Impressive survivor

The Priory Church before restoration
The Priory Church before restoration
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by Dr Jack Binns

In the course of his second tour of England in 1542-3, John Leland, the itinerant scholar, passed through and wrote a description of Scarborough. As a result of Henry VIII’s quarrel with the Pope and his recent “nationalisation” of all the kingdom’s 
abbeys, colleges, convents and friaries, few of the town’s 
medieval Christian buildings had survived.

In 1539 Scarborough’s three houses of friars, “gray, blake and white”, Franciscan, Dominican and Carmelite, had all gone. Though we know that it still existed, if only as a ruin, the church of the Holy Sepulchre was not mentioned by Leland and he made only a passing reference to “a great chapelle” next to Newborough gateway which he seemed not to know was dedicated to St Thomas Becket of Canterbury.

However, Leland did notice and admire at least one 
conspicuous reminder of Scarborough’s medieval Christian past – its parish church “of our Lady”. Clearly, he was most impressed with the 
architecture of St Mary’s. Still intact, though no doubt already beginning to deteriorate, it had aisles on both sides of its nave, a north and a south transept and three tall, pyramid-topped bell towers, two at the west front and one in the middle over the crossing.

Perhaps Leland was too diplomatic and discreet to refer also to St Mary’s four chantry chapels set against the south aisle and the great east choir or chancel, also enhanced with side aisles.

Thanks to King Henry’s stubborn attachment to the old Catholic faith, by the early 1540s the Reformation in England was not yet fully Protestant. Chantry chapels, where priests said masses for the souls of their dead benefactors, might not be fashionable but they were still tolerated. Protestants did not believe in the existence of purgatory, an intermediate but temporary condition or location between the permanence of Heaven and Hell: they were convinced that no amount of mortal prayer could rescue or relieve the impure souls of the deceased.

However, particularly during the fourteenth century, it had been the common custom for Scarborough’s richer burgesses to endow chaplains to say daily masses at altars within the body of St Mary’s. To accommodate these chaplains and extra altars, about 1350 an additional St Nicholas aisle was built on the north side of the nave, but even this soon became overcrowded. Between 1380 and 1400, a row of four separate vaulted chapels, dedicated to Saints James, Nicholas, Stephen and Mary, were attached to the south aisle.

In 1380, Robert Galoun, took out a licence to endow what became one of the richest charities in the town and in his will he gave a gold and sapphire ring to his widow.

After her death the ring was to go to her daughter and afterwards to the chapel of St James “and there remain for ever”. Forever was a term much used and believed in the Middle Ages.

To endow the chaplain at the altar of St Nicholas, in 1390 Agnes Burn left five dwelling houses in the town in her will.

Thirdly, Robert Rillington, the founder of St Stephen’s chapel, was certainly in need of prayers. During recent wars with the Scots, he had supplied them with provisions and helped them to enter and attack the harbour and town in a devastating raid. For his treason, he had escaped with a modest fine, but in his will he left two ships, St Mary and the Katerine, to pay for his burial before the altar of St Stephen and a priest to say masses “for the health of his soul”.

St Mary’s chapel, the largest of the four chantries and now used as the baptistry, was licensed in 1390 and founded seven years later. Though this chantry was established for the souls of three of the Milner family, also covered in the next world were the souls of the dead King Edward III and those of the whole community of Scarborough, past, present and future.

Whereas the first duty of the chantry priests was to pray for their individual benefactors, some of them were also employed and paid for by Scarborough’s many town guilds which had altars in the parish for their members.

Finally, there were two more chantries outside St Mary’s in the mortuary or charnel chapel of St Magdalene. This stood on the site once called Charnel Garth and is now known as Mulgrave Place. The building was clearly drawn on the engineer’s plat of 1538/9, but not mentioned in Leland’s account. One chantry there was licensed to Sir Robert Percy and dated from 1394, the other was founded two years later by Richard II for his soul and those of his grandfather, Edward III, his grandmother, Phillippa, and his own late queen, Anne of Bohemia.

Even before all these charities were suppressed in 1549, the chapel of St Mary Magdalene was perhaps being used not only to receive the bones of long-dead Scarborians, but also to accommodate the master and boys of the town’s grammar school.

As for the newest and most splendid part of Scarborough’s St Mary’s, its eastern arm or choir which effectively doubled the length of the church, this had been the responsibility of the Black Canons of Bridlington. As a consequence of the ongoing war with France, soon after 1400, Henry IV had transferred the custody of the parish church from Citeaux’s Cistercians to Bridlington’s Augustinian priory.

St Mary’s great choir was the chief casualty of the civil-war sieges of the 1640s so that little of it remains today, but it is still possible to appreciate some of its original grandeur. Built as late as the 1470s, it was here that the Black Canons sat in their stalls to celebrate the offices of the day, where several altars were erected to saints such as Martin of Tours and Anne, the mother of Mary, and where Scarborough’s leading burgess families paid to be buried.

In 2002, theses ruins which Scarborough could never afford to restore, were officially recognised and listed as a National Ancient Monument, number 34839.