Dave Postles wrote a fascinating article about the re-introduction of public penances for certain moral offences during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Such methods of correction were commonplace during the early medieval period. They were largely discontinued by the early sixteenth century in favour of personal and private confessions.

During and after the Reformation ecclesiastical courts continued to hear cases concerning allegations of fornication, adultery, begetting of illegitimate children, slander, marriages within degrees and divorce. Church authorities were keen to promote more godly behaviour among the people of England, and they particularly frowned upon men who betrayed their position of trust by seducing their own servants. To this end they eagerly supported the ritual humiliation of offenders in both market places and churches. Carrying rods or lighted candles, the unfortunate offenders often went bare-foot and wore plain white shifts; they might also receive beatings or have to perform good works in public. Sometimes they had to serve several penances. The aim of this kind of punishment was to set an example to the crowds who gathered to watch the events and to shame the transgressors into amending their ways. Dioceses across the length and breadth of England adopted this trend. There were 43 penances in Leicestershire between 1561 and 1586, of which seven took place at Loughborough. Two of these involved Hathern folk in 1561 and 1583 respectively. We only have the barest of details for the latter case in which Richard Eglott had to undergo three days of penance in Hathern church and three in Loughborough market place. He had committed adultery with Margaret Strett of Hathern who was “not ostensibly a servant.” We have no further information about either of these two and neither of their surnames appears in Hathern’s BMD book.

The aim of the penances was to name and shame miscreants. Just imagine the barracking, jeering, laughter, egg-throwing and ribald remarks from passers-by. One has to ask whether such punishments achieved the desired result.
Dave Postles (2003). Penance and the Market Place: a Reformation Dialogue with the Medieval Church (c. 1250–c. 1600). The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 54 (3): 441-468.
Dr. A.M. Bagley
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