Nostalgia: A neighbourly dispute

There is an old proverb about not kicking a man after you have knocked him down, but, when his 'victim' was Scarborough, Sir Henry Gate of Seamer had no compunction about 'kicking' him.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 30th August 2016, 10:00 am
Seamers weekly Monday market was re-opened by Sir Henry Gate.
Seamers weekly Monday market was re-opened by Sir Henry Gate.

Ever since the accession of Protestant Queen Elizabeth in 1558, Sir Henry Gate had prospered. Suspected of plotting to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne, since 1553 he had been imprisoned in the Tower by Catholic Queen Mary’s order, but now he was released, granted the lordship of the former royal manor of Seamer, membership of the powerful Council in the North at York, seats on the justices’ benches of the East and North Ridings, the rectory of St Martin’s church together with the two chapels at Cayton and East Ayton, and in 1559 chosen to represent Scarborough in the House of Commons.

Initially, there was no reason for Scarborians to fear the presence or power of their new, close neighbour. They continued to elect him as their senior representative in Parliament and, when in 1571 he became one of Yorkshire’s knights of the shire, in his place they elected his eldest son and heir, Edward. In 1569-70, Sir Henry’s conspicuous and effective opposition to the rebellion of the Catholic northern earls earned him control of Scarborough castle and its garrison.

Scarborough had need of influential friends with royal favour. According to a lengthy, pathetic petition addressed by its burgesses to Queen Elizabeth in 1565, the town was suffering from a serious decline as a fishing and commercial port. Where once there had been 20 fish merchants at the harbour, now there were only six; foreigners who once brought in valuable merchandise such as wines yielding duties up to £100 a year, now landed only fish; and the harbour pier, so essential for securing sheltering ships and boats, was badly decayed. What the petition did not reveal was that to repair and reinforce the pier, in recent years the Common Hall had stripped and sold the lead from the roof of the church of St Thomas and demolished the church of the Holy Sepulchre to re-use its stone and auction its contents.

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Queen Elizabeth was so moved by Scarborough’s plight that she donated £500 in money, 100 tons of timber from her woods, and six tons of iron for a new harbour pier. It was far from enough. During the next 20 years, the new stone pier, 267 yards long, cost the town about £2,000, still needed £40 a year for annual maintenance, and was still being breached by storms because it was founded on clay, not rock.

In these circumstances, it came as a most unwelcome surprise to Scarborough’s burgesses when their senior MP re-opened Seamer’s weekly Monday market. This market and an annual fair had been granted by Richard II in 1382 to the then lord of Seamer manor, Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, as a reward for putting down a riot at Scarborough.

However, such was then the influence and wealth of Scarborough that the Percy family soon ceased to operate either market of fair. Seamer market suffered the same fate as those of Brompton, Sherburn and Filey - victims of Scarborough’s jealously-guarded commercial monopoly of its hinterland.

There was no strong complaint to an annual fair at Seamer, since held at the beginning of July it would not clash with Scarborough’s own great herring fair in August and September; but a Monday market of the produce of the moors, the Wolds and the Vale of Pickering would be intolerable.

However, Sir Henry would not budge. Eventually, in self-defence, Scarborough’s burgesses had no choice but to resort to the law, despite the costs and long delays it would entail. Of the many appeals made against Seamer market, Scarborough’s bill of 1583 to the Court of the Exchequer sets out the borough’s case in detail.

Scarborough’s own right to hold two weekly street markets on Thursdays and Saturdays was based on the royal charter of 1253 and exercised ever since, though the charter had to be renewed every new reign and paid for annually. By 1583, the borough’s fee-farm rent to the royal treasury had grown to £91 a year. Also, as a royal borough, the town had to pay parliamentary subsidies to the Crown of £33 6s 8d.

Yet these privileges of fair and markets were not unconditional. Scarborough had to carry the expensive burden of maintaining the only safe haven for shipping between Newcastle and Hull, and, in time of war, offer refuge “against forren enemyes and outward hostileyte”. The implication here was that, unlike Scarborough, Seamer was of little or no value to either Crown or nation.

And there was more. Not only did Sir Henry Gate’s market threaten Scarborough’s fragile economy, but some of his tenants had trespassed on the borough’s ancient commons on Falsgrave moor and diverted a water course which helped to drive its three water mills in Ramsdale, causing a loss to the town of £20 a year.

The boundary between the liberty of Scarborough and the manor of Seamer on Falsgrave moor had long since been disputed. Did the dividing line run along the course of the Edgehill beck or further west down Skalkeld beck marked by boundary stones on Oxcliff? The quarrel came to a head on August 1, 1584, when some burgesses decided to assert their claims by “riding the bounds”. However, the perambulation had to be abandoned when they were violently confronted and assaulted by armed servants and tenants of Sir Henry.

One further issue which probably added more damage to relations between Sir Henry and Scarborough was that of religion. He regarded himself, with government encouragement, as the local guardian of the Protestant cause. He believed that it was his duty and his priority to root out treasonable Catholicism wherever he found it. As a result, he went out of his way to denounce one of Scarborough’s elected bailiffs, Thomas Williamson, as a papist recusant. In 1583 Williamson was taken to York and lodged in the prison there. No doubt such interference by an outsider in the borough’s government would have been deeply resented on Sandside.

[part two next week]