I grew up in a time when the phrase to stand in a white sheet was still used as a proverbial term for penance.
In the parish of Bromley we see a perfect explanation of the penance being carried out.
Ann Chapman was a widow,who in her widowhood had relationships with several men and this promiscuity had become known in the town. It is worth remembering the presence of the Bishop's Palace,Bromley College and its chaplain and of course the parish and vestry in a small rural town. The Diocese of Rochester had at time within the Archdeaconry of Rochester one Worshipful Francis Simpson,Doctor of Laws. He summoned Ann Chapman to do public penance and this is documented in detail. I believe this to be quite rare that a surviving written account can be found.
Horsburgh attributes the written document to the ownership of Phillip Norman 's antiquarian collection.
"The said Ann Chapman widow,shall come to the said church on Sunday,the twenty eight day of October in the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy at the tolling of the second bell to morning prayers, and shall stand in the porch of the said Church from the tolling of the said second bell until the second lesson be ended,Bare headed,bare legged and bare footed,having a white sheet over her wearing apparel,and holding a white rod of an Ell long in her hand after the manner of a penitent sinner and the second Lesson being ended she shall come into the said Church and stand in some convenient place near the Minister's Reading Desk."
The procedure then required Ann after the Nicene Creed had been read to make a public confession of her misconduct and repeating after the Minister the following;
"I Ann Chapman do in the presence of God and this congregation humbly and penitently confess and acknowledge that having not the fear of God,and being seduced by the Temptations of the Devil and my own Lusts have lived incontinently and committed the foul sin of Fornication,having had a bastard or base begotten child born of my body whereby I have greatly offended Almighty God,endangered my own Soul,and given an Evil example and scandal to all good Christians for which Offence I am heartily sorry,and do humbly beg pardon of God and this Congregation for the same, and do promise (God assisting me with His Grace) never to offend in the like manner again, and I beseech this Congregation to pray for me and with me to say Our Father which art in Heaven and so forth."
The Minister was Thomas Bagshaw,his curate John Brett and they together with Samuel Cutson Overseer of the Poor were required to return sworn certificates within a specified date to the Registry of the Archdeaconry of the Diocese of Rochester.
Such a certificate was produced in good time to the Registry and signed by the three men to attest that the prescribed penance had been performed.
This is a rare survival of a written account of such a penance being performed under the direction of a Diocese and the clergy and Overseer producing sworn certificates to a Diocesan Registry of such public penance.
Copyright (c) Henry Mantell 2014