Wanted: A new vicar

St Mary's Church
St Mary's Church

by Dr Jack Binns

With some exceptions, contemporary professional historians now agree that the civil wars of the 1640s were essentially religious in content and issues. In Ireland, majority Catholics fought against minority Protestants; in Scotland, Presbyterians rebelled against Anglican rule; and in England, the established church came under attack from a variety of Puritan Protestants who regarded it as dangerously Roman in direction.

The defeat of the Royalists and the victory of Parliament and its allies, the Scottish Presbyterians, in effect ended the monopoly of the Church of England and the royal supremacy. By 1649, the abolition of bishops, the House of Lords and the monarchy had destroyed the legal and religious establishment. Church attendance was no longer compulsory: all forms of nonconformist Protestant practice were not only permitted but actually encouraged and use of the Book of Common Prayer was forbidden.

Scarborough could no more escape the religious outcomes of Parliament’s victory than it could evade its military and political effects. After Cholmley’s surrender of the castle and his departure, the Common Hall regime on Sandside changed from Royalist to Roundhead.

One particular resident who suffered badly from Royalist defeat was St Mary’s vicar since 1630, Mr William Simpson. A letter written on behalf of the borough’s two Bailiffs, John Harrison and Thomas Gill, to Scarborough’s two new MPs, Sir Matthew Boynton and Luke Robinson, contained a sweeping condemnation of the late vicar. When Cholmley had changed allegiance from Parliament to the King in 1643, Simpson had become his domestic chaplain and said prayers in his house. From St Mary’s pulpit he had denounced all those “traitors” who took up arms against Charles. Once he had believed that papists were “a bloody minded people”, but now he was convinced that “Anabaptists, Brownists, Separatists and Schismaticks [all Puritans]” were worse than papists. Simpson had two sons in the castle with Cholmley and one of them afterwards went to sea as a “pirate”.

Clearly, in Parliament’s terms, Simpson was a “malignant”, who had forfeited his right to a preaching ministry. But the vicar would not go quietly: he would not give up the vicarage, he denied the slanders on his name, and claimed that he was owed £58 in back pay from the Thompsons, the Royalist rectors. From his “exile” in Cloughton he appealed to Luke Robinson for help. He had no horse, no income, was too ill to walk and had yet to see any order from Parliament depriving him of his “inheritance” at Scarborough. Yet he ought to have known that Luke Robinson, a republican Puritan, was the last man who might have sympathised with a “disaffected malignant minister”.

From October 1645 until March 1646, Scarborough parish employed a temporary “preaching minister” called Mr Boatman; but since Parliament had sequestered the Thompson estate there was no stipend for him. The Common Hall had to ask the town for a voluntary subscription to pay for his half-year salary.

By June 1646 the Common Hall had “elected Mr Wood” to be the parish’s permanent vicar. An unsigned testimonial described him as sober, honest and very faithful to Parliament. Yet when the parishioners of Whitby discovered that their “godlie orthodox preaching minister” was about to be taken from them they protested in the strongest terms. “Wee are unwilling to part from him & hope you will not desire us to be left without a shepheard.” And Mr Wood was unwilling to move south until he had assurance that Simpson had in fact vacated the place. Finally, after a further examination of Mr Wood’s credentials had satisfied the Bailiffs that he was truly diligent, sober and free of blasphemies, he and his family moved into Scarborough vicarage.

But there was still the unresolved problem of stipend. By the beginning of 1648, Mr Wood was in such “great necessitie...for want of the sallayre” that the Common Hall had to make him a loan from its own membership. Not until March 1649 was the vicar of Scarborough allowed £50 a year out of the income of Skipsea in Holderness. For Mr Wood it was too late; and as for his widow, Dorothy, who now lived in Harwood Dale, she had still not received her husband’s last half-year’s income.

During these troubled years, while the parish was trying to find and finance a suitable preacher, repair and restoration work on St Mary’s was continuous and very expensive. There was no subsidy from London. A town that had supported Cholmley’s Royalists and a harbour that had been refuge for Royalist “pirates” had only itself to blame for the destruction caused by the siege of 1645. Scarborians would have to foot the bills they had foolishly incurred.

The extent of the damage done to St Mary’s is revealed by the churchwardens’ “disbursements”. For example, during the year 1646-7 more than £100 was spent reflagging the stone floors, re-glazing and leading the windows, replacing doors and mending the steeple stairs. Nearly all of this money, more than £93, was raised by taxing Scarborough’s householders. St Mary’s own income from rents and fees was totally inadequate to meet such colossal charges.

Nevertheless, even during these extraordinary “tymes of triall” every effort was made to maintain pre-war customs and standards. In March, May and June 1647 the churchwardens paid out five shillings, the standard reward, for five fox heads; and during that year no less than 11 shillings and sixpence for five visits to mend the church clock. Though they could not always find his salary, they also invested £2 10s. 5d. in a “quishion” (cushion) for the preacher’s pulpit.