When notice was posted of a public penance that would take place at a Cornish church on Trinity Sunday, 6th June 1834, a crown of 5000 – most of them women – turned up to see the event. They arrived well in advance of the service to witness what the local newspaper's reporter called, 'this highly ridiculous piece of mummery.'
A Mrs Brown had apparently called a Mrs Michell a naughty woman. Whether these were actually the words Mrs Brown used, or whether the reporter was being tactful in order to avoid upsetting reader sensibilities, isn't clear.
Mrs Brown arrived in a post-chaise at midday. Wearing a white dress and a smart bonnet decorated with flowers and ribbons and a long black veil, she carried a green parasol, and with all the confidence of a theatrical queen, she walked into the church in the middle of the sermon. Not surprisingly this caused immediate uproar.
Mrs Michell, the injured party, was seated at the clergyman's desk. Mrs Brown was escorted to the desk usually occupied by the clerk. Once there she raised her veil and carefully swept it to one side. The reporter noted that her smile revealed a good set of teeth as she bestowed smiles on all her admiring friends who had prepared an effigy of poor Mrs Michell which they promised to burn. Mr Davey, a deputy-lieutenant of the County, immediately called upon the parish constables to remove and destroy the effigy.
Eventually the sermon resumed. After it finished, the clerk announced psalm 120, the new version, as this most clearly expressed the injured feelings of Mrs Michell. Then the clergyman read the following words which were repeated by the supposedly penitent Mrs Brown:
'I, Jane Brown' do hereby acknowledge and confess that I did speak several reproachful, scandalous and defamatory words of you, Elizabeth Michell, and that I have defamed and abused you, and ask your pardon, and promise not to be guilty of the like offence in future.'
When she had finished, she thanked the audience for the honour of their attendance, then added in an undertone: 'For a pint of toddy I'll go through the same next Sunday if you, Mother Michell, will pay the tip.'
So much for penitence!
Jane Jackson. www.janejackson.net