From Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 94-110.




The Stool of Repentance.


DR. JOHNSON, in the course of a long argument on religious matters with Boswell, let fall a few words in favour of penance; and his biographer in recording this fact rather shrewdly observes that had the dispute been with a defender of the custom no doubt the worthy Doctor would have opposed it. On this subject an impartial student may feel disposed to sympathise with Johnson; the balance for and against penance seems pretty equally adjusted, and it is as easy to argue on one side as on the other. In its extreme forms, penance is, no doubt, quite repugnant to modern ideas; but it may be urged contrariwise, that in discontinuing penance the Church has lost one of her readiest and most effectual means of discipline.

In the early Greek Church were four recognised classes of penitents — the Weepers, the Hearers, the Prostraters, and the Standers. The names almost supply an explanation of the manner 95 of the mortifications. Each grade wore a distinctive dress, and there is no question that the punishment was made a very real and impressive ceremony, both for those who underwent it, and for those who observed it in operation. The Weepers were compelled to plead for propitiation in the church yard, but were not allowed to enter the church to engage in prayer or worship. The Hearers were isolated in the church and publicly exhorted, but were forbidden to take part in the service. The Prostraters prayed with the congregation, but instead of kneeling were compelled to grovel on the ground. The Standers were kept apart, and though they might be within the church, they must remain in standing posture the whole time. The Western Church adopted these customs in part or whole. “In the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline,” — so runs the passage in the Prayer Book — “that at the beginning of Lent such people as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord, and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.” That open penance was for a time a wholesome deterrent may be readily granted, 96 and that the Church should take cognizance of some of those sins which the civil law could not or would not touch, such as slander, defamation, and immorality, was proper enough. The liability to abuse, however, was great; and in course of time, when the civil laws were enlarged, the need of the Church to act as a corrector became less needful. It was too often found, also, that penance lost its impressiveness, and that by the payment of money a rich man could either avoid the unpleasantness of undergoing personal shame in public, or could engage a substitute. Sir Walter Phillimore in his book on Ecclesiastical Law, records that fees for the commutation of penance were so regularly taken at last, that in 1832 a regular “table of fees” was prepared.

The penance was by no means brief in many cases. For breach of the seventh commandment, offenders, clad in sackcloth, stood in the place of repentance on successive Sundays, sometimes for half the year, and Jane Shore’s tour of shame further manifests the rigour which was resorted to on special occasions. Among the most notorious persons who have done penance was Oliver Cromwell. He was publicly rebuked in 1621, and in 1626, it was recorded — “Hoc anno Oliverus 97 Cromwell fecit poenitentiam coram totam ecclesiam.” This deserves to rank at least with the famous example of King Henry II.

An Engraving of a Repentance Stool.

Repentance Stool, from Old Greyfriars, Edinburgh.
(Now in Scottish Antiquarian Museum).

It must be remembered that in the seventeenth century both the Puritans and the members of the Church of Scotland upheld the custom of “making satisfaction publicly on the Stool of Repentance,” and in some of the Lowland counties sackcloth was provided at the Kirk-Sessions for the use of ecclesiastical offenders. This practice was abandoned, however, about the beginning of the last century. But we find in 1748 that a Quaker and Quakeress, for their misconduct, were compelled to walk through the streets of Oxford, Gloucester, 98 and Bristol “clad in hair sackcloth,” and probably research would furnish like examples for that period.

The Church properly punished both men and women for lax morals, but next to this sin ranked brawling and defamation of character. The examples of the infliction of penance for these misdeeds are very numerous, and what is more, they come down to recent dates, for, it is advisable to know, penance has never been abolished by the Church, though it has now practically fallen into disuse. In 1846, public penance was enforced upon several persons who had been guilty of slander, the scene being a rural Gloucestershire church, and three years later a woman who had brought a false charge against the rector atoned for her fault attired in a white sheet, in a church in Cambridgeshire.

