University of Portsmouth's History Blog

The Excommunication of Portsmouth, 1450-1508

Dr Fiona McCall teaches on a first year module, Early Modern World, where we discuss the practice of the medieval Catholic church before the reformation, and a second year module, Crime, Sin and Punishment in Britain, 1500-1850, which looks at the extensive jurisdiction of the church courts in the early modern period, as well as the role of religious ideas in punishment. Below she relates how the town of Portsmouth was excommunicated in 1450, and what it had to do, fifty-eight years later, to end this predicament. This year, Patrick Johnson, one of the students who studied the above module last year, will be researching a dissertation on the social meaning of excommunication for individuals, using records from the published church court records for the diocese of Oxford, which Fiona will be supervising.

In the medieval and early modern period, the church had an extensive jurisdiction over everyday life and behaviour as well as religious practice.   Individuals who transgressed the boundaries of acceptable moral or religious behaviour or belief might find themselves before the church courts, and if they remained contumacious, be censured via excommunication. This meant they could no longer take part in church services, receive communion, or be buried in consecrated ground.  Other members of the community were supposed to shun them.

Sometimes whole communities were excommunicated: famously the whole of England was placed under a papal interdict between 1208 and 1214, after King John quarrelled with the pope. In 1450, the island of Portsmouth was excommunicated as punishment for the murder of Adam Moleyns, bishop of Chichester, an event recorded in an English chronicle of the time:

And this yeer, the Friday the ix. Day of January, maister Adam Moleyns, bisshoppe of Chichestre and keeper of the kyngis prive seel, whom the kyng sent to Portesmouth, forto make paiement of money to certayne souldiers and shipmenne for their wages; and so it happid that with boistez language, and also for abriggyng of their wages, he fil in variaunce with thaym, and thay fil on him, and cruelly there kilde him [1]

1450 was a bad year for England. Under the weak (and later mad) King Henry VI, England was losing the Hundred Years’ War, and there was extensive unrest.   Moleyns’s association with the unpopular faction of Queen Margaret of Anjou, led by the Duke of Suffolk, may have provoked the anger against him.  On the 3 May Suffolk was himself captured and beheaded on shipboard off the coast of Suffolk, while on the 29 June Bishop Ascough of Salisbury was killed while saying mass. In May, June and July rebels from Kent, Surrey and Sussex, led by Jack Cade, terrorised London until Cade was killed and the rebellion suppressed.

You that love the commons, follow me / Now show yourselves men; ’tis for liberty / We will not leave one lord, one gentleman / Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon

Jack Cade, in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part II

Sentence of excommunication was intended to correct the culprit or culprits and was removed by absolution, after performing a suitable penance. Portsmouth, however, remained excommunicate for fifty-eight years, well after the Wars of the Roses had been and gone and with a new Tudor dynasty firmly-established on the throne. The exacting penance required is detailed in the records of the Diocese of Winchester. This took place in the hospital known as the Domus Dei, on the site of what is now the Garrison Church, and at the parish church, now St Thomas’s cathedral. As for other church records of the time, this was recorded in Latin, but Archdeacon Henry Wright, provides a translation, from which the following is an extract, where what drove them to seek penance is revealed. [2] Also observe the lengthy and theatrical nature of the ritual performed, the coming together of different religious orders to perform it, the importance of specific prayers, the Catholic idea of communication between the living and the dead, and the mix of communal and personal mechanisms towards the town’s absolution.

Firstly, the preamble:

Richard, by divine permission, Bishop of Winchester, …Greeting, Grace, and Benediction. Whereas the Lord Adam, … Bishop of Chichester, suffered emporal death through the inhabitants of Portysmouthe, on account of which the inhabitants and all their followers incurred the sentence of the greater excommunication and the anger of Almighty God, and their land has suffered many ruins and losses: the present inhabitants of the same town, desiring to be freed from such a bond, and … to submit to a fitting and legitimate penance, and trusting more fully in the mercy of Almighty God, earnestly and humbly supplicated us, … to provide a fitting remedy for them on this behalf. We therefore, … desiring to provide for the salvation of the souls of the same inhabitants, since the church closes her bosom to no one returning to her, … grant you full power in the Lord to enquire according to the demands of justice concerning such crime, and to absolve the aforesaid inhabitants from such sentence, and to impose and enjoin on them a salutary and fitting penance… [3]

The penance was set in motion by the tolling of a bell and ritual closing of the doors of St Thomas’s church,

On the sixth … of April, at seven o’clock in the forenoon … 1508, … the parishioners of the town of Portysmouthe, in the diocese of Winchester, in a great multitude of each sex, together with Sir Robert Adam, vicar of Portysmouthe … vested in a surplice, at the tolling of a bell in the parish church of Portysmouthe aforesaid, came to the same parish church. And because, on account of the causes… the doors of the church had been closed, it was announced to them that they should go to the church called the ‘Domus Dei’ of Portysmouthe. [4]

The participants then gathered at the Domus Dei, where the Bishop’s commission was read to them,

