The tenants and neighbours of the Bridlington canons might well have benefited from the closure of their priory, but the community in Scarborough rued the day. Ever since St Mary’s had first been placed in the custody of the prior and convent of Bridlington in 1405, what evidence survives suggests that the town developed a much happier relationship with the black canons than they had with their predecessors, the Cistercians. Whereas the French monks had been in Scarborough merely to collect tithes, the canons had complete possession of the church and its precinct. They carried out repairs to the fabric but also added a new aisled chancel in the Perpendicular style, almost doubling its size. As a result, by 1500, “St Mary’s church in Scarborough must have ranked with the greatest parish churches of Yorkshire”, in the recent words of an authority on ecclesiastical architecture. Though the new choir stalls were normally occupied by clergy attending the daily offices of matins, vespers and compline, at high feasts, such as Purification, Corpus Christi and Assumption, they were reserved for the town’s bailiffs and the Common Hall.
The Protestant Reformation deprived St Mary’s of nearly all of its interior religious furnishings. The altars and shrines of chantry chapels, which had filled the side aisles of nave and chancel, were removed, wall paintings were whitewashed, and the choir stalls sold off. Crown and lay rectors who succeeded the canons failed to fulfil their obligation to maintain the fabric of the chancel which became little more than a cemetery for Scarborough’s richest burgesses. One side aisle there was so monopolised by a family that it came to be called Peacock’s. Sir Ralph Eure, the first lay rector, used his lease from the Crown to strip lead from the parsonage roof and with it made himself a brewing vessel.
When a great storm in 1555 blew away the roof lead from St Mary’s two western towers, the Common Hall auctioned the lead at eight shillings a hundredweight and dismantled the towers. Nine years later, in the absence of the Franciscans, who had used it as their place of worship, St Sepulchre was levelled to the ground. In both cases, the stone and money raised from sales were used to repair the harbour pier.
St Sepulchre was the only serious loss to the town caused by the forcible suppression of Scarborough’s three friaries. By 1539, most of the three friary sites were already leased out to local men as gardens, orchards and flower gardens and altogether their annual rental value came to only 30 shillings and eightpence. Even nearly 200 years later, the three sites were still mainly open spaces on the map.
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So by the time of Shakespeare’s death in 1616, only St Mary’s church had survived Scarborough’s Reformation. St Sepulchre had disappeared, leaving only a street name that locals could neither pronounce nor understand, and the church of St Thomas the Martyr had been reduced to a mere lecture hall for Thursday market day sermons.
In the words of a Whitby historian: “The dissolution of the abbey at the end of 1539 seems to have caused an implosion.” Just before the expulsion of the monks, John Leland, the antiquarian traveller, had described Whitby as “a great fischar toune”, which had a pier and was about to profit from “a new key” built of local cliff stones. Unlike many other of Yorkshire’s religious houses then, Whitby’s 24 monks were still relatively prosperous and their net annual income of £437 placed them amongst the county’s half a dozen richest. Though there had been recent, unseemly quarrels with the townsfolk, the abbey maintained the harbour, provided employment, dispensed charity and stimulated trade to supply its own needs for wine, beer, wool, wax, salt, fish and coal; but after 1539 there would be little demand or buying-power for these goods. And there would be no more pilgrim visitors to the home of St Edwin and St Hilda and no new pier. Whitby was reduced now to rely almost entirely on cod, ling and herring.
Everything of immediate value, lead, glass, bells and precious metals and relics, were shipped to London and the people of Whitby were left to support the dependants of two former religious hospitals as well as the abbey’s own almshouse.
As for the abbey’s hugely extensive estate, nearly all of it, except the most southerly outpost at Hackness, eventually passed to one family, the Cholmleys. Only months after the dissolution, young Richard Cholmley of Roxby castle, took out a 21-year lease from the Crown on the abbey’s buildings, precinct and demesne, nearly 500 acres on both sides of the river Esk. Then, step by step, “the great black knight of the North” gradually added more and more by outright purchase. In 1545, the former priory at Grosmont, the manor of Ugglebarnby and other former Whitby abbey lands at Sleights and Aislaby, were bought for £333. Former Rievaulx farms in Ryedale at Sellybridge and the Marishes were added in 1553, but Sir Richard’s greatest investment came in 1555-6 when for £5,000 he acquired 22,000 acres, consisting of his preliminary lease and the manors of Whitby Laithes, Larpool, Stainsacre, Hawsker and Fyling. The last contained what had been the abbot’s deerpark and lodge. Finally, in 1563, he made his last deal with the Crown, buying the manors of Robin Hood’s Bay, Fyling Raw, Fylingthorpe, Normanby and Stoupe Brow. So when he died 20 years later, he left a continuous bloc of land from Sandsend in the north to Staintondale and Hackness in the south and from the sea coast to the tops of Fylingdales moors, 26,000 acres in all. Unfortunately for his family, his descendants and heirs allowed inflation, extravagance and mismanagement to erode and devalue their inheritance.
Finally, Scarborough had a very early association with the monks of Rievaulx after King Richard Lionheart had given St Mary’s church to the Cistercians in 1189. However, within a decade, the mother house at Citeaux had taken over its control. During succeeding centuries, many of Yorkshire’s religious houses had property in Scarborough, but Rievaulx was the only one to give its name to one. In 1384, what we know as King Street was known as Rievaulx Lane.