Portsmouth’s own historian Tim Backhouse throws light on one of the murkiest murders ever to have taken place in the city.
The early months of 1450 were an anxious time for the English who were in great danger of losing control of Normandy to the French under their King Charles VI. The then Bishop of Chichester, Adam Moleyns, arrived in this febrile atmosphere. He would be dead on the beach within a few hours.
On September 24th 1445, Moleyns had been appointed to the see of Chichester and was consecrated at Lambeth on 30 November. This was the culmination of 22 years of relentless career progress through fourteen rectories, eleven prebends, two deanships (St Buryan, 1438, and Salisbury, 1441), and two archdeaconries (Salisbury, 1439, and Taunton, 1441), many of which he held only very briefly.
At the same time his religious career was developing, Moleyns was performing the role of an international envoy. By 1435 he was representing Henry VI at the papal curia in Rome and was seeking assurance from the pope that the Duke of Burgundy would not be released from his oaths to observe the terms of the treaty of Troyes. By April that same year he was a member of the papal household and clerk of the chamber and more appointments were to come.
Further diplomatic missions on behalf of Henry VI followed. In 1441, he led an English embassy to Frankfurt and the next year his commission was extended for him to meet Pope Eugenius. At home Moleyns’s links with the Beaufort family and William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, helped him to ascend to the positions of clerk of the royal council, secondary in the privy seal office and ultimately a member of the Privy Council and holder of the Privy Seal. Adam Moleyns’s diplomatic talents were engaged many more times during the 1440s, most notably in France, but also in Scotland.
At some point during this period, probably in 1446, Moleyns became involved in a dispute with Richard, Duke of York in which the latter claimed that Moleyns had accused him of financial irregularities, had defamed his reputation, and had blamed him for endangering the security of Normandy. Moleyns denied this but did not deny that such rumours existed. Soon after, York was removed from the post of lieutenant-general in France and as the situation there deteriorated Moleyns found himself exposed to criticism, particularly because of his close association with the Duke of Suffolk, but also because he advocated giving up French territory.
With such an atmosphere about him Moleyns sought to resign from affairs of state in order, he claimed, to pay more attention to his diocese and to go on a pilgrimage. On 9 January 1450 he arrived in Portsmouth and it whilst he was at the Domus Dei [later the Garrison Church] that a mob burst in and dragged him to the beach where he was murdered. Accounts differ as to the reason for the assault. Some reports say that he had brought funds for the payment of troops about to embark for France but that there was dispute as to the amount promised, others that the Duke of York paid the men to assassinate Moleyns and yet more say the troops blamed him for the losses in Normandy, a charge he jointly shared with the Duke of Suffolk.
Whatever was the true reason for the murder, it was to have a profound and lasting impact on the people of Portsmouth as the town and all the inhabitants were excommunicated. This extreme reaction by the church may help determine the motive of the perpetrators as it would be rather unfair on Portsmouth people if they were to be punished because of the actions of troops who were only in transit through the town. Even if the mob were largely made up of sailors, there would be no reason to assume they all originated in Portsmouth. It seems then that if the church were punishing the people of Portsmouth, it was the people of Portsmouth who committed the crime.
If this is correct then the story about Moleyns coming to Portsmouth to pay troops cannot be accurate. In support of this it is known that Moleyns had obtained the royal licence relieving him of all secular duties on 9th December 1449, so there is no reason he should be carrying substantial amounts of state cash a month later. Why then would he have been in Portsmouth at all? The only realistic option was that he really was about to go on a pilgrimage which was a partial motive for seeking the royal licence in the first place. The fact that he was dragged out of the Domus Dei, the traditional resting place for pilgrims, rather than St. Thomas’s where one might expect a visiting bishop to pray, lends weight to this argument.
All of this leaves the question of why the people of Portsmouth should commit such a heinous crime. Of the three potential motives mentioned above, only the perceived connection with the Duke of Suffolk and their joint responsibility for the disasters in France fits the scenario. The city of Rouen had been lost to Charles VI the previous October and the omens were that the English could well be thrown out of Normandy altogether. This would have had a dire effect on Portsmouth where business was largely based on trade with ports on the French coast and this may well have been sufficient motive for the people to take out their anger against the two men seen to be responsible, the Duke of Suffolk and Adam Moleyns. The fact that Suffolk was also murdered by sailors whilst on his way to exile in May 1450 suggests that the two men may have had as much in common in their deaths as they had during their lives.
There is insufficient evidence to support any particular theory, but there is no doubt that the curse of excommunication threatened the wellbeing of the townspeople but it was probably more important that Normandy was indeed lost to the English later in 1450. The economic downturn would, as a consequence, have been dramatic, but they bore their misfortune as best they could for nearly 60 years.
By 1508 the people had had enough and made it known that they were anxious to ‘submit themselves to a penance meet and proper’ and to this end the church sent a commission of three comprising of Dr. John Dowman, the Abbot of Titchfield and the Prior of Southwick who convened at the Domus Dei on 6th April 1508. They summoned the townsfolk by ringing the bell of St. Thomas’s church but when the vicar and congregation arrived there they found the door bolted and instructions to present themselves at the Domus Dei.
Once inside they found “Brother Hugh of Southampton in the garb of the Observants, the strictest and most respected order of the Friars [who] set forth the word of God”. The Commissioners rehearsed the reasons for which they were assembled and drove them all out saying they were not worthy to be in the House of God. Brother Hugh forced them to assemble at the place of the murder and then told them to return to St. Thomas’s in their bare feet. There they found the church doors still barred and there followed a protracted negotiation between them and the Commissioners inside; they must have slipped in via a side entrance.
The Commissioners commanded them to return again to the scene of the crime where after the reciting of many prayers they were instructed to raise a cross on the site with all possible speed and then to build a chapel there. Further penance was to be paid in that they should present themselves at the chapel every Good Friday in bare feet and on the anniversary of Moleyns death at least one member of every family must attend bearing lighted candles and take part in a Requiem Mass. This judgement of the Commissioners was followed by a return to St. Thomas’s Church where they were admitted to sing anthems and recite prayers. Thus ended the period of excommunication and a degree of normality could return.
It is assumed that the body of Bishop Moleyns would have been taken to Chichester Cathedral but there is no trace of any memorial to him there today, indeed his only presence is on the list of Bishops.
There has been much speculation as to the exact position of the Chapel erected to the memory of Adam Moleyns. In his “History of the Domus Dei”, Archdeacon Wright claims that there is no mystery about the location as a map drawn in the reign of Henry VIII and probably dating to around 1545 clearly shows the existence of a ‘Chappel’ at a point less than 100 metres west of the Garrison Church, or armoury as it was at the time. There have been no attempts to resolve this matter archaeologically but in 2009 the dowser Laurie Booth claimed to have detected the remains under the wide path sloping up to the Saluting Battery.
Legend has it that the street outside the Domus Dei was named Penny Street, being a corruption of Penitence Street, in memory of the journey that the townspeople took in their bare feet from the site of the Chapel to St. Thomas’s Church. There is no documentary evidence to support this suggestion.
This article was originally published here.
Image by Star & Crescent.