Obstinate recusants

Magdalen College, Oxford
Magdalen College, Oxford

by Dr Jack Binns

English Catholics hoped that the death of the old Queen Elizabeth in 1603 would bring from Scotland a more tolerant regime under King James, but they were soon disappointed. For this they had to blame mainly a Yorkshireman called Guy Fawkes.

By 1604 the 20-year-long war with Catholic Spain had come to an end and with it the past accusation that an English Catholic was by definition not just a heretic but an unpatriotic traitor. But the revelation of the Gunpowder Plot the following year was a disaster for what remained of the Catholic nation. Henceforth, everyone in the country was reminded on November 5 of the wicked conspiracy to murder royal family, Lords and Commons in one explosion. Annually, Parliament ordered “a public thanksgiving to Almighty God” for England’s deliverance and bonfires were lit to burn, not Guy Fawkes, but an effigy of the Pope.

It was not an accident that the Gunpowder Plot had strong associations with Yorkshire. Three of the conspirators were educated at St Peter’s school at York and two more were offspring of the Catholic Inglebys of Ripley castle. When the Catholic Queen Anne of Denmark had passed through York on her way to London she was greeted by a large number of the county’s Catholic ladies. And of the 20 members of the Council of the North which met in the city at least nine had Catholic connections. Not surprisingly, therefore, rather than relaxing the Elizabethan penal laws against Catholic recusants, after 1605 they were intensified and strengthened. The result was that during the next two decades half-hearted and impoverished Catholics gave in and conformed to the Anglican Church and only the reduced hard-core stood fast. A few of these obstinate recusants lived in Scarborough.

William Lawson (or Lowson) made his first appearance in Scarborough’s surviving churchwardens’ records in January 1621. He was brought before the bailiff magistrates “for not comminge to the church for the space of one year”. It seems that Lawson’s presentment at the Scarborough quarter sessions the previous October “for absentinge himself from the church on the sabboth dayes” had proved entirely ineffective. Later it becomes clear that William Lawson was a shipmaster engaged in trade with Rotterdam and that he had a home near the Butter Cross.

Given his occupation, Lawson’s absenteeism from St Mary’s might have been unavoidable, but time after time he was presented before the court not just for one month but for the whole past year in 1622, 1623, 1625 and 1626. And William Lawson made his last court appearance in July 1626 “for not coming to church for one whole month & for not receiving the sacrament for one whole yeare” only because he had died soon afterwards.

Here was one rare, unrepentant Scarborough recusant who left a considerable estate in his will, benefiting his five sons and one daughter with 10 acres on St Nicholas Cliff, six in Chapel Close at Falsgrave and six more in Ramsdale and on South Cliff.

As a persistent, obstinate absentee from St Mary’s parish church, William Lawson was succeeded by John Wolfe. He first came before the jurors at the July sessions of 1624 “because he kept men drinking in his house in time of divine prayer & sermons on Sunday afternoon last past”.

From then on John headed the churchwardens’ lists of Sunday absentees in 1625, 1626, 1627, 1629, 1630, 1633 and 1634. In the last year he was described as “a tanner of the age of three score years or thereabouts” and presented “for an Obstinate Recusant...” Finally, in 1636, he is said to have been absent for the past three years and is therefore “excommunicate”.

John Wolfe’s place in history is not defined by his trade as a tanner or his residence and work in St Thomasgate, but because he was the father of “the most distinguished Jesuit missionary in the North Riding”, William Lacey Wolfe. William was also the son of a Lacey mother and therefore of a family which had already produced a priest martyr, William Lacey, executed at York in 1582.

Born in Scarborough two years later and educated at its grammar school, William was sent up to Magdalen College Oxford where he became a Catholic convert. After training at St Omer seminary and the English College at Rome, he returned to England as a missionary just at the time when his father was being first identified in Scarborough as a recusant.

Though Lawson and Wolfe were the only certain Catholic recusants in the town, there were several other residents in the 1620s and 1630s named as prolonged absentees by St Mary’s churchwardens: Nicholas Briarcliffe, for the whole of 1622; Mr Conyers and his wife, Eleanor, between 1629 and 1633; and William Legge, from 1624 until 1627.

Mrs Eleanor Conyers was a very rich lady. From her first husband, John Lacey, who died in 1623, she had inherited a herring house and a tavern, and from her son, Robert Lacey, who was buried at York in 1627, Scalby’s upper water mill, Pillory Close behind St Mary’s and Garland Close under Weaponness. By 1635 she was again widowed but bought an expensive new pew for herself in a preferential place at the front of the nave in St Mary’s near to the altar and the bailiffs’ pew. Here was one upper-class late convert to the established Protestant church.

Finally, Scarborough had a neighbouring gentry family, the Wyvills of Osgodby, who refused to conform. The Wyvills already had an early religious martyr. For his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace, John Wyvill, “a gentleman of £20 lands”, had been hanged in chains outside Newborough Bar. Now William, eldest son and heir of Roger Wyvill, “a very active Justice”, was born in Scarborough and was sent by his father in 1632 to the English Catholic College at Douai. Later, on his return to Yorkshire, like most Catholic gentlemen, he fought in the Civil War on the Royalist side.