Great Siege of Scarborough Castle

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The entire west wall, roof and interior floors of Scarborough Castle's keep, as viewed from the barbican gateway, were destroyed in 1645 by artillery bombardment during the English Civil War.

The Great Siege[1] of Scarborough Castle was a major conflict for control of one of England's most important stone fortresses during the English Civil War (1642-1651). In February 1645, Parliamentary forces laid siege to the castle for five months, mostly destroying the keep in the process, before the defenders finally surrendered. Later in the year, the new republican garrison switched sides, leading to a second siege. The castle finally came under Parliamentary control in December 1645, and remained so until the restoration of the monarchy.


Until the early seventeenth century, Scarborough seemed an unlikely place for a long siege, as many other towns had more wealth and industry, and it occupied a remote area on the east coast of northern England. Its merchant and fishing fleets had declined, and many parts of the town were reduced to wasteland. It castle had once been a well-funded defence against a possible Scottish invasion, but now stood derelict. However, the situation would change over the first decades of the century.

Redevelopment of the town

The east coast coal trade revitalised the local economy, and the town's population began to increase. Its colliers transported this essential fuel to London and across to continental ports, and the town profited from oil by-products to make items such as candles. Scarborough's proximity to the coal-trading routes would be one of the main reasons why forces in the later Civil War would fight over control of its castle. Other supplies ranged from beer to Scotland, to iron from Rotterdam and apples from Ostend and Dunkirk. The fishing industry also began to recover, especially once the nearby Seamer market was closed in 1612. Whether dry, salted, smoked or fresh, much of the fish being sold in the region came via Scarborough.[2]

Military significance

The Thirty Years War exposed a problem for the growing town: though Scarborough ships were regularly threatened during the conflict, its harbour was defenceless and its castle disused. A battle between Dunkirk and Dutch vessels in the harbour itself took place in July 1635, prompting Sir Edward Osborne to inform the Privy Council of the town's military inadequacies, describing it as "a place of great importance for the safety of these northern parts". Regular naval patrols improved the town's position, and the need to fortify Scarborough against seaborne attack intensified over 1639-1640 with the Bishops' Wars between England and Scotland.[3]

Royalist outpost

The townsfolk were mostly neutral in the English Civil War, and its leaders swapped allegiance according to whichever side came nearest to Scarborough.[4] The castle changed hands seven times between 1642 and 1648.[5] In 1642 King Charles I saw Scarborough as friendly to his interests, and its position was an essential part of his alliance with the Dutch. With most of the Royal Navy in Parliamentary hands, a Dutch fleet and a friendly port for arms traffic was necessary for Royalist control of the North Sea.[6]

1643 saw Scarborough, its castle and strategic supply port on Charles's side, with 700 Royalist soldiers led by Sir Hugh Cholmley - who originally occupied the castle as a Parliamentarian in September 1642, but swapped sides in March 1643.[7] Cholmley had enjoyed some military success as a Parliamentary commander, but a victory at Guisborough in January played on his conscience because of the sight of so many dead and wounded. The experience of fighting people he regarded as his own countrymen troubled him greatly, and he hoped that all-out war could be prevented through concessions to the Royalists. The next weeks saw the Royalist cause advance greatly, and by March they were only a few miles from Cholmley's under-manned garrison at Scarborough. Cholmley's switch of allegiance came without bloodshed and probably spared invasion, so most of the town stayed where they were. Senior officers left to support Parliament, but members of Cholmley's family also held positions and remained mostly loyal.[8] Though he lost the castle in a bloodless takeover by his own cousin, Captain Browne Bushell, in March 1643 while away at York, Cholmley persuaded Bushell to give it back.[9] The castle was refortified on Cholmley's orders, including establishment of the South Steel Battery for artillery.[10] Bushell would be responsible for defending the castle with another forward artillery battery, and survived the siege.

