Town becomes a battleground

St Mary's Parish Church & Castle
St Mary's Parish Church & Castle
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by Dr Jack Binns

On Thursday July 27, 1648, Colonel Matthew Boynton, Parliament’s governor of Scarborough, draped a red flag over the curtain wall of the castle to declare his changed allegiance to the imprisoned King Charles and his eldest son, the Prince of Wales. Having recently endured one devastating civil war, Scarborough was about to experience another.

For a second time since 1643, Parliament’s military governor had turned coat and, without bloodshed, won over his garrison and taken the town and harbour with 

Though nearly half of the Common Hall made themselves scarce, at St Mary’s the following Monday a general gathering of Scarborough’s householders agreed to support Boynton with men and money.

However, the bad news for Scarborians this time was the refusal of Boynton to retire to the castle and the inability of Parliament’s forces to drive the Royalists back into it.

The town itself now became a battleground. In particular, what we call Castle Road and was then High Tollergate was the site of a series of fierce, bloody battles between contending cavalry and cannon. Afterwards, Parliament’s Colonels Bethell and Legard, both Yorkshiremen like Boynton, fell back to Falsgrave to wait there for reinforcements.

Worse was to follow. At the end of August, a rag-bag mixture of about 300 Royalist mercenaries came ashore at Scarborough and billeted themselves in the town. What remained of the members of the Common Hall now withdrew their financial support and in retaliation Boynton locked them out of the chamber on Sandside.

Finally, during the morning of September 15, Scarborough town and harbour were overrun by the Roundheads, but this time there was no planned, orderly withdrawal to the castle by the defenders.

No quarter was asked for or given. The “foreigners” were all either killed in street fighting or butchered after surrendering. Even Parliament’s own propagandist press admitted that “prisoners, some Walloons [French-speaking Catholics], whom the soldiers took for Irishmen [were] put to the sword, countrymen not knowing the difference of languages”. (In October 1644 Parliament had ordered that any Irishman “in arms” should be killed without mercy).

Whether Walloons or Irishmen, there seems little doubt that these “ruffians”, unlike Boynton’s own Yorkshiremen, had “used much cruelty” towards the civilian population of Scarborough and the town had suffered from their uninvited occupation.

One major casualty of this second close encounter with the brutalities of civil war was the chapel of St Thomas the Martyr at Newborough Gate. Already damaged by previous misuse and long neglect, it was now considered beyond repair. Part of it had already fallen and the rest was ready to fall, “for as much of the timber and slates are stollen away by evill disposed persons”.

According to various reports, St Thomas’s had been abused as a stable and as a magazine. The Common Hall now authorised that whatever could be salvaged from it should be re-employed to repair St Mary’s, now Scarborough’s one remaining place of worship. And St Mary’s would need all the help it could get.

It took another three months to prise Boynton out of the castle. This time the Roundheads did not have the heavy ordnance to batter down its re-inforced walls and Boynton had pulled down the schoolhouse and former charnel chapel to give his superior cannon a clear field of fire. Once again St Mary’s became a primary artillery target.

Though the Bailiffs asked Bethell not to “deface the pewes & seates in the church”, the parish church was too conveniently positioned for besiegers of the castle and soldiers never respected its furniture and fittings. By December 1648 all the money and skilled craftsmanship that had been spent on St Mary’s during the past three years had been wasted. When Boynton’s troops marched out of the castle on Tuesday, December 19 “colours flying, drums beating, muskets loaded...and bullet in mouth” to lay down their arms on Scarborough Common (the northside of Victoria Road), they passed by a ruined wreck that had once been a medieval masterpiece.

Again, what survive of St Mary’s churchwardens’ “disbursements” tell the sorry tale in detail. Now there could be no rescue for the chancel, the north transept or the north aisle, all exposed to Boynton’s cannon, and remaining stones from the charnel chapel, as well as those from St Thomas’s, were used to fill in the gaps. During the next four years, Farrer’s Aisle, the south transept, was converted into the town’s new grammar school “for the time being”.

But there were many other pressing calls on Scarborough’s chamberlains’ budget. Every public building in the town, the Common Hall itself, the prison, the pinfold and the vital aqueduct or conduit bringing water down from Falsgrave springs, needed attention. Weaponness had lost all its fences and gates that secured the town’s livestock. An expensive loss was the town bull: it cost £3 12s. 2d. to replace it.

In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the structural weakness of St Mary’s “steeple” was overlooked or underestimated. On the night of October 10, 1659, a storm blew down most of the central bell tower which fell on what remained of the chancel and the north aisle. Though the restored royal government of Charles II showed more sympathy than its predecessor would have done, a national appeal in 1660 yielded less than £250 for a project estimated to cost ten times that amount. The re-building of St Mary’s was postponed indefinitely.

Still, perhaps St Mary’s new vicar, the severe, puritanical, humourless Edward Carleton did not much mind that he had to preach in a drab, bare, shattered building.

His unseated predecessor, William Simpson, had profited the town’s vintners with his regular order for claret and canary, whereas Carleton informed against his own parish clerk when he saw him “stagger in the street”.