Public penance

Public Penance

CHURCH  discipline in the olden days caused the highest and lowest in the land to perform penance in public. A notable instance of a king subjecting himself to this humiliating form of punishment is that of Henry II. The story of the King's quarrels with Becket, and of his unfortunate expression which led four knights to enact a tragic deed in Canterbury Cathedral, is familiar to the reader of history. After the foul murder of Becket had been committed, the King was in great distress, and resolved to do penance at the grave of the murdered Archbishop. Mounted on his horse, he rode to Canterbury, and on coming in sight of the Cathedral, he dismounted, and walked barefooted to Becket's shrine. He spent the day in prayer and fasting, and at night watched the relics of the saint. He next, in presence of the monks, disrobed himself, and presented his bare shoulders for them to lash.

At Canossa, in the winter of 1077, was performed a most degrading act of penance by Emperor Henry IV. of Germany. He had been excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII., and had suffered much on that account. He resolved to see the Pope, and, if possible, obtain absolution. The Emperor made a long and toilsome journey in the cold, in company with his loving wife Bertha, his infant son, and only one knight. The Pope refused to see the Emperor until he had humbled himself at the gates of the castle. "On a dreary winter morning," say Baring-Gould and Gilman, in their "History of Germany," "with the ground deep in snow, the King, the heir of a line of emperors, was forced to lay aside every mark of royalty, was clad in the thin white dress of the penitent, and there fasting, he awaited the pleasure of the Pope in the castle yard. But the gates did not unclose. A second day he stood, cold, hungry, and mocked by vain hope." On the close of the third day, we are told that he was received and pardoned by the Pope.

The romantic story of Eleanor Cobham, first mistress and afterwards wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, is one of considerable interest in illustrating the strange beliefs of the olden times. The Duchess was tried in the year 1441, for treason and witchcraft. It transpired that two of her accomplices had made, by her direction, a waxen image of the reigning monarch, Henry VI. They had placed it before a slow fire, believing that the King's life would waste away as the figure did. In the event of Henry's death, the Duke of Gloucester, as the nearest heir to the house of Lancaster, would have been crowned king. On the 9th November, sentence was pronounced upon the Duchess: it was to the effect that she perform public penance in three open places in London, and end her days in prison in the Isle of Man. The manner of her doing penance was as follows: "On Monday, the 13th, she came by water from Westminster, and landing at Temple Bridge, walked at noon-day through Fleet Street, bearing a waxen taper of two pounds weight, to St. Paul's, where she offered it at the high altar. On the Wednesday following, she landed at the Old Swan, and passed through Bride Street, Gracechurch Street, and to Leadenhall, and at Cree Church, near Aldgate, made her second offering. On the ensuing Friday she was put on shore at Queenhithe, whence she proceeded to St. Michael's Church, Cornhill, and so completed her penance. In each of these processions her head was covered only by a kerchief; her feet were bare; scrolls, containing a narrative of her crime, were affixed to her white dress; and she was received and attended by the Mayor, Sheriff, and Companies of London."

The historian, biographer, poet, playwright, and story-teller have all related details of the career of Jane Shore. A sad tale it is, but one which has always been popular both with gentle and simple. It is not necessary to relate here at length the story of her life. She was born in London, was a woman of considerable personal charms, and could do what few ladies of her time were able to accomplish—namely, read well and write. When some sixteen or seventeen years of age, she married William Shore, a goldsmith and banker, of Lombard Street. She lived with her husband seven years, but about 1470, left him to become one of the mistresses of Edward IV. Her beauty, wit, and pleasant behaviour rendered her popular at Court. The King died in 1483, and within two months she was charged by Richard III. with sorcery and witchcraft, but the charges could not be sustained. Her property, equal to about £20,000 at the present time, was taken from her by the King. He afterwards caused her to be brought before the Ecclesiastical Court and tried for incontinence, and for the crime she had to do penance in the streets of London. Perhaps we cannot do better than quote Rowe's drama to relate this part of her story:

Submissive, sad, and lonely was her look;A burning taper in her hand she bore;And on her shoulders, carelessly confused,With loose neglect her lovely tresses hung;Upon her cheek a faintish flush was spread;Feeble she seemed, and sorely smit with pain;While, barefoot as she trod the flinty pavement,Her footsteps all along were marked with blood.Yet silent still she passed, and unrepining;Her streaming eyes bent ever on the earth,Except when, in some bitter pang of sorrow,To heaven, she seemed, in fervent zeal to raise,And beg that mercy man denied her here.