After March 1643, Cholmley was the only Royalist commander at work in eastern and northern Yorkshire. His forces felt so secure at Scarborough that they moved almost freely throughout the region, targeting Parliamentary positions. In May, Cholmley's cavalry moved north of Whitby, 20 miles away, and pillaged the estate of the Earl of Mulgrave, a loyal Parliamentarian. June saw Cholmley capture the marketplace at Beverley, some 30 miles from the castle, and from September to October 1643 he was present at the unsuccessful second Royalist siege of Hull.[11]

Parliament closes in

Modest Royalist victories at Beverley and elsewhere failed to bring about a real advantage in the King's northern campaign. Parliament considered his south-western strongholds far more important targets, so had not yet mounted a strong military response in the north.[12] However, piracy would ensure that Scarborough became a priority. As a Royalist port, it was a safe haven for its captains to plunder coal ships, and it was also a place where arms were brought ashore: the supply of coal to London was being seriously impeded by the forces based at Scarborough Castle, a fact that would become more pressing as winter approached.[13]

The Royalist failures at Hull signalled the onset of a Parliamentary victory across Yorkshire, with the exception of Cholmley's garrison at Scarborough Castle. After the entry of Scotland into the war on Parliament's side in early 1644, the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor, and York's surrender to the Roundheads in July 1644, many of Cholmley's garrison deserted and the castle fell into disrepair. When Lord Fairfax's Parliamentary forces finally reached the edge of the town that August, Cholmley had realised that the castle was in no condition to withstand a siege. He bought time to upgrade the castle defences by opening surrender negotiations, an act that would allow him to hold out for a year.[14]

The Great Siege

On 18th February 1645, Sir John Meldrum took the town with 1700 men and almost no casualties,[15] delivering the last Royalist port for Parliament.[16] With all escape routes cut off, Cholmley retreated into the castle and refused to give in, so the Parliamentarians prepared for what would be a bloody five-month siege.

Meldrum had taken the town, the South Steel Battery and secured the port,[17] but that was as far as his luck held. Parliament was less interested in the castle now that the port was theirs, and he was now forced to appeal for extra funds from other ports by raising the spectre of Royalist pirates such as Browne Bushell making devastating raids on Parliamentary supply lines. Over several weeks, as the funds began to trickle through to Scarborough, allowing Meldrum the forces he needed to attempt an all-out siege, Parliament came around to the idea that besieging the castle should be prioritised.[18] The siege was delayed for six weeks, however, while Meldrum recovered from an astonishing fall over the cliff edge on 24th March. According to Cholmley, he had been trying to retrieve his hat from the wind, though the more likely explanation is that a sudden gust blew him off the cliff. Meanwhile, the garrison initially had access to drinking water from local springs and the 'Well of Our Lady' near the cliff edge, along with stockpiled food, which allowed them to effectively defend the castle for months.[19]

Bombardment of the castle

Fierce hand-to-hand fighting erupted around the barbican entrance to Scarborough Castle during the Great Siege of 1645.
(CC) Image: David Ingham
St. Mary's Church near the castle was on the front line of the Civil War siege, sustaining extensive damage from both sides' fire. One side of the church remains a ruin.

In May, Meldrum resumed command. The Parliamentary forces set up what was then the largest cannon in the country, the Cannon Royal, in St. Mary's Church below the castle, and proceeded to fire 56-65lb (27kg) cannonballs that pounded the castle's defences.[20] The Royalists replied with their own forward battery under Browne Bushell, which dominated the castle's approach and forced the Parliamentarians into the cover of the twelfth-century church.[21] This was extensively damaged over the three days of fighting, and is partly ruined to this day. Records report that Cholmley "did great mischief to St. Mary's", though it is more likely that the Parliamentary gun blasts did more damage[22] to a building that was already decaying.[23] The bombardment partially destroyed the castle keep by collapsing the west wall, its roof, the floors, and its interior staircase.[24] Without the outer walls breached, however, the Parliamentary forces were unable to take the castle immediately afterwards, and indeed had inadvertently supplied the defenders with a large pile of rubble that could be used for cover and ammunition. Meldrum failed to realise until it was too late that the Royalists were cut off from the barbican by the sheer amount of rubble blocking the way, and therefore did not attempt to take the castle entranceway until the Royalists had already broken through and retaken control. Meldrum was only able to take Bushell's battery, where he set up 34-pound cannons to target the castle yard. Then, on the night of 10th May, the Royalists moved against the artillery battery, destroying it. The Parliamentary forces retreated in some disarray, taking heavy casualties. There followed a period of particularly bloody hand-to-hand fighting around the barbican gateway the next day, where neither side took prisoners; ultimately, Sir John Meldrum was mortally wounded.[25]


