Nostalgia: The start of royal flush

Scarborough town changed hands no fewer that seven times during the Civil War between 1642 and 1648 and Scarborough castle was a focal point.
Scarborough town changed hands no fewer that seven times during the Civil War between 1642 and 1648 and Scarborough castle was a focal point.

Today begins a new series on Scarborough’s long, eventful and rich history. It tries to explain how and why, after centuries of stagnation and decay, the town and port once again, during and after the civil wars of the mid-1600s, became places of national importance.

The year 1660, when the 11-year-old Commonwealth republic came to an end and the monarchy, the Church of England and the House of Lords were restored, was one of the most abrupt, dramatic and radical turning-points in British history. All that is well enough known, but what was it like to live in Scarborough during these momentous times? What were the reactions of the defeated Roundheads and the triumphant Royalists? What had been Scarborough’s previous experience of the civil wars and the republic that followed them?

Between 1639 and 1651, the years of almost continuous warfare, hardly anywhere in the British isles had been safe from pillaging troops, crushing taxation, political and religious upheaval. Markets and fairs were closed, trade nearly ceased, rents and bills went unpaid. Women and children lost their menfolk for years on end and often forever. A far higher proportion of soldiers died in battle and of disease than that suffered by the British army in the war of 1914-18.

The worst affected civilian communities were those located on principal land routes, in closely contested boundaries between Royalist and Roundhead zones, and in vital seaports. Soldiers on both sides repeatedly oppressed defenceless civilians and plundered their property. Many buildings were destroyed by cannon fire. Churches were especially vulnerable because they offered strong stone walls and look-out roofs. Neither side showed them much respect. Their pews were used for firewood; their books and documents were burned and scattered. The loss of requisitioned horses to the military and of fences, doors and trees to their camp fires was crippling.

The most common complaint from householders was against “free quarter”. Soldiers rarely paid for their food, bedding or clothing and their “tickets”, issued instead of money, were usually worthless. Both Royalist and Roundhead regimes taxed mercilessly: “loans” and “voluntary subscriptions” were never repaid. The worst fate for civilians was to live near the prolonged siege of a castle or fortified house.

As the Royalist historian, the earl of Clarendon, accurately noted, “there were more sharp skirmishes and more notable battles in that one county of York than in all the kingdom besides”. The biggest and bloodiest encounter of all the wars was fought on Marston Moor on July 2, 1644, just outside York. Altogether about 5,500 men died there. Hull, Pontefract, York, Bradford, Skipton, Helmsley and Knaresborough all suffered the multiple horrors of siege warfare and military occupation. The Scots who invaded Yorkshire on the side of Parliament were especially feared. One Cleveland correspondent compared them with “Mohammedan Turks”. Parliament’s commander of the siege of Scarborough castle in 1645 told his superiors in London that he could not pay or feed his troops because Yorkshire was “so exhausted both in monieyes and provisions”.

The people of Scarborough, who then numbered about 2,700, naturally hoped that they would be spared the worst experiences of larger communities. There were at least 50 towns in the kingdom with populations greater. Even in Yorkshire, measured by taxation assessments, Scarborough ranked ninth, below York, Leeds, Hull, Doncaster, Pontefract, Beverley, Richmond and Ripon. The borough had two MPs in the House of Commons, but so had 13 others in the county. Unlike other disputed towns, such as Bradford, Leeds or Sheffield, Scarborough had no war-supply industries producing textiles, boots or metal ware. Neither side was likely to fight for Scarborough’s fish.

As a North Sea port, Scarborough had long since conceded leadership locally to Hull. With its booming trade in alum and coal, Whitby had now overtaken it and even Bridlington harbour was as busy and secure as Scarborough’s.

Scarborough had a castle, but it was now derelict and disarmed. King James had refused to pay for its repair and maintenance. He had given it to the local Thompson family who used it mainly for its building stone and cattle pasture. Above all, Scarborough was considered too remote and inaccessible – at “an out-angle”, as Sir Hugh Cholmley called it – to be involved in a civil war.

In these circumstances, it seems astonishing that between 1642 and 1648 Scarborough town changed hands no fewer than seven times; that twice it was subjected to siege, bombardment, assault and military occupation; that when the town and harbour were taken by Parliament in February 1645, London declared a day of nation thanksgiving; that King Charles regarded the castle at Scarborough so vital to his cause that he ordered it should be held “to the last extremity”. As events proved, there was to be no escape for Scarborians: the civil wars were to leave an ugly and permanent scar on the town’s residents and their buildings.

It might have seemed to Scarborians that they were safe from occupation or attack because their defences were so weak. Their vulnerability to naval power had been exposed by events as recently as July 1635. On the 13th of that month, a Dutch warship had chased a Spanish privateer right into the harbour. In the battle that followed, the Dutch killed, captured or wounded all the crew who did not swim ashore. The town’s governors were powerless to intervene. As Bailiff Martin Atmar complained, “the ordnance in the castle are old, dismounted and of no use”. Less than a fortnight later, an even worse foreign “insolence” was committed. This time the Dutch were determined to prevent their enemies from escaping: “three or fower score men with musketts and pikes” pursued the fleeing Spaniards right into the town.

As for Scarborough’s own forces against a landward assault, these were hardly any stronger. The defensive stone wall, which Richard III had started, remained incomplete: between Newborough and Auborough Bars there was only an earthen bank and shallow ditch, known as the New Dyke. Scarborough borough’s own home-guard militia were conspicuously short of numbers, training, weaponry and ammunition. When “a review of arms” was taken in April 1640, only 15 men turned out, ten of them had only muskets and seven of the ten were “deficient” in one way or another.