Nostalgia: Scarborough lies in ruins

St Mary's Church and the ruined remains of part of the church after the siege by Parliamentary forces during the Englsh Civil War.
St Mary's Church and the ruined remains of part of the church after the siege by Parliamentary forces during the Englsh Civil War.

Sir Hugh Cholmley’s switch from Parliament to King in March 1643 might not have been catastrophic for him, his family and Scarborough if he had eventually accepted Royalist defeat. What sealed their common fate was his refusal to surrender Scarborough and then its castle when all was evidently lost. After the disastrous defeat at Marston Moor in July 1644, the Royalist staff officers passed through Scarborough on their way by sea into exile, but Cholmley would not go with them.

Incorrigibly, the more certain that he had chosen the losing side, the more stubbornly Cholmley fought for it “to the last extremity”. He would not dishonour himself by betraying a just cause for selfish motives. As a result, he ruined himself and the people he was appointed to protect.

When Sir Hugh finally submitted in July 1645 and with his wife walked out of the castle gates, Henry II’s great tower was shattered, St Mary’s parish church was wrecked, Scarborough’s water mills, public water supply and harbour shipping were broken and demolished. One news-sheet reported that the women of the town had to be restrained from stoning him and Lady Cholmley.

Cholmley went abroad into Continental exile and his wife returned to their ruined home at Abbey House, Whitby; but for Scarborough the Civil War was far from finished: three years later it returned.

To add to the town’s miseries, the bubonic plague came back in the summer of 1645. Mercifully, it was to be the last “visitation of God” at Scarborough. At the end of June, when the siege of the castle still had a month to run, 547 of Parliament’s soldiers were paid a shilling a day “for washing the infected houses”. And, as late as April 1646, there is a surviving reference to a “pesthouse” at Driple Cotes, on South Cliff, overlooking the spa well.

The result of all these misfortunes was a disastrous fall in Scarborough’s resident population. During the first three decades of the century it had grown steadily to more than 2,500 but even by the 1660s there were about a thousand fewer. It took half a century for a full recovery to be reached. Menfolk had gone off to the war elsewhere and never returned home; families had been forced out of their houses and occupations by free quarter, bombardment, swingeing taxation and cessation of trade; malnutrition and diseases had taken a heavy toll on children and the elderly. The poorhouse of St Thomas was full; the numbers of destitute widows and orphaned pauper children supported by the poorlaw wardens had doubled.

After Cholmley and what was left of his Royalist garrison had departed, Scarborough’s Bailiffs petitioned Parliament for compensation for the town’s losses in property, trade and income; but the borough received not a penny. If Scarborians had suffered a prolonged devastating siege, loss of livelihood and martial law, they had only themselves to blame. Had they not accepted and supported Cholmley when he changed sides? By aiding him they had compelled Parliament to spend a fortune in blood and treasure reducing and besieging the town and castle with up to 2,000 infantry, a squadron of warships, and the biggest cannon in Europe. Did Parliament owe Scarborough or Scarborough owe Parliament?

So St Mary’s went unrepaired, St Thomas’s remained a wreck, and the King’s privateers, notably Captain Browne Bushell of Whitby, continued to harass North Sea commerce and fishing. The only good news for Scarborough was the decision in London not to destroy the castle, but to restore its curtain walls and barbican and maintain a permanent garrison there under Captain John Lawson, the local hero. Pontefract and Scarborough were to be the only two castles in Yorkshire not “slighted” or abandoned.

However, even worse was to follow for the oppressed people of Scarborough and Falsgrave. On July 27, 1648, almost exactly three years after Cholmley’s surrender, his successor, Colonel Matthew Boynton, draped a red flag over the castle’s curtain wall to indicate that he had changed sides and gone over to the imprisoned King Charles and the Prince of Wales.

Though again there was no violent resistance to this unexpected volte face, this time only about half the Common Hall stayed put to support Boynton and most of the garrison, except Lawson, switched allegiances. Faced with rebellions elsewhere, a Scottish invasion, and a mutiny in the fleet, Parliament was slow to react to this new challenge. After bribery had failed, Colonels Bethell and Legard took up quarters at Falsgrave, their forces too small to retake the town or to assault the castle. At the end of August, though Cromwell had routed the Scots in Lancashire and Cheshire, Boynton was strengthened by the arrival by sea of about 300 Royalist mercenaries.

These Royalist reinforcements, by Parliament’s press named “Walloons”, French-speaking, Catholics from the Spanish Netherlands, refused to retreat to the castle when Bethell’s soldiers stormed the town on September 15, 1648. Scarborough became a battle-ground. The “Walloons”, who were in fact a motley collection of Irish, Scots, Welsh and English, were massacred in an orgy of street fighting, some before surrender, some after. All were thought to be Irish Catholics and as such, by order of Parliament, could be put to death legitimately without delay or mercy. Since they were said to have ill-treated Scarborough’s civilians, the motive might also have been revenge.

The second siege of the castle lasted just three months. Again, as in 1645, all 260 soldiers in the garrison were allowed to return to their homes, or given passes “to go beyond sea”. Horses were made available for those who could afford to hire them. Officers were permitted to keep their swords and pistols, but other arms were to be surrendered on Scarborough Common.