Recusancy – the refusal to attend regular services of the newly-founded Church of England (usually in favour of attendance at the celebration of a Catholic mass) – was prohibited by the 1559 Act of Uniformity, with harsh penalties for non-compliance. The fines could be crippling: an initial fine of twelve shillings for non-attendance was soon increased to twenty pounds a month. Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary, Sir William Cecil, and his son and successor, Sir Robert Cecil, kept extensive lists of recusants, and it is clear from these lists that recusancy was concentrated in the North Riding deaneries of Cleveland and Richmond.
The eastern part of the Cleveland deanery is of particular interest, for it housed the country’s only known company of recusant players. Based in the village of Egton or the nearby vill of Westonby, the company was largely drawn from the Simpson family, who (outside of their performing) were, at least nominally, shoemakers. The Simpsons spent much of their time avoiding the bailiffs, since their performances transgressed two statutes: the recusancy laws and the poor laws, which required performing companies to operate only under gentry patronage. The redoubtable Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby of Hackness accused his neighbour, Sir Richard Cholmeley, of acting as patron to the Simpson company, but there is no clear evidence that this was the case.
Lying a scant 6 miles inland from the port of Whitby, Egton was also a central stopping point on one of the principal routes for Catholic priests to join the mission for the reconversion of the country.
Following study at one of the continental seminaries, like Douai in northern France, or Valladolid in northern Spain, newly ordained English priests would sail from France or the Netherlands to Whitby, whose convenience as an English port avoiding large urban areas was later recognized by Bram Stoker, when Dracula used the route for his return to England.
From Whitby, it was walking distance to Egton, where they would be welcomed by an extensive Catholic community.
From Egton they would cross the slow-moving river Esk at the hamlet of Egton Bridge.
From here they followed the riverside path towards the former Grandmontine priory of Grosmont on the river’s left bank.
The priory was a Catholic safe house recognized by the Cecils as a centre of recusant activity.
Grosmont was farmed by John Hodgson and his wife, staunch Catholics both. Nothing of the Priory remains above ground today; the path on the right side of the picture leads to the present town of Grosmont and the Moors railway.
Travel over the short distance from Whitby to Grosmont would have meant crossing the river, likely at a set of stepping stones.
Aside from government raids on Grosmont, life in Egmont must have been relatively quiet, as it is today.
From its position high above the Esk valley, the village boasts beautiful views of the surrounding moorlands.
Today, Egton and Egton Bridge are served by two churches, an Anglican church dedicated to St Hilda of Whitby, and a Catholic church dedicated to St Hedda, a Whitby monk of the seventh century, who had been a student of Hilda. The Catholic church would not have existed in the period covered by these records, and only a few stones incorporated into the fabric of the church of St Hilda remain today, including the zig-zag arch over the south doorway.
The remainder of the church of St. Hilda and the whole of the church of St. Hedda date from the later nineteenth century, though Hadfield, the Victorian architect, incorporated perpendicular features indicating the style of the earlier building.
Want to know more?
Hugh Aveling. Northern Catholics: The Catholic Recusants of the North Riding of Yorkshire, 1558–1790 (London, 1966).
G.W. Boddy. ‘Catholic Missioners at Grosmont Priory,’ North Yorkshire County Record Office Journal 4 (1976), 65–76.
G.W. Boddy. ‘Players of Interludes in North Yorkshire in the Early Seventeenth Century,’ North Yorkshire County Record Office Review 3 (1976), 95–130.
J.T. Cliffe. ‘Chapter 10: The Cost of Recusancy,’ The Yorkshire Gentry from the Reformation to the Civil War, University of London Historical Studies 25 (London, 1969), 210–230.