To whom assembled at … the word of God being set forth by the … brother Hugh, of the order of Observantists of Southampton in the said diocese, and the cause of their congregation being declared, … Master John Dowman Doctor of Laws, Vicar General in spiritualities of the … Bishop of Winchester, Sir Thomas Oke, Abbot of the monastery of Tychefelde in the said diocese of Winchester, … and Sir Thomas Kent, Prior of the Priory of Suthewyk … , vested in stoles, the commission of the said Reverend Father made to the said Commissaries being presented to them and publicly read through, … with rods in their hands drove out and excluded, as disqualified and unfit to be in the church of God, the said vicar and parishioners, on account of the enormity of the crime committed …, at the said church called the Domus Dei, by the inhabitants … against the Lord Adam, … Bishop of Chichester; who was inhumanly and with sacrilegious hands dragged by the inhabitants … subjected to a cruel death, … Who thus excluded, went in haste to the place of the crime in which the same Lord Adam, Bishop of Chichester suffered death.

The town was advised of the means of absolution, which, as was typical of acts of penance, involved stripping of clothing, prayer and prostration,

at the place of the crime, … brother Hugh counselled, that, … they who could suffer to do so should pass with naked feet and legs to the western doors of the parish church of Portysmouthe, there in the manner of penitents to prostrate themselves in prayers, and to seek penance and absolution … and admission to the church to be granted them.

The inhabitants then processed back to St Thomas’s, and begged for re-admittance,

And thereupon, the same lords Commissaries, together with brothers …  arranged in sacerdotal order … went to the … parish church. [5] And, after they had entered the said church, Sir Robert Adam of Portysmouthe the Vicar, and the parishioners thereof, the feet and legs of the same parishioners for the most part being naked, … went, together with …brother Hugh, towards the said western doors, and there humbly prostrated themselves. And the doors of the church, by the command of the Commissaries,… being closed on all sides, the said Vicar and parishioners on the outside of the western door of the said parish church, in the cemetery of the same, being prostrate in the manner of penitents, … brother Hugh and the said Vicar, in his own name and in that of everyone of his parishioners, knocked at the said western door and lamentably prayed for the said door to be opened, and for entrance or admission to the church, and penance and absolution for himself and such parishioners.

The lords commissaries represented the church, while the vicar of Portsmouth and brother Hugh acted for the parishioners and town,

Which knocking and petition being so made, the same lords Commissaries enquired from within who might be there … brother Hugh and the Vicar, in the name of himself and of everyone of his parishioners, replied that sinners were present, and that they sought forgiveness from God for the laying of violent hands on the Lord Adam, Bishop of Chichester, by the inhabitants of the town of Portsmouth …and that they were prepared to undergo penance.

The church authorities staged a play of reluctance and stressed the heinousness, and the providential consequences, of the crime. We now learn why the town was so keen to seek absolution, although one also wonders whether royal awareness of the potential strategic value of the port may also have given the inhabitants a prod towards coming in from the cold. Note also the poetic use of the four elements of the medieval cosmos,

Which … Commissaries replied … that they doubted whether they could grant according to the petition made, because the blood of the dead Bishop cried for vengeance before the Lord against those sinning in such a manner: the four elements being witnesses, namely—Air, Water, Fire, and Earth. First, Air, because by pestilences and other weaknesses more of the inhabitants there for the greater part were dead, and their land was not fertile but rendered sterile. Secondly, Water, because merchants, on account of the said crime and by reason of the infamy of such inhabitants, hare been unwilling to call at the port there with their ships: and, besides that, their lands in the various places had been inundated and devastated by the water, and the inhabitants there had sustained very many other damages and losses through water. Thirdly, Fire, because the buildings of that town and of other neighbouring places had been often consumed by fire. Fourthly Earth, because their lands have not brought forth fruits as they had formerly done, and, moreover, that the grass in the place where the said Bishop suffered, with the land on each side, is withered and does not flourish; and thus their habitations were deserted, insomuch that they could scarcely find any persons who wished to inhabit them, and so their buildings have fallen to ruin, and the inhabitants there have been marked with perpetual infamy. And[6], on account of these and many other causes, they were not fit, neither could have been so, neither could they be admitted to enter the church.

The penitents, still prostrate, pleaded once again to be allowed to perform of penance to obtain readmission to the church. The Lords Commissaries took them back to the scene of the crime and instructed them as to how they are to perform their penance,

they desired that there prostrate they should say the Lord’s Prayer fifteen times and the Apostles’ Creed thrice; while the same Commissaries with such priests and other literates, … should there say the seven penitential psalms with genuflexion.

Corporal punishment was an important part of the ritual,

the said seven psalms being begun by the said Lords Commissaries, when they came to the psalm ” Miserere mei Deus,” (have mercy upon me, O God,) the same Lords Commissaries disciplined the said vicar and parishioners with rods, they, the disciplinants saying the verso “Miserere mei Deus secundum magnam mcsericordiam tuam,” (have mercy upon me, God, after thy great goodness) and the disciplined answering by themselves or others the verse ” Et secundum multitudiem meserationum tuarum dele iuiquitatem meam,” (and according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.)”