From the fifth to the seventh centuries, public penance was in full force; but by the end of the twelfth century it had almost disappeared, and private penance had taken its place. Private penance became morbidly mischievous. We learn of the monk Liguori, in the eighteenth century, who “scourged himself bloodily,” and punished himself every morning before the hour of rising, 99 and every evening before repose. “On Saturdays he scourged himself till the blood flowed, and these scourgings were so violent, and caused so much blood to gush from his limbs, that not only was his linen always covered with it, but you might even see the walls of his room stained, and even books which he kept in it were sprinkled.” He macerated his body by wearing haircloth with sharp points in it, he carried chains on his legs, and wore a coat of mail with iron points protruding to tear the flash every time he moved. Even more dreadful is the story of Saint Rosa, whose private penance consisted of lashing herself with iron chains, loading herself with stones, putting handfuls of nettles and thorns next to her flesh, piercing her haircloth vest with needles, wearing a tin crown with nails pressing downward into her head, and lying upon broken earthenware and glass. These horrible stories might be indefinitely multiplied, but the two examples will suffice to show the awful extremes to which zealous and fanatical men and women were willing to go when constant penance was deemed laudable, and its secrecy prevented a check upon its pains.

Nor were these horrible punishments always those self-imposed and borne willingly by the 100 saints. Some of the punishments ordained by harsh leaders were equally severe. The nuns of St. Bridget’s Convent were made to undergo a particularly barbarous penance in old time for the most trifling of peccadilloes. A steep high rock projects over the sea at the Howe of Douglas, and can only be climbed with much difficulty. Halfway up is a hollow, and near the top a chair-like cavity. The offending nuns were brought to the foot of the rock when the tide was out, and compelled to climb the rock, and sit in either the lower or higher chair until the tide ebbed and flowed twice. It was a terrible predicament. The climber was always in danger of falling into the sea, and the exposure to the elements, especially when the incoming waters were roaring through the cavities, was enough to stagger the firmest resolution.

The penance of recalcitrant monks often took a form we need not regret. They were ordered to do that which others most often did for pleasure, multiply copies of the classics and the Scriptures. Cassiodorus had an implicit belief in the potence 1 of this work. “As many words as a transcriber writes,” he said, “so many wounds the demon receives,” and therefore no penalty, in his opinion, 101 could be more effectual or advantageous. But we may take it for granted here that such penance was but nominal, and no doubt most of the early ecclesiastics agreed with Longfellow’s abbot: —

“As a penance mark each prayer
  With the scourge upon your shoulders bare;
  Nothing atones for such a sin
  But the blood that follows the discipline.”

Mr. Sparvel-Bayly, B.A., in an article on “Pews of the Past,”* tells a story of public penance too quaint to be omitted from this chapter. It runs thus: — “A pore man had founde ye priest over famyliar with hys wyfe, and because he spake of yt abrode and could not prove yt, the priest sued hym before ye byshoppes offyciale for dyffamatyon, where the pore man upon pain of cursynge (excommunication) was commanded that in hys paryshe chyrche he should upon ye Sundaye at high masse time stand up and sai: — ‘Mouth, thou lyest.’ Whereupon, for fulfilling of hys penance up was the pore soul set in a pew that the people might wonder on hym and hear what he sayd. And there all aloud (when he had rehersyed what he had reported by the priest) then he sett hys handys on hys mouthe and saide, 102 ‘Mouth, mouth, thou lyest;’ and by-and-by thereupon he set hys hand upon his eyen and saide, ‘But eyen, eyen,’ quod he, ‘by ye mass ye lie not a whittle.’” Penance often took the form of a mere retraction of words uttered, or of a simple recital of a fault committed. The Parish Clerk of Middleham, in Yorkshire, was guilty of brawling, and his punishment was to stand forth towards the conclusion of the service and admit to the congregation that he had given “just cause of offence,” and that he had been “led to this misconduct by resentment, and not being perfectly sober at the time.” He was further penalised by having his wages stopped for several weeks. Penance also could be made typical of the extreme punishment which could have been exacted. The Vicar of North Cave, Hull, was convicted of heresy in 1534, his offence being the study and recommendation of the works of the Reformers. He was ordered by way of penance to walk round the church bare-footed and wearing only a shirt, and to carry in his hand a burning faggot to signify that his just penalty would have been the stake. The clergy could not be subjected to penance until they had been reduced to the ranks of laymen, and presumably this formed part of the punishment of 103 this “heretic” also. There are very few instances of the clergy having been subjected to a like degradation, though there is the unique example of a bishop having been punished by excommunication for his flagitious conduct. This was Paul of Samosata, made Bishop of Antioch in 260, who by his extortions and licentiousness brought his holy office into disrepute. Many attempts were made to punish him for his vices, but all failed until the discovery was made that his doctrine as to the Trinity was erroneous. Thereupon eighty other bishops combined to remove him, but their ban had no effect for four years. Then, with the consent of the Emperor Aurelius, they expelled Paul from his see.

