Henry Gate: The man who nearly ruined Scarborough

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Sir Henry Gate was not a Yorkshireman by birth. He was a southern carpet-bagger transplanted to the North by Queen Elizabeth I because he was known to be a zealous, loyal Protestant and Yorkshire was then still notoriously attached to “the old Catholic faith.”

Within a few years after Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, Sir Henry had a permanent seat on the Queen’s Council in the North of York, a place on the justices’ bench of the North and East Ridings, and the stewardship of Pickering Lythe, and area that ran from Sinnington to Scarborough and from Whitby down to Filey.

Ever since the Percy family had fallen foul of Henry VIII, their manor of Seamer had been forfeited to the Crown. However, in 1559, the Queen granted Gate Seamer’s lordship and the lands attached to it. The following year from her he also received the rectory of St Martin’s parish church and the chapels of East Ayton and Cayton which had once belonged to Whitby abbey.

Sir Henry had soon repaid the privileges entrusted to him. When the Northern earls of Northumberland and Westmorland rose in rebellion on behalf of imprisoned Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, Gate mobilised the militia of Pickering Lythe, occupied Scarborough castle, and later took 300 of his armed men all the way to Hartlepool to hold it against the threat of a Spanish landing there. The rising collapsed, Westmorland fled abroad, and Northumberland was executed at York.

Not surprisingly, as the leading authority in the area, Sir Henry was chosen by Scarborough’s 44 Common Hall voters to represent the borough in Parliament. By them he was returned three times in 1559, 1563 and 1572 and sat as one of Yorkshire’s two knights of the shire in the Parliaments of 1571 and 1586.

But his decision in 1577 to re-open Seamer’s weekly Monday market and its annual July fair brought him into head-on conflict with Scarborough’s burgesses.

Both market and fair had been granted by royal charter in 1382 to Henry Percy, first earl of Northumberland, then lord of the manor of Seamer. For how long the Percies exercised their right to hold both is not known, but it is certain that after they lost the manor to the Crown in 1537 neither had functioned.

Sir Henry’s motive in re-activating market and fair was mainly financial: his income from rents, tithes and fees was barely sufficient to sustain his status and his many unpaid public responsibilities. Even his seat on the Queen’s Council at York earned him only £20 a year.

Scarborough’s burgesses had no objection to the revival of Seamer’s early July fair: their own great herring fair ran for 45 days from August 25 to September 29. But a weekly Monday market only three miles inland was regarded as a direct competitor to Scarborough’s weekly Thursday and Saturday street markets.

A ban on markets at Sherburn, Brompton and Filey had for long given Scarborough a virtual monopoly of trade with its hinterland. Yet perfectly placed between the Wolds, Moors and Vale, Seamer was much easier to reach than Scarborough for the exchange and sale of local produce. Scarborough’s only asset was fish.

By opening a market that would guarantee him a steady income from tolls and shop rents, Sir Henry could not have foreseen that he had started a commercial war that would outlast his lifetime. For the next 25 years there was almost continuous conflict between three generations of the Gate family and Scarborough’s burgesses.

The dispute was fought mainly and expensively by lawyers in a variety of courts. Scarborough contended that a market at Seamer would impoverish the town which paid £91 a year to the Crown for its trading privileges. Without its revenue from the weekly markets the borough could not afford to maintain the harbour pier which alone provided the only safe refuge for shipping between Newcastle and Hull.

In reply, Sir Henry argued that Scarborians had already impoverished themselves long before 1577. Once they had prospered by fishing, boat-building and other sea-faring crafts, but they had abandoned these in favour of beer-brewing and the sale of over-priced corn. His intention was not to hurt Scarborough. A permanent market at Seamer would be free, fair and cheapen goods for the benefit of the whole neighbourhood.

By the 1580s Gate seemed to be winning the war. At least 31 villages in the East Riding to the south and the Vale of Pickering to the west presented endorsed petitions in favour of his market. When commissioners sitting at Hutton Buscel invited witnesses to come forward, Sir Henry had support also from men as far away as Rosedale and Eskdaleside.

In desperation, the Common Hall on Sandside forbade all townspeople from attending Seamer on Mondays when it was learned that William Fysh, one of Scarborough’s leading merchants, had set up a shop there. However, when the borough’s two bailiffs wanted to sue Sir Henry they were opposed by a formidable group in the chamber led by the Peacocks, Thompsons and Fyshs.

And, despite advancing age, Sir Henry was more powerful than ever in the locality. For his son, Edward, he had secured the custody of Scarborough castle, life tenancy of Northstead manor and seats on the North Riding and East Riding benches. As war with Spain intensified and the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587 brought the danger of a foreign invasion combined with another Catholic rising ever closer, Sir Henry’s value to Queen Elizabeth grew even greater.

However, the defeat of the Spanish armada followed soon afterwards by Sir Henry’s death tipped the balance in Scarborough’s favour. Though Edward and his sister Mary pursued their father’s claims they did not have their father’s influence. The dispute was dragged out until 1602 and altogether cost Scarborough £2,000 in litigation charges, but finally Edward and his son Henry were bought off by the borough and sold their interest in Seamer to another family for £200.

Yet, in one important sense, in the end, Sir Henry won. His market was lost, but the historical fair he re-founded has survived. Scarborough’s own fair died out in 1788, whereas, despite an attempted traveller take-over, Seamer’s has endured to the present day.