On January 9th 1450, Adam Moleyns, Bishop of Cichester was dragged onto the beach at Portsmouth by a mob and murdered. The motive behind this crime has been debated by historians without any resolution. There are three possible scenarios.
- The bishop was sent by the king to pay some soldiers and sailors their wages before they embarked for France where the Hundred Years War was in its final stages. An argument ensued because the men were dissatisfied with the money they received and the bishop paid for the shortfall with his life.
- The Duke of York, then in Ireland as its lieutenant-governor, hired assassins to do the job.
- The people of the town blamed the bishop for the losses in Normandy – an accusation for which the Duke of Suffolk paid with his life four months later.
Whatever the reason for the atrocity, Pope Nicholas excommunicated the entire town. That meant the loss of all spiritual benefits shared by Christians. The excommunicated may not receive any of the sacraments. No baptisms, marriages or consecrations. The mortally ill must die without the consolation of the Last Rites.
If the soldiers and sailors had been responsible, it would have been impossible to punish them because by the time the pope got the news, the men would have crossed the Channel and disappeared into the army. If the Duke of York was the responsible party, it ought not to have been impossible to identify and track down the assassins. In either case, why punish the whole town? It seems a bit extreme.
The most likely scenario is that the men of the town were responsible. The bishop had a close relationship with the very unpopular Duke of Suffolk and had advocated giving up territory to France to end the war. Rouen had been lost to the French the year before and it seemed likely that the whole of Normandy would go the same way. Portsmouth’s economy relied on trade with the towns of the French coast, which gave them a good reason to hate the bishop.
The French did, in fact take Normandy, resulting in an economic downturn that must have made life in Portsmouth difficult enough. Incredibly, the people bore the burden of excommunication for almost sixty years.
Not until 1508 did they appeal to Pope Julius II that they were anxious to submit themselves to penance. The Pope sent three commissioners. Upon their arrival at the Domus Dei, the garrison church, they summoned the townsfolk by ringing the bell of St. Thomas’s Church. But when the people arrived, they found the door bolted and a note ordering them to the Domus Dei. Once there, the commissioners berated them for their sins and drove them out saying they were not fit to enter a house of God, and forced them to return to the place of the murder. They were then told to return to St. Thomas’s in their bare feet. The church doors were still barred. They were ordered back to scene of the crime, where many prayers were recited. For penance, they were told to erect a cross on the spot as soon as possible and later a chapel. Also they had to present themselves at the chapel every Good Friday, and on the anniversary of the bishop’s death at least one member of every household was to return bearing a lighted candle and take part in a requiem mass. With this, the people were allowed to enter St. Thomas’s Church and their long years of misery were over.