Decline and fall of chapel of St Thomas

Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell

by Dr Jack Binns

In 1812, the duke of Rutland, the borough’s recorder and patron, presented a copy of a drawing of Scarborough to the Corporation. A dozen years later, this “ancient view of the town, castle and harbour”, as they called it, was published by local printers 
J Cole and W Wilson. To it they added their own simple reference key, identifying Newborough Gate, St Mary’s church, the castle, St Thomas’ chapel, Franciscan, Dominican and Carmelite priories, the bulwark built by Richard III, the gibbet (in Gallows Close), the chapel within the castle yard and the market cross. With less certainty, they suggested that the sketch might have been drawn “in the reign of Richard III AD 1485”.

Surprisingly, this “bird’s-eye view” was not added to Hinderwell’s posthumous third edition of 1832, but half a century later it appeared in Brogden Baker’s history of the town, though without key, date or provenance. However, both Rowntree in 1931 and the Scarborough Archaeological Society in 1966 deemed it worthy of more publicity, ascribing it to “Scarborough in the time of Queen Elizabeth I”, i.e. 1558-1603.

In fact, this original plat was in the British Museum and is one of several commissioned by King Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, in 1538/9.

Henry’s defiance of the Pope and Emperor Charles V, nephew of his rejected first wife; his forcible dissolution of religious houses; and, most ominously, an alliance between Charles and Francis I of France – all posed the alarming threat of an armed, seaborne invasion. Surveyors and draughtsmen were therefore sent to some of England’s chief ports, such as Newcastle, Hull and Scarborough, to describe and assess their defences.

Features of Scarborough’s plat match this date and its purpose. Since all three of the town’s friaries were not only closed but at least partly demolished in 1539, it could not have been drawn accurately after that year. The Carmelite house stood next to that of the Dominican precinct in the heart of the borough and not where Cole and Wilson had put it close to St Mary’s: this was the chantry of Mary Magdalene or charnel chapel which survived as Scarborough’s grammar school.

In many respects, the drawing is grossly and conspicuously inaccurate. The castle holms are missing, so that it seems the castle barbican and north wall directly overlook the sea and the area of the inner bailey is exaggerated. Also, though it was not until the 1850s that Newborough street was continued down to the harbour by a new thoroughfare called Eastborough, according to the plat Newborough ran straight into Longwestgate!

Nevertheless, drawn on the eve of the Reformation, which obliterated much of Scarborough’s medieval religious architecture, the plat is uniquely valuable to historians. There is no other illustrated source for St Mary’s tall, twin western towers; no other for the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre that belonged to the Franciscans; and none for the chapel of St Thomas, standing boldly and prominently, just inside Richard III’s unfinished stone wall at Newborough Bar. On his travels in 1544 John Leland passed through Scarborough, but for the “great chapelle by side [of] the Newborough Gate” he offered no name.

Since there is no other corroborative evidence, we cannot know that the sketch of Leland’s “great chapelle” is accurate or merely representational and stylised. After all, the plat was intended only to exhibit the defences of the harbour and the castle, not to illustrate ecclesiastical architecture. Yet so much of what we gather from other contemporary documents – the snaking course of the Millbeck as it runs down Ramsdale from the Mere and into South Bay, Richard III’s incomplete stone wall, gable-end chimneys attached to houses, and even the corpse of John Wyvill of Osgodby, a Pilgrim rebel, suspended from the gibbet – all suggest a close, careful, detailed familiarity with the time and place. So perhaps the chapel of St Thomas the Martyr really did have a tall spire, a long nave and a south aisle running its full length.

But what happened to this chapel when the Protestant Reformation took its toll? Like every other place of religious worship in the country no doubt it soon lost all or most of its Catholic symbols and images and, as ritual gave way to sermons, it became much more like a lecture hall with central pulpit and pews for parishioners.

Since the town lost so many refuges for its infirm and orphaned, St Thomas might have been converted into a charity hospital, but it survived, if only just, as a chapel. In October 1562, the Bailiffs and Commons ordered that the lead from the roofs of the Holy Sepulchre and St Thomas should be stripped and sold to repair and maintain the key which was “in ruyne”. In 1544 John Leland had noted that the old harbour pier was broken in the middle and three years later Parliament had passed an Act authorising a grant of £200 to pay for its renewal. Unfortunately, one of the Bailiffs, Tristram Cooke, had lost “the proclamation” and with it the claim on the Treasury.

So by 1562 the Common Hall took the desperate remedy to mend Scarborough’s vital anchorage by auctioning chapel lead roofing and replacing it with cheaper slate tiling.

St Thomas had survived, but only as a subordinate subsidiary of St Mary’s and little more than an indoor venue for visiting preachers. According to a Common Hall order of 1634, a weekly Thursday lecture was to be given at St Thomas between Lady Day (March 25) and Michaelmas (September 29), whereas St Mary would keep the Wednesday sermon during the six winter months.

By 1642, St Thomas was in a deplorable state of neglect and the householders of Scarborough were assessed for contributions to mend it. But if any of the money was collected, it was certainly not spent on the chapel: within days the town was in the thick of civil war.