Legacy of the Franciscans

Street plan of Scarborough Town circa 1400
Street plan of Scarborough Town circa 1400

Written by Dr Jack Binns

Neither the Cistercian monks, who lived in Paradise, nor the Augustinian Black Canons from Bridlington, who later were also custodians of St Mary’s parish church, had much to do with the ordinary people of medieval Scarborough, but the friars were altogether different. (Friars means brothers from the Latin fratres).

The Franciscans were the first friars to reach Scarborough and during the next 300 years they made a decisive contribution to both the physical and the spiritual well-being of the town community.

St Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226) was “the playboy son of an Italian millionaire” who in his 20s renounced his worldly wealth and became an itinerant missionary. A new order of mendicants (beggars) was founded in his name and followed his example.

Eventually they gained many members and spread throughout western Christian Europe. In contrast to monks, they lived in towns and mixed freely with both poor and rich.

The arrival in Scarborough of the first Franciscans of Grey Friars (so-called because they dressed like beggars in rough, undyed wool, though their habit was brown in colour) was deeply resented and strongly resisted by the resident Cistercians. Early in 1240, King Henry III had told the sheriff of Yorkshire to provide the brothers at Scarborough with food for one day a week and 60 ells (an ell was 45 inches) of cloth for their garments, but immediately Citeaux protested vigorously and appealed to Rome for support.

In these early days, the Franciscans prided themselves on their extreme poverty and humility. As mendicant priests they lived entirely on charitable alms and had no permanent homes. They were not allowed to wear shoes: even in winter weather they walked barefoot.

Accordingly, rather than offend the Cistercian monks, the Franciscans retreated from Scarborough town and settled for a rural site at Hatterboard, outside the Liberty and within the parish of Scalby. In 1245, Henry III allowed them “to raise houses and construct dwellings in the area between Cukewaldhill and the water-course called Milnebec on the east side...in Haterburg”. Cukewaldhill came to be called Hatterboard Hill (not to be confused with the misnamed and misplaced 
Hatterboard Drive in mis-named and misplaced Barrowcliff) and the Milnebec still flows out of Throxenby Mere and down the south side of Lady 
Edith’s Drive.

In 1958, members of what was then called the Scarborough and District Archaeological Society excavated an open field on the south side of Lady Edith’s Drive. In advance of its destruction by the imminence of a new Scarborough Technical College, they were anxious to unearth the lost medieval village of Hatterboard; and they found it! Among the foundations of half a dozen houses was one re-built in stone and dated tentatively to 1245, which was taken to have been the Franciscan home “in exile”.

Though the Cistercians never really accepted them, about 1270 the Franciscans returned to Scarborough. Reginald Molendarius (the Miller) granted them a piece of land in Oldborough astride the Damyot which included the church and cemetery of the Holy Sepulchre. The course of the Damyot, a natural stream running through the heart of the town and subsequently culverted into an underground sewer, was drawn on maps as recently as the 1852 Ordnance Survey. From Albemarle hill it ran all the way to the harbour and its route is still evident in the dips of St Thomas and Queen Streets. Friargate school was built over it and marks the approximate location of the Franciscan convent.

A decade later, Scarborough’s Grey Friars were re-building and enlarging their church of the Holy Sepulchre. King Edward I gave them six oaks for timber and, in payment of an outstanding debt, the Cistercian monks of Meaux abbey in the East Riding removed the lead from their lay brothers’ dormitory and gave it to roof some or all of St Sepulchre.

Once again the popularity and prosperity of the Scarborough Franciscans aroused the envy and ire of the Cistercians. The latter alleged that the former were diverting alms and fees from St Mary’s so that the revenues that once met the costs of three days of their general chapter at 
Citeaux were now barely enough for only one day 

But charity flowed in both directions. When he died in 1290, Robert of Scarborough, Dean of York, left 100 marks in his will to his native borough and the Grey Friars to construct a conduit from the springs at “Gildhuscliff” in Falsgrave all the way down to Oldborough.

It took many years for Robert’s gift to be fulfilled in a charter confirmed by Edward III in 1339. All the springs and wells of “Gildusclyff” were to be conveyed in an aqueduct “to the new pavement between the old and the new borough”. The main pipe was for the benefit of the townspeople, but the friars were to have a third of one flow and bear a third of the costs of maintenance and repair.

Since the Damyot was no longer sufficient or clean enough to supply the town’s growing needs, the underground, stone-lined and lead conduit from Falsgrave became essential to the very existence of Scarborough’s people. For the next 500 years it fed and filled three public stone troughs, known as the upper, middle and lower conduits, all free to Scarborians on equal terms. More than any other reason it explains why Scarborough uniquely was such a healthy town that it never needed immigrant “strangers” to maintain its population.

For more than two centuries, until its abrupt dissolution in 1539, the Franciscan priory at Scarborough provided the locality with prayers, masses, absolutions, sermons, burial services and burial grounds. Even as late as 1538, the Grey Friars were still receiving bequests from testators who in the past had included many leading families such as the Bigods of Settrington, the Constables of Flamborough, the Scropes of Bolton castle and the Wyvills of Osgodby. Unlike many other regular and secular clergy they had never forfeited the respect of the laity they served.