After they have been ‘so disciplined’, the parishioners were instructed to erect a cross and a chapel at the place of the crime, where prayers were to be said for the Lord Adam, and for the forgiveness of the inhabitants, with accompanying offerings, on Good Friday each year. On the 9th January, the anniversary of the date on which the bishop was murdered, they were to perform further oblations, ‘with burning wax candles in their hands’, hold a requiem mass and once again prostrate themselves at the western door of St Thomas’s.

The rituals performed, there was a statement of absolution,

And thereupon the same parishioners, in the manner of penitents, returned to the said western door, being preceded by the said vicar and other priests, and singing the Litany, with the cross erect, and incense bearers and candle bearers, and followed by the aforesaid Commissaries with rods in their hands. And then, the same Commissaries, certain prayers and addresses having been previously said by them, disciplined the vicar and parishioners so prostrated, and absolved them from the sentence of excommunication …

The parishioners were now re-admitted to St Thomas’s church, bearing lighted candles, while a requiem mass and a mass ‘de Sancto Spiritu ’[of the Holy Spirit] were sung and offerings made ‘according to their means’, towards the building of the chapel.  More masses were celebrated at the altars in the parish church, including those of the “Five Wounds’ and of the “Name of Jesus”. A procession around the town then followed:

the same Commissaries, together with the presbyters and clerks aforesaid, went in solemn procession around the town of Portysmouthe aforesaid, singing the Litany, … “Salve festa dies,” the parishioners following them. And when they had come to the place of the crime they halted there, and the psalm “De profundis,” with a prayer for the soul of the deceased Bishop, and the souls of all the faithful deceased having been there said by the same Commissaries and presbyters and clerks, the Commissaries and presbyters and clerks retained in procession to the said parish church, singing the remainder of such Litany, followed by the parishioners …

Indulgences were offered, and further acts of penance enjoined, to extend the process of penance,

at the end of the procession, the said Master John Downam intimated to the same parishioners … that the said Reverend Father granted forty days’ indulgence to all persons visiting … and making stations there, so often as they should say there the “Do Profundis ” and the Lord’s Prayer five times, with the salutation of the angels five times, and the Apostles’ Creed. And then, in the afternoon … the same Commissaries, and Presbyters, and Clerks sang solemn funeral services in the same parish of Portsmouthe, for the soul of the said deceased Bishop, and for the souls of all the faithful deceased, the greater part of the aforesaid parishioners being there present.



[1] An English Chronicle of the Reigns of Richard II., Henry IV., Henry V., and Henry VI, ed. J. Sylvester Davies (London: Camden Society, 1856), 64.

[2] Processus habitus apud Portysmouthe. E. Registro Domini Domini Ricardi Fox, Wintoniensia Episcopi, Tom. 2. fos. 88—90, in H.P. Wright, The Story of the Domus Dei of Portsmouth, commonly called the Royal Garrison Church (London, 1873), 147-53.

[3] Lengthy honorific titles have been shortened.

[4] Clergy of the time were usually addressed as ‘sir’.

[5] The brothers were all named in the process and came from Portsea, Portchester, Alverstoke and Tichfield.

[6] Southsea at the time is described as a ‘waste’ of marsh and common, some below sea level and subject to inundation.  Much of Portsea island was common fields, with communal grazing rights enforced via Court Leet: see A Temple Patterson, Portsmouth: A History (1976), p. 36; J. Chapman, The Common Lands of Portsea Island, Portsmouth Papers, No. 29, November 1998.


A Description of Portsmouth in the Sixteenth Century

In his survey of 1535-1543 John Leland notes the presence at Portsmouth of ‘a great round tourre’ and a ‘great dok for shippes’ within which lies ‘the rybbes of the the Henry Grace of Dieu, one of the biggest shippes that hath beene made in hominum memoria [the memory of man].’ The town is well defended by a ‘mudde waull with tymbre, wher on be great peaces both of yren and brasen ordinauns’ However, there is not much permanent settlement beyond this,

The toun of Portesmouth is bare and litle occupied in time of pece.

There is much vacant ground within the toun waulle.

There is one fair streate in the toun from west to north Este

There is but one paroche chirch in the town.

There is a chapelle in a vacant ground [in the southe weste syde of the town toward the waulle and shore].

The rest of the island is a mixture of corn, grass, woods and marsh:

The town of Portesmuth standith in a corner of an isle …in lenght a vj. miles and a 3. myles in bredth.

This isle berith good corn and grasse.

The ground within the isle of Portesmuth is partely enclosid, fruteful of corn and hath sum wood.

The ground near Portsbridge is marshy, and the only other settlements noted nearby are Southwick and Gosport.

From The Itinerary of John Leland, in about the years 1535-1543, ed. Lucy Toulmin Smith (London, 1907)



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