Written by Dr Jack Binns
There were two kinds of Scarborians, at opposite ends of the Christian spectrum, Recusants and Puritans, who on religious principle refused to attend St Mary’s parish church. Recusants were (Roman) Catholics who put their faith above loyalty to Queen and country and Puritans regarded the Church of England as too Catholic and not Protestant enough. Both groups were very small in Scarborough: most of those who did not attend as required by Elizabethan law were absentee sailors, fishermen and merchants as well as those too infirm and elderly to climb the long flights of steep steps up to St Mary’s.
That the number of Scarborough families which clung to the old faith was extremely small is hardly surprising in the circumstances. The town itself had only a few gentry, such as the Conyers and Laceys, who had turned themselves into lawyers, shipowners and traders. Outside the Liberty, the most powerful and influential landlords, the Gates of Seamer and the Hobys of Hackness, were convinced, pugnacious Puritans. Both of them were carpet-bag southerners replanted in the “backward” North by a southern government anxious to have active and trustworthy allies there. Both kept a close eye on Scarborough.
Sir Henry Gate was castellan of Scarborough castle and waged a commercial war against the borough’s weekly markets in favour of his own at Seamer. In the event, though he (and his son Edward) failed to kill Scarborough’s local commerce, by the time of his death in 1589 he had made certain that, unlike Whitby, the town was not a safe refuge for continental missionary priests or even Catholic goods.
Scarborough’s regular trading contacts with the Low Countries meant that it was naturally open to imports of Catholic seminarists and Catholic works, but at least twice, in 1583 and 1585, shipments of vestments, rosaries, crucifixes, bibles, primers and other “Papist” books were seized en route to Scarborough.
The only leading Scarborough resident known to be a Catholic at this time, bailiff Thomas Williamson, was effectively neutered by Sir Henry. When St Mary’s curate, William Taylor, complained that one of the borough’s bailiffs rarely attended church, never took communion, and was “evillie affected in Religion”, Gate had him removed from office, charged with obstinate recusancy and imprisoned at York. In 1588, as the Spanish Armada sailed past Scarborough, Sir Henry’s garrison occupied the castle. As he told the Privy Council in London, he had maintained an armed presence there for the past 17 years at his own expense.
Not long after Sir Henry’s death, his Protestant place was taken by Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby, the third husband of Lady Margaret of Hackness. Hoby’s father had died before his birth, hence the name “Posthumous”, but his godmother was Queen Elizabeth, his uncle, Lord Burghley, and his stepfather, Lord Russell, a formidable combination of sponsors.
Sir Thomas had no difficulty becoming MP for Scarborough in 1597 and again in 1604 and was soon justice of the peace in both North and East Ridings. And not only did he busy himself in Scarborough’s politics, religion and schooling, but pursued the Cholmleys of Whitby on account of their stubborn attachment to Catholicism. It was Hoby’s vital contribution to the persecution of the neighbourhood’s biggest landowners that eventually forced Sir Henry Cholmley and his wife Margaret, who had already endured several weeks imprisonment, to conform publicly to the Anglican church.
Hoby’s abrasive, arrogant manner robbed him of many potential friends in Scarborough and he soon clashed openly and head-on with the Thompsons, the borough’s leading mercantile family. From 1610 he sat in the Commons for Ripon and spent only one bad-tempered year as senior bailiff in the Common Hall. Though he insisted on his Puritan nominees preaching in the church of St Thomas and teaching in the grammar school, surviving evidence suggests that he did not always get his own way.
If Scarborough’s Elizabethan Catholics are illusive, the town’s Puritan population is even harder to find because it would then have passed unrecorded muster with the churchwardens and magistrates. However, Scarborough did have one outstanding non-resident Puritan who represented the borough no fewer than four times in 1559, 1563, 1571 and 1584, Sir William Strickland.
The Stricklands were originally of Marske in the North Riding, but Sir William, who was granted arms in 1550 and displayed the American turkey cock on his coat, acquired five manors further south – Wintringham, Huttons Ambo, Boynton, Hildenley and (Place) Newton near Malton. By 1571 he was the acknowledged spokesman of a Commons group and there described as a “grave and ancient man of great zeal”. His stern, unbending Puritanism earned him the title of “Strickland the stinger”.
After the failure of a conference with Anglican bishops to persuade them to re-write the Book of Common Prayer, Strickland introduced a parliamentary bill to abolish the surplice, kneeling at communion, making the sign of the cross at baptism and other practices which Puritans regarded as abhorrently superstitious and papist. When, against warnings, he persevered with his bill, he was sequestered from the House and brought before the Privy Council to answer for his impudence.
Sir William was fortunate not to be imprisoned and allowed to return to his Commons seat. Perhaps he had learned his lesson: though re-elected for Scarborough in 1584, Strickland made no further assaults on the established church and was buried at Wintringham in 1598.
Throughout the reign of Elizabeth from 1558 until 1603, in ten consecutive elections Scarborough’s 44 electors always returned at least one Puritan to represent the borough, not just Strickland but Sir Henry Gate and his son Edward, Sir Ralph Bourchier of Beningborough and Sir Thomas Hoby of Hackness. So perhaps the town’s oligarchy was not so “backward” as the last asserted.