The writers of that weighty volume, “The English Church in the Eighteenth Century,” the Rev. C. J. Abbey and Canon Overton, have something important to say of the last records of penance. A hundred years ago, they relate, excommunication was not uncommon, and neither was open penance an excessive rarity. But changes were at hand, and none more seriously exercised the minds of the clergy than the question of commutation of penance. “It was obvious,” we read, “that laxity on such a point might fairly 104 lay the Church open to a reproach, which Dissenters did not fail to make, of ‘indulgences for sale.’ ” In 1695, William III. had issued the injunction that no commutation of penance was to be made but by the express order of the bishop, and that the commutation should be applied only to pious and charitable purposes. Early in Queen Anne’s reign, in consequence of abuses which existed, the subject was debated in Convocation, and some stringent resolutions passed by which it was hoped that commutations, where allowed, might be rendered perfectly unexceptionable, but at that very time some of the lay chancellors were anxious to abolish penance entirely, and to substitute a system of fines. Wordsworth, the poet, said that one of his earliest remembrances was his going to church one week-day to see a woman doing penance in a white sheet, and he was much disappointed at not getting a penny, which he believed to be his due as a spectator. The Rev. C. J. Abbey thinks such an event as this must have been extremely rare at that date. Thus, in Mr. Augustus Hare’s ‘Memorials of a Quiet Life,’ we have a brief account of the penance performed by two persons at Hurstmonceaux. They stood each in a white sheet in the churchyard among a 105 mocking crowd; but these were the last persons who performed penance in that place, and the date was between 1799 and 1803. Early in the eighteenth century, Mr. Abbey records, “this sort of ecclesiastical pillory was somewhat more common. But it was evidently quite infrequent even then. Pope’s parish clerk is made to speak of it as distinctly an event. This, which was called ‘solemn penance,’ as contrasted with that lesser form which might consist only of confession and satisfaction, was an ordeal which sounds like a strange anachronism in times so near our own.” Bishop Hildesley thus describes it in the Isle of Man: — “The manner of doing penance is primitive and edifying. The penitent, clothed in a white sheet, is brought into the church immediately before the Litany, and there continues till the sermon is ended, after which, and a proper exhortation, the congregation are desired to pray for him in a form prescribed for the purpose. This having been done, so soon as it could be certified to the bishop that his repentance was believed to be sincere, he might be received back again by a very solemn form into the peace of the Church.” In England no regular form existed for the re-admission of penitents, and this defect was 106 not unreasonably forced on public consideration in course of time. In 1805, we find a woman doing public penance in a sheet, the scene being Littleham churchyard, near Exmouth. The somewhat too-notorious church at East Clevedon in Somerset, was, however, the scene of a public penance so recently as in 1882, and in various parts of the country isolated records may also be found, especially in the decade, 1840-1850. Sir Walter Phillimore gives an example in 1856, in which a pubic penance was demanded, but owing to the increasing feeling against the system, refused.

There is a suspicion that at one time Dr. Pusey meditated reviving the ancient practice of discipline. He wanted information of an instrument which had been described to him as consisting of five cords, “each with five knots, in memory of the five wounds of our Saviour.”

