Town’s medieval ghosts

An early view of St Nicholas Cliff, where the St Nicholas Hospital once stood (picture courtesy Max Payne collection).
An early view of St Nicholas Cliff, where the St Nicholas Hospital once stood (picture courtesy Max Payne collection).
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Written by Dr Jack Binns

The monks, friars and chantry priests have long since left Scarborough and all that survive of them are the ghostly reminders of their homes and churches.

For nearly 400 years much of Scarborough’s town property and all of its religious life were in the care of men in holy orders. Unlike Bridlington and Whitby, which were dominated and virtually owned by monks, Black Canons in the former and Black Monks in the latter, Scarborough never felt the heavy, restrictive hand of medieval monasticism. Cistercians then Augustinians siphoned off some of the tithe income of St Mary’s parish church and greatly influenced its architecture, but neither had much to do with its municipal government or maritime trade. Far more important in Scarborough’s history were the three orders of friars, particularly the Grey Friars or Franciscans.

Though most modern residents are unaware of their origin or significance, the ghostly reminders are in surviving place-names. The Franciscans had their priory in the area bounded today by Friargate, Longwestgate, Cook’s Row and St Sepulchre Street, so that Friarage school is appropriately named, but Friargate is a bogus name without historical precedent.

In 1935, the headmaster of Friarage Senior Boys’ School (the school-leaving age was then 14), Frank Drake, complained of the Borough Council’s choice of Friargate as the address for their new houses that were replacing the old ones in Dumple Street. “It is not Friargate, it never was Friargate, and it never will be or can be Friargate”, he wrote. Mr Drake’s history was impeccable, but his prediction flawed. The way to the Franciscan priory once called Greyfriarsgate was much later re-named Globe Street; but what the headmaster called the “Philistine Streets and Buildings Committee” in the Town Hall was much more concerned with public perception than with historical validity. Dumple Street had too many bad associations and Friargate prevailed. After all, Friarage school does sit directly on top of the church and conventual buildings of the Franciscan brothers.

The Dominican ghosts are more plentiful. We still have Friars’ Gardens, Friars’ Way, formerly Friars’ Entry and, most recently, Blackfriars’ Court, even though we lost Blackfriarsgate to Queen Street a long time ago.

Opposite the lower end of Queen Street, which was once known as Beast Market, on the other side of Newborough, is King Street, another comparatively new name for a very old thoroughfare. The earliest documentary references to it are Ryvauxlane (Rievaulx Lane), indicating that here were once properties, probably warehouses, belonging to the Cistercian monks of Rievaulx abbey. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, Rievaulx Lane eventually became Helperby Lane, after a leading local family, and later still Apple Market. Finally, Apple Market on Thomas Hinderwell’s town plan of 1798 had become King’s Street in the second edition of his history of 1811.

Scarborough town still has several saintly street names of medieval vintage, though St Nicholas and St Thomas Streets are in fact modern revivals of much earlier descriptions and St Nicholas Cliff was for centuries called simply The Cliff.

St Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop of Lycia in what is now Turkey. He became one of the most popular saints in all Christendom. Above all he is remembered as the patron of children, hence Father Christmas or Santa Claus, the American corruption of the Dutch Sinte Klass. But Nicholas did more than bring gifts to children at Christmas time: he is also the saint of seamen and merchants and the patron of numerous countries, cities and churches. He is also the patron saint of pawnbrokers who still use his familiar emblem of three balls.

Scarborough’s hospital of St Nicholas was the creation of William, abbot of Citeaux between 1199 and 1203. He appointed Bernard, a Cistercian monk, as its first master or warden, along with three brethren and three sisters to pray for the souls of Richard Lionheart and John his successor.

Situated on the cliff, outside Newborough ditch, the limit of the town’s residential area, the hospital was for those unfortunates who suffered from leprosy, a disfiguring, incurable and contagious disease imported from the Middle East by returning Crusaders.

A century later, an audit of the hospital’s property revealed that it had eight oxen, seven cows, six heifers, eight sheep and ten horses, pastured on its five oxgangs (between 50 and 90 acres) in Scarborough’s fields.

The hospital of St Nicholas remained a refuge for lepers after the connection with Citeaux was broken and the warden became a Crown appointee. In 1342, when a Scarborough chaplain was “suddenly attacked by the disease of leprosy” and lost his living, he was given “maintenance for life” at the hospital.

After the Reformation, like most of the town’s hospitals for paupers and invalids, St Nicholas was abandoned and fell into ruin; but the cliff where it once stood and the street leading to it perpetuate its name.

During much of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the medieval St Nicholas Gate was re-named Long Room Street, but after the Long or Assembly Room had become the Royal Hotel it reverted to St Nicholas Street.