By July 1645, the tide was turning in the Parliamentarians' favour: Sir Matthew Boynton had replaced Meldrum, favouring cannon fire from land and sea over infantry assault. Bombardment, scurvy, lack of water, perhaps a shortage of gunpowder and the threat of starvation meant that Cholmley could hold out no longer. Surrender came at noon on 25th July, with only 25 men fit to fight. Fewer than half the original 500 defenders emerged alive, receiving a less-than-warm welcome from the townsfolk, who had endured great hardship during the siege. Perhaps to bring a quick end to hostilities, Cholmley had received unprecedently good surrender terms, and left for exile in Holland.[26] Bushell, meanwhile, moved on to support the Royalist cause as the most notorious "sea pirot", as reported in the press of the time. His capture eventually came in 1648, his trial on 25th March 1651 (solely for surrendering Scarborough Castle to Cholmley) and execution on 29th March. This date was deliberately chosen as exactly eight years since he had handed over control of Scarborough Castle.[27]


Initially repaired and rearmed for Parliament with a company of 160 to hold the castle and man the gun batteries, the castle returned to Royalist hands when the soldiers went unpaid. Because of this, Matthew Boynton, its new governor and son of the elder Boynton, declared for the King on 27th July 1648.[28] This led to a second siege which brought the castle back under Parliamentary control on 19th December. This time, the garrison was defeated as much by the oncoming winter as by the Parliamentary forces.[29] Following this, the castle was to have been demolished by an order of July 1649, to prevent it being used as a Royalist stronghold. However, the Parliamentarians remained fearful that resurgent Royalist forces were plotting to retake Scarborough,[30] and the actual appearance of Dutch vessels in the harbour fuelled this view.[31] As the townsfolk also opposed the destruction of the castle,[32] it was instead used as a prison for those deemed enemies of the republican Commonwealth of England. The shell of the keep survives, minus the west wall. The castle was returned to the Crown following the restoration of the monarchy.


  1. Scarborough Castle endured other sieges as a medieval fortress, such as in 1312, 1536, 1557 and 1648, but the siege of 1645 was the longest and bloodiest, hence the use of 'Great'.
  2. Binns (1996: 49-51).
  3. Binns (1996: 61-70).
  4. Binns (1996: 4-6).
  5. Binns (1996: 73-220); Page (1923).
  6. Binns (1996: 73-76).
  7. Page (1923).
  8. Binns (1996: 89-96).
  9. Goodall (2000: 29-31); Binns (1996: 224).
  10. Binns (1996: 141).
  11. Binns (1996: 99-101).
  12. Binns (1996: 109-110).
  13. Binns (1996: 110-113).
  14. Page (1923).
  15. Binns (1996: 131).
  16. Page (1923).
  17. Binns (1996: 141).
  18. Binns (1996: 145-147).
  19. Binns (1996: 141-142; 150-151; 159-160). Another well in the castle was dry.
  20. Goodall (2000: 29-31).
  21. Binns (1996: 141-142).
  22. Pope (p.13). Church booklet; St. Mary's with Holy Apostles' Church website: A Brief History of St. Mary's by Stan Pope'; Binns (1996: 165-166).
  23. Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society (2003: 31).
  24. Binns (1996: 263).
  25. Binns (1996: 153-157).
  26. Binns (1996: 157-165; 269).
  27. Binns (1996: 223-225).
  28. Binns (1996: 199).
  29. Binns (1996: 207-212).
  30. Binns (1996: 219-220)
  31. Page (1923).
  32. Goodall (2000: 31-32); Page (1923).