Nostalgia: ‘A place of great importance’

Sir Hugh Cholmley
Sir Hugh Cholmley

So how and why did little, defenceless, remote Scarborough become “a place of great importance” during the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 1650s? Initially, one fact is certain, the townspeople had no fear that they would be engulfed by civil wars and that Scarborough would be “front-page news” in all the journals of the time, both Royalist and Roundhead.

As late as July 11, 1642, as both sides were preparing for an unavoidable armed conflict, Scarborough’s court clerk wrote simply “omne bene” (all’s well) in his record of that day’s quarter sessions. There were no crimes to report, no defendants or witnesses to examine. This had never happened during the previous 40 years; that it should be written on the eve of the most destructive and violent era in Scarborough’s long history was the richest of ironies. It signalled the calm before the storm.

On the face of it, the war between the supporters of Charles I and his Parliament was one-sided from the start. After his humiliating failure in January 1642 to arrest the Five Members, Charles abandoned his capital and fled north to the security of York. In retrospect, this was a decisive error. Parliament’s possession of London gave it a huge advantage in population, wealth, weaponry and trained infantry. The Tower was the nation’s principal arsenal. With a population approaching 400,000, one in ten of the English lived there. Its trained band or militia of 6,000 infantry provided Parliament with a unique, strategic reserve.

Though in every English town and county there were both active Royalists and Roundheads, in general terms Parliament drew its strength from the richer and more populous south and east, whereas Charles had to rely on what he could raise in the far south-west, Wales and the North, the more “backward” areas of the kingdom. Finally, the financial backing of the city of London far outweighed the voluntary contributions of the king’s aristocratic allies.

Both sides needed foreign assistance and here again the advantage was with Parliament. From Hull to Portsmouth, Parliament could count on the major ports facing the Continent and the Royal Navy soon belied its name and declared for Parliament. Charles had family friends in Denmark, Holland and France and, though he might recruit a sizeable army in the north of England, without foreign aid he did not have the munitions to arm it. The Scots were hostile to him. Newcastle was friendly but too remote and inaccessible by land, so that his hopes rested on Hull as a place of entry. However, his repeated failure to take Hull was a heavy handicap which he never eliminated.

Fully aware of this strategic situation, Parliament’s leaders sent one of their most reliable Members, Sir Hugh Cholmley, to take control of his constituency. His orders were to raise the trained bands of Ryedale, Pickering Lythe, Whitby and Scarborough, secure Whitby, Scarborough and Bridlington, occupy and fortify Scarborough castle. Since Cholmley was one of Scarborough’s borough MPs, the largest landowner in the area and formerly colonel of the four militias, he was the perfect choice.

The residents of Scarborough and Falsgrave were no doubt relieved to greet Cholmley’s arrival in September 1642, even though he came with only a small mounted escort. Not that they had already taken sides: Cholmley’s presence simply gave them some assurance of protection. Accordingly, even known Royalist sympathisers in the Common Hall, notably the Thompsons, agreed to accept his command of both castle and town and contributed to the costs of strengthening their defences. By the end of October, two new pairs of sturdy gates had been made for Newborough and Oldborough Bars; the town ditch had been “cleansed out”; and householders had been collectively “assessed” at £50 to pay for gunpowder and shot. At the same time, the castle was being prepared for a possible siege: its walls and gates fortified with cannon and platforms and its garrison supplied with food stores, powder and ammunition.

Scarborough’s 2,700 inhabitants must have been especially gratified when they learned that, in flat disobedience of orders from London, Cholmley had refused to join his armed forces with those of the main Parliamentary army at Tadcaster and had re-called them to the coast. They would have been more reassured if they had read the reasons he and his officers gave for awarding priority to holding Scarborough.

The castle dominated the harbour and was a formidable presence in the neighbourhood. Secondly, Scarborough harbour was best placed to receive arms from Holland or Denmark “in despite of any Navy on the sea”. Thirdly, even in the depth of winter, heavy ordnance and carriages could pass easily from Scarborough to Royalist York in a day, “which cannot be done from Newcastle”. And, finally, Scarborough could provide Parliament’s raiders with a secure base from which to intercept Royalist reinforcements from the Continent.

The argument was so perceptive and persuasive that the Commons accepted it entirely and voted Cholmley a grant of £500. It seemed that even though the Royalists continued to hold York and had already received men and munitions through Newcastle, Scarborough was safe under Cholmley’s protection. In January 1643, his forces mauled a Royalist move towards Whitby and took 100 prisoners after the battle of Guisborough.

Sir Hugh’s sudden, inexplicable but decisive change of sides in March 1643 must therefore have come like a bombshell out of the blue. The reasons for it remain complex and controversial, yet its consequences were to be disastrous for Scarborough as well as Cholmley and his family, all the more so because it was immediately a successful, brilliant coup. With only a few exceptions, the town tamely followed him. There was no resistance from his officers, who were allowed to take themselves and their men to Hull. Most of the members of the 
Common Hall on Sandside stayed on and supported him.

(To be continued)