We need not go into details respecting her life from this time, but briefly state that it is a popular error to suppose that she was starved in a ditch, and that the circumstance gave rise to the name of a part of London known as Shoreditch. The black-letter ballad in the Pepys collection, which makes Jane Shore die of hunger after doing penance, and a man suffer death on the gallows for giving her bread, is without foundation. She died about 1533 or 1534, when she was upwards of eighty years of age. It is asserted that she strewed flowers at the funeral of Henry VII.

A curious act of penance was performed in Hull, in the year 1534, by the Vicar of North Cave. He appears to have made a study of the works of the Reformers who had settled in Antwerp, and sent over their books to England. In a sermon preached in the Holy Trinity Church, Hull, he advocated their teaching, and for this he was tried for heresy and convicted. He recanted, and, as an act of penance, one Sunday walked round the church barefooted, with only his shirt on, and carrying a large faggot in his hand to represent the punishment he deserved. On the next market-day, in a similar manner, he walked round the market-place of the town.

In the year 1602, a man named Cuthbert Pearson Foster, residing in the parish of St. Nicholas, Durham, was brought before the Ecclesiastical Court, charged with "playing at nine-holes upon the Sabbath day in time of divine service," and was condemned to stand once in the parish church during service, clad in a white sheet. In the following year, the four churchwardens—Rowland Swinburn, William Harp, Richard Surtees, and Cuthbert Dixon, men esteemed in Durham, and holding good positions—were found guilty and admonished for a serious breach of duty, "for not searching who was absent from the church on the Sabbath and festive days, for it is credibly reported that drinking, banqueting, and playing at cards, and other lawless games, are used in their parish in alehouses, and they never made search thereof."

Of persons in the humble ranks of life who have performed public penance in white sheets in churches, for unchastity, there are numerous entries in parish registers. For immorality, prior to marriage, man and wife were sometimes obliged to do penance. The Rev. Dr. J. Charles Cox found particulars of a case of this kind recorded in the Wooley MSS., in the British Museum, where a married couple, in the reign of James I., performed penance in Wirksworth Church.

In parish registers are records like the following, drawn from the Roxby (Lincolnshire) parish register: "Memorandum.—Michael Kirby and Dixon, Wid. had 2 Bastard Children, one in 1725, ye other in 1727, for which they did publick pennance in our P'ish Church." "Michael Kirby and Anne Dixon, both together didpublick penance in our Parish Churche, Feb. ye 25th, 1727, for adultery."

A memorandum in the parish register of North Aston, Oxfordshire, states: "That Mr. Cooper sent in a form of penance by Mr. Wakefield, of Deddington, that Catherine King should do penance in ye parish church of North Aston, ye sixth day of March, 1740, and accordingly she did. Witness, Will Vaughan, Charles May, John Baillis, Churchwardens." We learn from the same records that another person, who had become a mother before she was made a wife, left the parish to avoid doing public penance.

In the old churchwardens' accounts of Wakefield, are several items bearing on this subject, and amongst the number are the following:

1679.—To Jos. Green for black bess penanc sheet 00 05 06
1709.—Allowed the Parish Churchwardens for goeing to Leeds with ye man and woman to doe penance 0 5 0
1725.—June 13. Paid Jno. Briggs for the Lent of 3 sheets for 3 persons to do pennance 00 01 6
1731.—Nov. 6. Paid for the loan of two white Sheets 6
1732.—Oct. 8. Pd. for the loan of 7 sheets for penances 1 9
1735.—Nov. 1. Pd. for a sheet that —— had to do penance in 1 0
1736.—Sep. 27. Pd. for two sheets ye women did penans in 8
1736.—Oct. 10. Pd. for a sheet for Stringer to do penance in 4
1737.—June 23. Pd. for a sheet for Eliza Redhead penance 4
1750.—Dec. 26. To Priestly for a sheet & attending a woman's penance 5 0

