodie”. Longwestgate was then, and still is, about 300 yards long.

Margaret Marryall was another Scarborough spinster who suffered excruciating pain for her indiscretion with Thomas Wright, a local anchorsmith. Their baby was born in July 1640 and christened Lawrence.

“For her wicked acte and for the better deterringe of others from the same”, Margaret was to be taken “unto the sand neare the common hall”, her body stripped to the waist and then “putt into thewe or carte”. From the sands she was then to be whipped all the way up Merchants Row and Newborough to Longwestgate and from there eastwards as far as “the key end untill her bodie be bloodie”. It seems that the officer in charge of this barbarous demonstration was given a choice between “thewe or carte”, that is he could put an iron collar round Margaret’s neck and attach a rope to it or he could tie her to the end of a cart.

Supposing that they could be identified and apprehended, what retribution could the fathers of these illegitimate children expect?

The answer is that the injury they might suffer was only to their purses and not to their skins: by law they were required only to pay maintenance to the mother until her bastard reached the age of seven when he or she could then be apprenticed.

Ann Barry’s lover from Beverley, who had come from there to make St Mary’s new pews, was ordered to give her 16 pence a week for seven years and then two pounds “towards binding the boy to an apprentice”. For Ann’s “lying in child bed one month at the least”, Thompson was to hand over another 10 shillings to the town gaoler.

Thomas Wright, the anchorsmith, who had fathered Margaret Maryall’s child, was told to pay the same as Thompson for her lying-in, but only eight pence a week for the next seven years for its upkeep. A shilling was the usual maintenance weekly rate.

Until the church courts were abolished in 1650, matters of sexual morality were their concern and not the borough’s courts. Unfortunately, surviving evidence of Scarborian misbehaviour in this area 400 years ago is only sporadic, fragmentary and very incomplete. We have only a few scattered examples.

In 1575, just before he was promoted from York to Canterbury, archbishop Grindal required Scarborough’s wardens to give him a full report on their church and its parishioners. They could find dozens of Scarborians who had failed to attend Sunday services as the law required and had refused to contribute to the poor, but only half a dozen cases of immoral conduct, ranging from incest, fornication and adultery to one suspected infanticide.

By 1633, when a later archbishop examined the condition of the parish, even fewer transgressions could be found for him. Edward Hickson and his wife had co-habited before their marriage; John Newton had fornicated with a woman who had since died; and Robert Fish, gentleman [?], had 
solicited the chastity of Frances Bolton, servant to William Batty, “as the fame goeth”. Either the people of Scarborough were very well behaved or they were good at concealing their misdeeds.

During the 45-year reign of Queen Elizabeth, the town had at least two active brothels, yet during the first six decades of the seventeenth century, when the evidence is much more abundant, there is no certain record of prostitution. The most that can be said of widow Robinson of Falsgrave is that when she had six men in her house on one occasion she was no longer in mourning.