The History of Scarborough
The land on which Scarborough stands has yielded evidence of Stone Age occupation dating back 10,000 years, and rather closer to our own era Iron Age man had a stronghold on Castle Hill in about 500BC. The sea could of course yield riches for early man. But the sea has also brought raiders to the place throughout its history: the Romans built a signalling station there in about 370AD to warn of Saxon pirates.
The descendents of those pirates settled the district in the Dark Ages, but Scarborough itself was founded by Icelandic Vikings , led by the brothers Thorgil and Kormak Ogmundarsson who arrived in about 966. Thorgil had the nickname Skarthi, meaning harelip, and the fortified village they created was named Skarthi’s Burh, later Scarborough. In the same century a Danish force raided the region, and probably added some residents to the new town.
In 1066 Scarborough, which had belonged to King Harold ’s exiled brother Tostig, was attacked by the returning Tostig and his ally Harald Hardraada. They put the town to the torch, and slaughtered much of the population. Retribution was swift, both dying at the Battle of Stamford Bridge shortly afterwards.
During the Norman era Scarborough recovered quickly: in 1100 Henry I granted it a charter, a sign of economic growth; and in 1130 William le Gros built the first castle there, a wooden-walled structure initially, developed over the next century and more into a great stone fortress which became a royal possession when Henry II took it from rebel hands. Henry, John , Henry III and Edward I all financed improvements, and such was its splendour that Edward II gave it to his favourite and lover Piers Gaveston in 1312. Gaveston was cornered there in 1314 by nobles tired of Edward’s weak rule.
The basis of Scarborough’s wealth in medieval times remained the sea: it had an important fishing fleet, and its market served a hinterland containing several great abbeys in need of fish for holy days; herring in particular was valuable, suited to pickling, drying and smoking to preserve it for transport and keeping over winter when meat was scarce.
Such was Scarborough’s wealth that three different orders of friars had houses there: the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Carmelites. This prosperity was recognized and enhanced by the granting of a charter to the town in 1253 allowing it to have a great trading fair. At its height this fair lasted six weeks.
Another sign of economic strength was the building of a new quay in 1256, as was the arrival of Edward I in 1275 to hold his court there. Wealth also attracts unwanted attention: in 1318 Robert the Bruce raiding deep into English territory attacked the town, though he did less harm than the Great Plague later that century. That plague in 1349 had ongoing repercussions for Scarborough: Hull , already a rival, soon out-competed Scarborough’s port.
The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 had a particular slant in Scarborough, where perhaps 500 local men used it as an excuse to attack the great and good of the town (though good is certainly a misnomer here, some had grown wealthy from piracy). When the riots ended and calm prevailed, both sides were fined – the wealthy burgesses paying more than their assailants.
Richard III when still Duke of Gloucester was gifted the port, and like kings before him he improved both castle and town walls. Those walls withstood a siege during the 1536 Pilgrimage of Grace, but in 1553 Thomas Stafford overcame them in revolt against Mary . Elizabeth I joined the long list of royal supporters of Scarborough in 1564, when she financed great improvements to the harbour, though like proper Yorkshiremen the burgesses there felt that whatever was done was never enough.
Scarborough Castle saw yet more action during the Civil War , with sieges in 1645 and 1648.
A new source of wealth arose for the town in the 17th century: coal, shipped to other English destinations from the port. This trade helped support shipbuilding, which remained significant until the 19th century.
A third source of income, and one which endures to this day, was pioneered by a Mrs Elizabeth Farrer in 1626: she found a source of iron-rich water in the cliffs, and claimed health-giving properties for it; her claims were backed in 1660 by one Dr Wittie (rather ironically of rival port Hull). The wealthy sick arrived in numbers. By 1700 a spa house had been built, a place with a chequered history: it was destroyed by the sea in 1735; rebuilt it was then destroyed by an earthquake in 1738; suffered storm damage in 1808, and was burned to the ground in 1876. The current version underwent a £3m modernisation recently with the revived interest in spas.
But the spa established Scarborough as a resort, attracting the rich and famous. It could not help them all: Anne Bronte died there in 1849. This transformation was accelerated by the Georgian craze for sea-bathing, again for health purposes: the first bathing machines arrived in the town in 1735. Inns thrived; coffee houses were built; the Assembly Rooms hosted fashionable dances; racing started on Seamer Moor and even the beach. Scarborough evolved into a seaside pleasure resort.
The coaches that once brought visitors were replaced by the railway in 1845 when the line from York opened; two years later another to Bridlington and on to Hull was completed. With cheaper and quicker travel the number of visitors grew apace, and the infrastructure to cope with them likewise: the North Pier in 1866; The Grand Hotel in 1867; and innumerable smaller establishments in the same period.
In the 20th century Scarborough suffered attacks during both world wars: bombarded by two German warships in 1916 when 19 people were killed; and targeted by the Luftwaffe as a port town in the next conflict, the final death toll 137.
These days Scarborough is celebrated again as a resort, but also known for its connexion with playwright Alan Ayckbourn. But the sea still has its moments: in 1993 the Holbeck Hill Hotel claimed by erosion.
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