One of the most remarkable cases of penance, amusing in its way and yet a little disgusting, is that recorded of a Pershore gentleman in 1766. He was about to marry “an agreeable young lady with a handsome fortune,” but on the morning of the ceremony was discovered in flagrante delicto with his housekeeper. For this he was ordered to do penance immediately. He was clothed in a 107 white sheet and made publicly to confess his sin and repentance. The expectant bride waited in the church until this ceremony was concluded, and then was joined in matrimony to her delectable lover! Saint Augustine’s self-inflicted penance of whipping himself with thongs until the blood ran, in order to keep himself in subjection, shows that a mighty change in ideas had been brought about in the long interval.

Excommunication was closely connected with penance, if indeed it cannot be accounted a part of the actual sacrament. Penance, as we have seen, involved temporary if not permanent exclusion from the precincts of the Church, and separation from the congregation; but a formal sentence of excommunication was much more terrible in its effects than that which was incidental to being placed upon the “Stool of Repentance.” Into this cognate, but much larger and more controversial subject, we cannot enter, though one example may be adduced from somewhat late history as to how the interdiction operated. There is a record, dated 1667, that an excommunicated person named Francis Drury “came into church in time of divine service in the morning, and being admonished to begone he obstinately 108 refused. Whereupon the whole congregation departed, and after the same manner in the afternoon he came again, and refusing again to go out, the whole congregation again went home, so that little or no service was performed. They prevented his further coming in that manner as he threatened, by order from the justice upon the statute concerning the molestation of pubic preachers.”

A declaratory sentence of excommunication was the extreme punishment the heads of the Church, or, strictly speaking, the Pope, could inflict; penance, in its more common forms, was the via media in favour of which much could be said. The public confession of guilt, the subjection of the faulty person to the Church and its laws, the enforced prayers for forgiveness, the outwards signs of contrition — all these were of good effect, and calculated to have a desirable result upon those who underwent the penalty, and those who observed the operation of the Church’s disciplinary laws. The white sheet, the sackcloth, and the ashes strewn upon the head, were symbols understood by the people; and the restraints imposed upon the offender, enforced abstinence, and separation from the general community, were not 109 only a punishment but a healthy ordinance. It was the abuse of penance which destroyed its efficacy, and brought it into that disrepute from which it is not likely to recover.

The period of reconciliation for penitents was Holy Week, when the Bishop publicly received the contrite offenders back into the Church. But in the third century a sect had arisen under the anti-Pope, Novatian, whose leading tenet it was that the Church had no power to absolve the penitent, and that the sinner, in addition to undergoing his prescribed punishment, must for ever lie under the ban of excommunication. The Church, said Novatian, was a community of saints, the eternal happiness of whom was imperilled by the presence of one sinner, however repentant. This severe belief found so many adherents that Novatian was able to found churches, and the churches were strong enough to set up bishops in opposition to those of Rome. The Stool of Repentance in this case was not an aid to re-admission to the Christian community, but a stone which blocked the way.

It may here be observed, by way of conclusion, that too literal a meaning must not be attached to the term “Stool of Repentance.” That an actual 110 wooden stool of primitive design with three or four short legs was to be found in many of the churches is not denied, but the word came to be figurative, and the “Stool” was just as likely to be a pew, the top of a flight of stairs, a gallery, or a conspicuous place before the altar. The main object was to have the offender well in view of the congregation. He was to be a mark of scorn, and if he were called upon to make public confession or recantation he required vantage-ground from which to do so. But in some country churches may still be seen the original “cutty-stool” whereon sinners stood, the cynosure of all eyes, exposed to open shame, and compelled to listen to the admonishing words of pastors who, from such records as we have, seem to have erred on these occasions in saying too much rather than too little.



 *  “Curious church Gleanings,” edited by William Andrews.


 1  Potence, is a real word, although seldom used, and means potency. — Elf.Ed.