Magnificent St Mary’s

St Marys Church  100619b   pic Andrew Higgins   '09/02/10    in News
St Marys Church 100619b pic Andrew Higgins '09/02/10 in News

by Dr Jack Binns

Written by Dr Jack Binns

On December 12 1189, the newly-crowned Richard I crossed the Channel from Dover to Flanders. This was the start of his long and arduous expedition by sea and land all the way to Palestine where his purpose was to recover Jerusalem from the Muslim leader Saladin. Richard’s English fleet of over 100 ships sailed directly to the Mediterranean, but the Lionheart himself intended to travel overland across France to meet it at Marseilles.

With this journey in prospect, the day before his departure, Richard sealed a charter at Dover which had profound and lasting consequences for Scarborough. The royal writ was specifically addressed to the sheriff at York and 
generally to other justices in the country to protect his church at Scarborough and the arrangement that he had made between it and the abbot of Citeaux in Burgundy.

St Mary’s income, particularly the fish tithe, “especially of a fishing called Doguedrave [Dogger Bank cod?]”, was to be given “in pure and perpetual alms” to provide “for the abbots at the time of the general chapter”. In other words, the principal income of Scarborough’s parish church, derived from the sea-fish tithe of one for every ten landed there, should in future be used to pay for the triennial general gathering of all the Cistercian abbots at the mother house of Citeaux.

According to the expressed terms of this and several other later charters on the same subject, Richard’s aim was to save his soul and that of his parents, Henry II and Eleanor. But a more sceptical and practical explanation of this extraor-dinary grant is that the King was about to pass through countries which had hundreds of Cistercian abbeys and that otherwise it was sure to be a most uncomfortable and wearisome journey.

The value of St Mary’s annual contribution to Citeaux’s expenses has been described as a rent of between 100 and 120 silver marks (£66 13s. 8d. to £80), yet at the time it probably seemed a small price to pay for a guarantee of friendly receptions and warm, dry beds all the way to Marseilles. Nevertheless, it was a levy that burdened the parishioners of Scarborough for the next 200 years.

The result of Richard’s “generosity” was to place St Mary’s at the disposal of a foreign order of monks. Its future vicar priests were to be appointed by Citeaux’s abbot; and to collect the tithe he chose two or three “custodes” or wardens, Cistercian monks who lived in the town within an enclosed area next to the church. The earliest surviving reference to “Paradise” does not occur until as late as 1402, but presumably it described the walled garden around a capital mansion where these white monks would have lived.

The presence of Cistercians in medieval Scarborough has been the source of much later misunderstanding. For instance, Thomas Hinderwell, the town’s first historian who is still regarded as a reliable authority, 
assumed that St Mary’s was the church belonging to a 
Cistercian abbey, though two or three monks living together do not constitute a monastery and at Scarborough there was no chapter-house, cloister, dormitory or any of the other conventual buildings to 
distinguish a monastery from a monastic cell.

The vicar of St Mary’s was to hold office for life, paid 20 marks (£13 6s. 8d.) a year out of the revenues of Citeaux, and swear allegiance to the abbey on his appointment. Only the abbot could remove him after three warnings for misconduct.

In his parochial duties in Scarborough, the vicar was assisted by two or three chaplains, priests who were appointed by him. Eventually, the subordinate churches of St Thomas of Canterbury, next to Newborough gates, and that of the Holy Sepulchre, each had its own chaplain.

Since the churches of St Sepulchre and St Thomas were demolished in the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries respectively, we know very little about their structures. However, though St Mary’s was mutilated by civil war in the 1640s and heavily “restored” by the Victorians 200 years later, much of its exceptional medieval form still survives.

St Mary’s oldest stonework is to be found in the bases of the two towers at its west front. As late as 1538/9, when they were drawn on an engineer’s plat, and the early 1540s when they were described by John Leland, these two tall and splendid towers both had pyramid roofs, but a decade later they were stripped of their protective lead, allowed to decay and eventually dismantled. The lead was re-used to strengthen the harbour pier.

Though twin-towered western fronts are a common feature of Yorkshire’s great minsters, such as those at York, Selby, Beverley and Bridlington, it is very rare for a mere parish church to have such expensive and ambitious features.

After the western front, which dates from the time of Richard Lionheart, came the nave arcades, first the north side then the south. The five north-side piers are identical, heavy, round and plain, supporting identical arches and above them a clerestory; but along the south arcade, after the first two easterly piers, the change is abrupt, crude and baffling. The remaining three piers are all different; one with a circular core and six detached shafts, the next octagonal and the last quatrefoil. What could have caused this complete loss of uniformity and symmetry?

One theory is that the interruption in building was the result of a dramatic quarrel between King John and Pope Innocent III. When John refused to accept the pope’s choice of Stephen Langton as the new archbishop of Canterbury, in 1208 Innocent placed an interdict on his kingdom. For the next six years, until John gave way, no services were held in England’s parish churches. The dying were denied the last rites; no marriages or baptisms took place in churches; and corpses were buried in the woods and at roadsides without the presence of priests. Though the Cistercians defied the interdict, given the circumstances, any building that was then ongoing at St Mary’s must have been interrupted or stopped altogether.

Compared with this architectural puzzle, the rest of St Mary’s medieval remains - its transepts, central tower, south-side chantry chapels and finally its great chancel - are easier to describe in the next episode of Scarborough’s Christian heritage.