Restoration of St Mary’s

editorial image

by Dr Jack Binns

Between 1850 and 1870, particularly during the 1860s, Scarborough gained some of its finest church buildings, though several of them were to be demolished or secularised a century later. And between 1848 and 1850 the parish church of St Mary’s was almost re-built, rather than merely 

As the Scarborough Gazette reported on August 1, 1850, St Mary’s had been reduced to a deplorable, disgraceful wreck. Its “fine architectural features” were “almost buried internally under the accumulation of excrescences in the shape of galleries, canopies and staircases, mounting nearly to the roof, and exhibiting every kind of deformity. Every window, with one fine exception, was debased. The walls were thickly covered with whitewash.” The organ gallery across the west window blocked the building’s main light and the floor was awkwardly uneven. The outer walls were so damp from adjacent graves that they had rotted the woodwork of pews.

The successful clearance and material repair of two centuries of clutter and neglect suggest that an attempt had been made to return to post-Reformation Puritan simplicity; but this would be a mistaken interpretation of what was intended by architect Ewan Christian and his Anglican employers. Far from returning to Calvinist austerity, restoration was meant to “revive fully the spirit of the medieval school of architecture”; and, if there had been the financial means, no doubt the great eastern choir would have been re-built in its original 15th century style and with it the north transept, another permanent casualty of the Civil War. The clearance of boxed pews and galleries was intended to reveal the architectural splendour of the interior as well as afford many more ground-floor free places.

The summary expulsion of the grammar school from Farrer’s Aisle or the south transept and its conversion into the church vestry illustrated the radical difference in attitudes between 1649 and 1849. One contemporary Victorian clergyman described the presence of the school in God’s house of worship as an “abuse”, a “perversion” and a “sacrilege in morals and criminal law”. This was the ringing voice of the Oxford Movement.

When the archbishop of York preached his sermon at the re-opening of the restored St Mary’s in July 1850, he felt it necessary to alert the congregation to the manifest signs of relapse from the doctrine and practices of the Church of England. In particular, he warned against those “tending towards the abominations of papal Rome”.

Probably the venerable archbishop had in mind some recent “alarming” developments as a result of what by then had come to be called the Oxford Movement. Since the 1830s, a group of ordained Oxford dons, notably John Keble, John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey, had been publishing a series of tracts and preaching sermons in favour of a new, revitalised vision of the established church.

They were all hostile to Parliament’s repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828, which made it possible for Protestant Dissenters to take a full and equal part in local and national politics, and passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act the following year which granted the same rights to Roman Catholics. They insisted that the Church of England was the only truly apostolic, divine religious institution in the land.

However, after Newman had declared in Tract 90, the last one, that the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563, the basic Anglican doctrine, were not inconsistent with Catholicism, he then shook the established clergy to the core by announcing his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Finally, in 1846, he was ordained a Catholic priest.

The Oxford Movement had much in common with the Arminian tendency 200 years earlier. Keble, Pusey and the others who came to be called Anglo-Catholics sought to restore to the established church much of the ritual and many of the practices and sacraments that had been jettisoned at the Protestant Reformation, particularly confession, the monastic life, and the celibacy of the priesthood. But Newman had taken one decisive and further step back all the way to Rome.

No doubt, also, in July 1850, the archbishop of York was mindful of the re-establishment of a Roman Catholic hierarchy of bishops and priests that was taking place at that very moment in England and Wales, an event that would have seemed inconceivable in his youth and was still bitterly opposed by Protestants of all denominations.

Ever since the days of Queen Elizabeth I there had been a common assumption that England was permanently Protestant and that Catholicism was foreign, superstitious and sinister. Catholics had been excluded from public office and life for 300 years and since the Act of Settlement of 1702 excluded from the throne.

But in 1801 the Act of Union brought seven million, mostly Catholic, Irish into the kingdom and the potato famine more than 40 years later forced a million of them across the Irish Sea into England. No wonder the archbishop was worried!

Only six years later, in October 1856, the foundation stone of St Peter’s Roman Catholic church was laid little more than a hundred yards down Castle Road from St Mary’s. And, in 1858, what the former archbishop of York had denounced as “the abominations of papal Rome” were being openly declared there in the presence of a growing number of Scarborough’s Catholics, many of them of Irish origin.