OF ALL the many patients of Dr Robert Wittie at Scarborough, the one we know most about is Mrs Alice Thornton. Though she was neither native nor resident of the town, her surviving autobiography provides a vivid account of not only her own remarkable life but the terrifying conditions in which she lived more than three hundred years ago.
Alice was born in 1627, one of the five children of Christopher Wandesford of Kirklington Hall, a fine Elizabethan mansion in the North Riding between Ripon and Thirsk.
At first, the Wandesfords prospered. Christopher was appointed Lord Deputy in Ireland by King Charles I and the family lived in the splendour of Dublin Castle. But When Alice was only 14 a series of catastrophic events made the Wandesfords, mother and children, into almost penniless refugees.
Christopher died suddenly at the age of 48; his life-long friend and patron, another Yorkshireman, the Earl of Strafford, was condemned to death by the English Parliament and executed; and an Irish Catholic uprising against English Protestant rule there forced the Wandesfords to flee the country and cross the Irish sea to an England now torn apart by civil war. The Wandesfords were Puritan Royalists.
After passing through Cheshire and Lancashire, the family found shelter at the home of Alice’s eldest sister, Catherine, the wife of Sir Thomas Danby of Masham: but not for long. Soon afterwards, Catherine died at the age of 28 as a result of her 16th pregnancy and the Wandesfords moved again to Hipswell near Richmond.
By this time the King’s army in the North had been routed at Marston Moor and Yorkshire was overrun by Scottish soldiers who showed little mercy for Royalist families such as the Danbys and the Wandesfords. At the age of 18 Alice had a narrow escape from a Scottish captain who, when his offer to buy her for three or four thousand pounds was rejected by Mrs Wandesford, he threatened to ‘deflower’ her daughter.
Though the Wandesfords just managed to survive the civil war and the deadly plague which depopulated Richmond in 1645, Alice’s eldest brother, George, was drowned trying to cross the swollen river Swale on horseback. The horse swam safely to the opposite bank.
At 24, Alice was married off to William Thornton of East Newton Hall in Ryedale. Without father or fortune, there was no dowry and so Alice had to settle for a husband who was sickly, weak-willed and improvident.
Nevertheless, between 1651 and 1667, Alive gave birth to nine children but only three of them lived for long. The other six died of a variety of illnesses from rickets and consumption to convulsions and diarrhoea. Fortunately for Alice, now exhausted and chronically sick by the age of 40, William died of palsy. There could be no more pregnancies.
Not expecting to live much longer and left a widow with three infants. Alice spent the next year writing her memoirs. Had she known that she was destined to survive another four decades, she might have written more later. Of her children Robert or Robin, who had given her so much pain to bring into the world, later became a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. He died before his 30th birthday and was buried in Durham cathedral. Her eldest daughter, baptized Alice yet known as Naly, was married to the Dean of Durham who became rector of Stonegrave. It was in Stonegrave church where his mother-in-law was buried in 1706.
Both William and Alice Thornton had been patients of Dr Wittie and from their home at East Newton they visited Scarborough frequently on their doctor’s advice.
Alice’s first reference to Dr Wittie occurred when he came to her home to attend William and recommended that he should be bled. It seems that, like most of his medical contemporaries, Wittie favoured bleeding as a cure or palliative for many ailments. During her first pregnancy he told Alice that she would fall into a fever unless excess blood was drawn to cool her down.
However, Wittie was also an advocate of spa waters other than those of Scarborough’s. For Alice’s third child, Betty, who had rickets, he prescribed immersion five, seven or nine times in St Mungo’s well at Knaresborough. Betty died soon afterwards.
Alice first travelled to Scarborough with William in 1659. Wittie recommended the spa waters there for her haemorrhoids. She stayed a month, drank the waters daily and conceived a sixth child who lived only hours. From 1660 onwards the Thorntons came to Scarborough every season to take the waters though not to bathe in the sea. The latter ‘remedy’ would probably have killed both of them.
Finally, in 1668, on his way to Scarborough from East Newton, William suffered a relapse and had to turn back home. Dr Wittie rode over from Scarborough to see him, told Alice that he would recover and he died shortly afterwards. A letter of sympathy and condolence from ‘good Dr Wittie’ was greatly appreciated by the new widow.
Amazingly, Alice Thornton lived on until the age of 80. Perhaps the spa waters at Scarborough had indeed prolonged her life, despite her husband’s many attempts to shorten it. To her we must be much indebted that she left not merely a gravestone inscribed with only ‘Alice Thornton 1706’ but an account of the trials and tribulations of a Yorkshire gentlewomen of the 17th century.