Of all the priests who worked in the north-east corner of Yorkshire during penal times the one remembered with the greatest affection is Father Nicholas Postgate. The exact year when Nicholas Postgate was born is uncertain; at the time of his arrest in 1678 he himself said that he was ‘about the age of four score years’ so his birth must have taken place around 1599. His parents were James and Margaret Postgate who lived in Egton Bridge, a small hamlet about ten miles inland from Whitby.Seminary trainingLittle is known about Nicholas’ early life. On 4thJuly 1621 he entered Douai College in northern France to study for the priesthood. He would have been in no delusion about the probable fate he would face on his return to England: Catholic priests were regularly betrayed, hunted down, condemned as traitors and executed in the most barbaric way. Having completed eight years of study he was ordained in 1629 and left Douai for England on 29thJune 1630.Earliest missionary workThe only knowledge we have of the missionary career of Father Postgate is in the official account of his examination at Brompton after his arrest. The gentry were better able to
conceal a Catholic priest than were the much smaller working-class families. He said that, back in England from France, his first home was at Saxton Hall near Tadcaster with Sir William & Lady Hungate. He remained there until May 1642 by which time both of his patrons were dead. His next placing was at Halsham in Holderness, the home of Sir Henry Constable (later Viscount Dunbar) from there he went to a junior branch of the Constable family at Everingham.Later missionary workPrecisely why Nicholas Postgate, when he was over sixty years of age, returned to his native moors is a matter of conjecture. At first he may have been sheltered by the Radcliffe family at the Old Hall in Ugthorpe. Later he was able to establish himself in a thatched cottage on the moor on a site which is now occupied by the house known as ‘The Hermitage’ within sight of the Whitby-Guisborough road. Father Postgate served the Catholics of the whole of the North Yorkshire moors from northern Cleveland to well south of Whitby and inland to Pickering. He became a well-known and much loved old man as he walked the moors dressed as a gardener, visiting his people and saying Mass in their homes.
On 8thDecember 1678 Father Postgate went to Littlebeck, about five miles from Sleights to baptise a child. John Reeves, an exciseman based in Whitby and a vehement anti-Catholic, together with others came on the scene hoping to find arms or ammunition in connection with the Titus Oates plot. Instead, they found a prayer book, altar breads and rosary beads. Father Postgate was arrested and taken about twenty miles away to the house of the magistrate Sir William Caley. After being examined the following day he was taken to York where he spent months imprisoned in York castle. His trial took place in March 1679, he was convicted of being a priest and sentenced to death. On 7thAugust that same day the sentence was carried on what is now the site of York racecourse. A contemporary broadsheet records his last words on the scaffold:“Mr Sheriff, you know that I die not for the Plot but for my religion. I pray God bless the King and the Royal Family. Mr Sheriff, I pray you tell the King that I never offended him in any way. I pray God give Him his grace, and the light of truth. I forgive all that have wronged me and brought me to this death, and I desire forgiveness of all people.