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The Cholmley Family of Whitby

Since the late 1500s, the Cholmley family has been a well-known presence in Whitby. In this article, we discuss the Cholmley family of Whitby.

Sir Hugh Cholmley built their mansion in 1672, standing next to Whitby Abbey. However, there are stories and rumours about the family’s history. In this article, we take a closer look at the Cholmley family of Whitby.


Sir Richard Cholmley (Died 1579)

When it comes to recounting the history of Whitby, it is essential to mention the Cholmley family and their exploits. The Cholmleys were a prominent family, with Sir Richard, the “great black Knight of the North,” being the first of many noteworthy members. Sir Richard married a famous beauty, the widow of John, Lord Scroope, who had been a favourite of Henry VIII.

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Sir Richard was the first Cholmley to be associated with Whitby. He took out a 21-year lease from Henry VIII of Whitby Abbey’s buildings, precinct, and demesne, nearly 500 acres on both sides of the Esk, and 1563 when he made his final purchase of the former abbey’s remaining properties, which included Robin Hood’s Bay, Fyling Raw, Fyling Thorpe, Normanby, Thorny and Stoupe Brow, in all about 26,000 acres. He acquired a vast, compact estate for his family.

A vast estate for his family

The Whitby lease of 1540 had been converted into freehold; former monastic lands at Grosmont, Ugglebarnby, Sleights and Aislaby were added to them in 1545; and Whitby Laithes, Larpool, Stainsacre, Hawsker and the former abbot’s deer park at Fyling Old Hall followed between 1555 and 1557.

In 1583, Sir Richard Cholmley passed away at Ellerburn. At that time, he had gained control over almost all the land and shoreline stretching from Sandsend to Hackness.


Francis Cholmley’s suspicious early death

After his father’s death, Francis Cholmley, Sir Richard’s eldest son and heir, chose Abbey House on Whitby’s East Cliff as his family’s home. Sir Francis and his wife, Lady Jane, moved to Whitby even though Lady Jane was not well-liked by the family. Rumours that she was a witch caused many family members to disapprove of their marriage.

There are rumours that the family members themselves made up the rumour to discredit her. Sir Hugh Cholmley later attempted to dispel these rumours by suggesting that Sir Francis was under the spell of his wife, Lady Jane. This made the family and Sir Hugh believe that Lady Jane had cast a charm over Sir Francis.

Following the death of Sir Francis in 1579, many suspected Lady Jane of having some involvement, but she was fortunate enough to avoid being brought to trial despite the rumours. Some speculate that it was due to her title that she escaped scrutiny, even during the witch hysteria of the 16th century.


The Cholmley family and the Civil War

During the Civil War, Whitby Abbey was owned by the Cholmley family. Sir Hugh Cholmley I, who owned the property during this period, played a notable part in the conflict.

As an MP for Scarborough, Sir Hugh was one of the Yorkshire gentry who resisted Charles I ruling without Parliament. He fought and held nearby Scarborough Castle for Parliament when the war broke out.

However, in 1643, he changed sides and declared for the King after Queen Henrietta Maria returned from the Netherlands. He defended Scarborough Castle as a Royalist base until he was forced to surrender in 1645 after a five-month siege, one of the most brutal of the conflict.

Shortly after, Parliamentarian troops captured and looted Abbey House at Whitby. Sir Hugh was exiled and later spent much of his time writing his memoirs.


Cholmley House

Whitby Abbey Museum Courtyard.

Cholmley House, also known as Whitby Hall, is a banqueting house beside Whitby Abbey’s ruins in North Yorkshire, England. It was constructed in 1672 by Sir Hugh Cholmley, whose family had taken ownership of the Abbey ruins and surrounding land after its dissolution in 1539.

Before the construction of Cholmley House, the family had been residing in the Abbey’s guest lodgings and gatehouse. Initially, the house was built with a square forecourt in front of it, now called the Stone Garden, which features a replica of the Borghese Gladiator, a statue owned by the house’s builder.

Whitby Abbey entrance sign at Cholmley House.

In 1743, the Cholmley family inherited the Wentworth estates and relocated their main base to Howsham Hall, leaving Cholmley House abandoned. The north front of the house lost its roof during a storm in 1790, resulting in its demolition. Only the main hall remained, but it eventually fell into disrepair until the Strickland family acquired it.

In 1866, the Stricklands fitted bracing arches to secure the walls of the main hall. The arches were replaced after the Ministry of Works took over the house and Abbey ruins in 1936. Eventually, the property was transferred to English Heritage, the Ministry of Work’s successor, in 1984. On March 30, 2002, the house was reopened by David Hope, the then Archbishop of York, as the museum, shop, and visitor reception for the Abbey site.


The Cholmley family of Whitby has left quite a mark on the town’s history and surrounding areas. The Cholmley family will forever be essential to Whitby’s fascinating history.

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