The White Shroud of Penance

Shame and humiliation, the penalty for not conforming: the Amende Honorable, or Porter le linceuil.

One of the punishments most often ordered by the Calvinist Colloquy and consistories was the wearing of the White Shroud of Penance, often for adultery or bearing an illegitimate child.¹ The offender was made stand in full view of the congregation during the Sunday service, wearing a white sheet, representing a shroud, (a linceuil, which could mean both a bed-sheet and a shroud in Guernsey), bare-headed and bare-footed. Later, holding a burning candle in one hand and a bible in the other, the penitent was called upon to confess their fault, express regret, promise never to offend again, acknowledge the justice of the punishment, and finally, to make the humiliation complete, listen to the Minister deliver a scathing sermon.

Probably the last person to undergo this forced penance in Guernsey was Sara Elliott, an unmarried English servant-girl whose baby was judged to have been murdered by her employer and father of the baby, a wealthy young Frenchman named Marie-François Béasse.² Elegant and refined, he was executed on 5 November 1830 for what was in fact a most unpleasant act of infanticide, of a baby of whom he was almost certainly the father, and for whose death he may or may not have been responsible. On 30 October Sara suffered her punishment. The combination of civil  and ecclesiastical authorities in dealing with these matters is notable but not unusual in Guernsey.

From the Gazette de Guernesey, 6 November 1830.
She left the prison at around midday, dressed in a white shift, and was led by the Bordiers into a room at the back of the Court, on the ground floor. After she had taken off her hat and cap, her stockings and her shoes, a huge wax candle was placed in her hand; it was lit, and is reputed to weigh over four pounds: then she went up into the Court and took her place at the Bar. The Greffier read to her the charge and the sentence delivered the previous Saturday. Then the Bailiff spoke, in near enough these words:

'Sara Elliott, after a long and carefully considered judgment, the Court has found you guilty of having concealed and denied your pregnancy, and the birth of your child—which was eventually murdered and secretly buried. Your sentence demands that you appear before us here in the dock, to do public penance, known as the Amende Honorable, and that you be banished from the Bailiwick for a period of six years. Therefore you are now going to undergo the first part of that sentence, by getting down on your knees, and asking forgiveness of God, the King, and the Court, and by declaring your repentance for what you have done.'

Then she got to her knees, and said in English: 'I ask pardon from God, the King, and the Court, for the crimes I have committed.'

She was taken back to prison in the clothes in which she entered the Court, and on Monday morning she left the island on board the schooner Horatio, bound for Plymouth. [From the French.]

4th December 1665. St Peter Port Church, Dean Jean de Saumarez presiding.

Susanne Corbel, who had been accused of the sin of paillardize, appeared before the Court and confessed her guilt. She showed her remorse, which was judged sufficient for her to be accepted back into the Church ['rechüe a la paix de l'Eglise']. It was ordered that for the next three Sundays she should attend Torteval Church, where she was to remain standing during the whole period of morning prayer, dressed in a white shroud, shoulder to ankle, her face uncovered, and holding a white candle. And immediately following the reading of the second lesson on the third Sunday, the said Susanne was to repeat the following:

Mes amis, comme ainsi soit que moy, Susanne Corbel, n'ayant point en la Crainte de Dieu devant mes yeux et n'ayant point regard au salut de mon âme, esty depuis peu commis le hayneux crime de paillardise, en aiy eu deux bastards gemaux, procréés de mon corps, au grand deshonneur de Dieu tout puissant, et au danger et detriment de ma propre âme, et au mauvais exemple de mes prochains. C'est pourquoi je suis marrie de tout mon coeur d'avoir commis ceste offence, et supplie le Dieu tout puissant qu'il me pardonne ce mien peché, et tous les autres que j'ay commis, et je promets qu'à l'advenir je n'offenseray jamais en cette sorte, et vous supplie vous tous qui estes ici presens de vous joindre avec moy dans l'humble et cordiale prière que je fais au dit Tout Puissant en disant Nostre &c.
My friends, it is a fact that I, Susanne Corbel, heedless of the fear of God and with no regard for the good of my soul, not long ago committed the heinous crime of paillardise, and produced bastard twins of my body, which is a great dishonour to God the omnipotent, and a danger and detriment to my own soul, and set a bad example to those around me. Which is why I regret my offence with all my heart, and I beg God the all-powerful that he will pardon my sin and all the others I have committed, and I promise I will never do it again, and I ask all of you here present to join with me in making a humble and cordial prayer to God by saying together the Lord's Prayer &c.

On 10 November 1629 Sarah Langlois confesses to the same crime and is punished with the same penance; the wording is very similar but it is specified that she must kneel and address her words to the minister. From Carey Notebook: The Acts of the Ecclesiastical Court, pp. 16-17, 'Paillardize' (Library 41B).

 ¹ 'Charles Hallouvris of St Sampson's, in July of 1577, was sent to prison for having attended Mass and gone on a pilgrimage to Normandy (pilgrimages had been forbidden in 1566). He had to pay a heavy fine and to do public penance on the following Sunday at St Peter-Port, and the succeeding Sunday at St Sampson's.' E. Carey, Social Life in Guernsey in the Sixteenth Century, 1920, p. 29. See also, for example, the Order concerning dissolute behaviour at public gatherings of 1583, where the amende was made a punishment for dancing, singing, or playing music at parties. In England, the churches had a special Penitents' Bench on which the disgraced person had to sit, but there seems to have been no such luxury in Guernsey!

² For the story of Béasse's crime and execution, see The Guernsey Magazine of October 1888, pp. 82-3 and a handbill in the Library collection. Sara claimed throughout that she was unaware of what had happened to her baby immediately after its birth, as she was barely conscious at that time. The ancient but evocative charge of 'failure to provide baby linen,' however, would have been enough for the jurats to convict her. Harriet Dobrée wrote her version in a letter of 4 November 1830:

The unfortunate Frenchman who was found guilty of infanticide is to suffer the penalty tomorrow: he is to be executed at 10 o'clock. He is a man of family, fortune and education but unfortunately a Deist. Mr Phillips has been unremitting in his attentions to him, but, I fear, without success; he persists in his innocence but no-one can have a doubt of his guilt. He was alone in the house with his servant when she was delivered of a fine boy, the child was found buried in the garden and on being examined discovered that some sharp instrument had been passed through the poor baby up and down and yet so dexterously done that it bore no external mark of violence. He owns being the father of the child and throughout has wished to throw the odium on the mother. She was punished on Saturday last; she was made to walk dressed in white with a taper in her hand to Court and ask pardon of God, the King and Justice for not having provided baby linen for her baby; and was banished for six years.

For Margaret Mackenzie, another girl who suffered this punishment, in January 1818, for concealing the birth of and killing her baby, see Quarterly Review of the Guernsey Society, LIV (1), Spring 1998, p. 22.