Fat Billy

Albemarle Crescent 110408a
Albemarle Crescent 110408a
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IN THE valley of the river Bresle, half way between Amiens and Rouen in French Normandy, lies the old town of Aumale. On a hill that separates Scarborough’s Victoria Road from Westborough, a semi-circle terrace of mid-Victorian tall houses form what is called Albemarle Crescent. On the face of it, the two locations seem to have nothing in common, but in fact Aumale and Albemarle are alternative spellings of the same place-name.

What links an historic town in Normandy with Britain’s oldest seaside resort is the name William le Gros, lord of Holderness and earl of York and Aumale, because he was the first to build a castle on Scarborough’s headland about 1140.

William le Gros did not receive a good report from contemporary chroniclers. They wrote that he was too fat to ride a horse and so ugly his wife deserted him. Nevertheless, during the civil war between Matilda and Stephen for the English throne, William was one of the northern Norman barons who emerged as the most powerful. Though he had sworn allegiance to Stephen, during the 1130s and 1140s “he ruled like a king in Yorkshire.”

In 1138, when Matilda’s ally, King David of Scotland, crossed over the Tees, William led an army of Yorkshire’s leading barons and their knights to meet the Scots head on. Walter of Gant, lord of Bridlington, Walter Espec of Helmsley, William Percy of Whitby, Robert Stuteville of Kirkbymoorside and Roger Mowbray of Thirsk under William’s command confronted the Scots near Northallerton. The invaders were routed in what was called the battle of the Standards, a decisive victory which confirmed Aumale’s authority and status.

During this time of lawless disorder, William le Gros and his vassals built their motte and bailey, earth and timber, castles for their own security and to demonstrate their local power. William the Conqueror had raised two earth mounds or mottes at York which still exist; his son, Henry I, had done the same at Pickering; and Aumale emulated their dominance by building his own earth and timber fortresses at Skipsea and Scarborough.

But the headland at Scarborough was not in no-man’s territory; it belonged to the royal manor and soke or lordship of Falsgrave so that William’s castle trespassed on sovereign soil. Consequently, after Stephen’s death and the succession to the crown of Matilda’s son, Henry, Count of Anjou, as Henry II, in 1154, William’s rightful possession of his castle at Scarborough was jeopardised.

Faced now by the most formidable monarch in western Europe, who effectively ruled from Hadrian’s Wall to the Pyrenees, William backed down. He surrendered his Scarborough castle and the earldom of York was allowed to lapse. In compensation, he was given the manor of Driffield and retired to his estate in Lincolnshire.

By the time that William died aged 83 in 1179, his timber tower at Scarborough had been replaced by a magnificent stone donjon which had cost king Henry’s treasury £682 15s 3d and Scarborough had become a royal borough.

To what extent William was the first to plant a permanent settlement at Scarborough remains a matter of dispute amongst historians. At Skipsea, there was a small group of houses below Aumale’s castle mound and perhaps something similar occurred at Scarborough. We know that as early as the 1160s Scarborough merchants were already exporting wool and importing wine.

However, the crucial event took place in 1163 or just before when Henry II granted the burgesses of Scarborough the status and privileges of a royal borough in return for an annual ‘farm’ or rent of £20. Such was the rapid growth of the town and port during the next few years that the farm had been raised to £33 by 1172.


Albemarle was the first to build a fortress on Scarborough’s coastal headland, even though it was only a timber tower set within an earth rampart and ditch. But it was Henry II who gave Scarborough permanent identity as a royal borough with the same liberties enjoyed by York.

In short, Albemarle was somewhat flattered in 1867 to be awarded a road, a handsome terrace and a baptist chapel to go with them, whereas Henry II, whose indestructible tower still dominates Scarborough’s sky-line, has no recognition at all in its streets and avenues.

Finally, to avoid any possible misunderstanding, it should be said that the present tenth earl of Albemarle is in no way related to the Norman William, earl of Aumale. The former is descended from Arnold Joost van Keppel who as an 18-year-old in 1688 arrived in England from Holland as the catamite of William of Orange.

Subsequently, William III rewarded him with the hereditary earldom of Albemarle in 1696.

Nor is Albemarle Crescent named after George Monck (1608-70), the first and only duke of Albemarle, the Cromwellian general on land and at sea who did more than any other individual to secure the restoration of Charles II in 1660.

Postscript: An observant, helpful reader has pointed out to me that in Down the Street (Evening News January 7), the article on Scarborough’s prime ministers should have included Eden Drive (2004), which, next to Attlee Close, refers to Sir Anthony Eden (1955-7).