"On February 27th, 1815," says Mr. John W. Walker, "William Hepworth, a shoemaker, did penance in the Parish Church for defaming the character of an old woman named Elizabeth Blacketer. They both lived in Cock and Swan Yard, Westgate, and the suit was carried on by one George Robinson, an attorney, out of spite to the cobbler."

"On Sunday, August 25th, 1850, a penance was performed in the Parish Church, by sentence of the Ecclesiastical Court, on a person who had defamed the character of a lady in Wakefield. A recantation was repeated by the penitent after the Vicar, and then signed by the interested parties."[40]

The historian of Cleveland, Mr. George Markham Tweddell, furnishes us with a copy of a document enjoining penance to be performed in 1766, by James Beadnell, of Stokesley, in the diocese of York, tailor: "The said James Beadnell shall be present in the Parish Church of Stokesley, aforesaid, upon Sunday, being the fifth, twelfth, and nineteenth day of January instant, in the time of Divine service, between the hours of ten and eleven in the forenoon of the same day, in the presence of the whole congregation then assembled, being barehead, barefoot, and barelegged, having a white sheet wrapped about him from the shoulder to the feet, and a white wand in his hand, where, immediately after the reading of the Gospel, he shall stand upon some form or seat, before the pulpit or place where the minister readeth prayers, and say after him as forthwith: 'Whereas, I, good people, forgetting my duty to Almighty God, have committed the detestable sin of adultery with Ann Andrewes, and thereby have provoked the heavy wrath of God against me to the great danger of my soul and evil example of others. I do earnestly repent, and am heartily sorry for the same, desiring Almighty God, for the merits of Jesus Christ, to forgive me both this and all other my offences, and also ever hereafter so to assist me with His Holy Spirit, that I never fall into the like offence again; and for that end and purpose, I desire you all here present to pray for me, saying, "Our Father, which art in heaven," and so forth.'"

Towards the close of the last century, it was the practice of women doing penance at Poulton Church, Lancashire, to pass along the aisles barefooted, clothed in a white sheet, and having in each hand a lighted candle. The last time the ceremony was performed, we are told, the cries of the poor girl melted the heart of the people, and the well-disposed raised a clamour against it, and caused the practice to be discontinued.

The Rev. Thomas Jackson, the popular Wesleyan minister, was born at Sancton, a village on the Yorkshire Wolds, in 1783. Writing of his earlier years spent in his native village, he describes two cases of public penance which he witnessed. "A farmer's son," says Mr. Jackson, "the father of an illegitimate child, came into church at the time of divine service, on the Lord's day, covered with a sheet, having a white wand in his hand; he walked barefoot up the aisle, stood over against the desk where the prayers were read, and then repeated a confession at the dictation of the clergyman; after which he walked out of the church. The other case was that of a young woman,

'Who bore unhusbanded a mother's name.'

She also came into the church barefoot, covered with a sheet, bearing a white wand, and went through the same ceremony. She had one advantage which the young man had not. Her long hair so completely covered her face that not a feature could be seen. In a large town, few persons would have known who she was, but in a small village every one is known, and no public delinquent can escape observation, and the censure of busy tongues. These appear to have been the last cases of the kind that occurred at Sancton. The sin was perpetuated, but the penalty ceased; my father observed that the rich offenders evaded the law, and then the authorities could not for shame continue to inflict its penalty upon the labouring classes."[41]

In the month of April, 1849, penance was performed at Ditton Church, Cambridgeshire.

The Church of East Clevedon, Somersetshire, on July 30th, 1882, was the scene of a man performing penance in public, and the act attracted much attention in the newspapers of the time.


[40]Walker's "History of Wakefield Cathedral."

[41]Rev. Thomas Jackson's "Recollections of my own Life and Times," 1873.