Morality and the Spiritual Courts

Waldron concluded his description of Manx jollifications with the cryptic sentence: "After such times there never fails to be some work made for Kirk Jarmyns." His reference is to the Manx Spiritual Laws, a system that put parochial affairs almost entirely into the hands of the Clergy Chapter Courts. These had their own code of moral behaviour and ways of inculcating it.

Each year the Vicar and his Wardens appointed a 'Quest' of four men to help them seek out and 'present' any offenders before the parish court. Issues of marriage and sexual aberration, witchcraft, disregard of worship and holy days, drunkenness, slander, cursing and brawling made up the bulk of their work, and the rough scribbled agenda and findings surviving from the mid-17th to the early 19th centuries shed a remarkable light on the shadier side of Manx life and manners. Similar systems had prevailed earlier on the mainland, but the Manx outlasted even the Scottish by almost a century.

The sanctions of these Courts included tongue-bridles, ducking stools, even dragging behind boats, as well as the humiliating public exposure of penance. But behind all was "the strong argument called Kirk Jaronyms", the Bishop`s prison in the crypt of St. German`s Cathedral in Peel Castle. Let Waldron speak:

"The stairs descending to the Place of Terrors are not above 30, but so steep and narrow that they are very difficult to go down, a Child of 8 or 9 years not being able to pass them but sideways. Within it are 13 Pillars on which the whole Chapell is supported. They have a superstition that whatsoever Stranger goes to see this Cavern out of Curiosity, and omits to count the Pillars, shall do something to occasion being con fined there . . . There are places for Penance also under the other Churches containing very dark and horrid cells : some have nothing in them either to sit on, lie down on, others a small piece of brickwork : some are lower and more dark than others, but all of them in my opinion dreadful enough for almost any Crime Humanity is capable of being guilty of . . That under the Bishops Chappell is the common and only Prison for all Offences in the Spiritual Court."

It was Waldron`s judgment that the Clergy had a tyrannical jurisdiction over the people, and that the temporal power -- and not least the soldiery who had to execute the sentences - were at pains to soften it. Thomas Wilson, bishop 1698-1755, who in so many ways was responsible for bringing the Island out of a medieval into a contemporary mentality, is often blamed for the rigour of the system. But his own testimony was that "long and uninterrupted custom" had made the spiritual courts such an essential part of the discipline of Manx life that "should he derogate from it he would be in great danger of public opposition". "I comply with it," he said, "rather than approve it."

But, (Waldron again) :

"How little the methods taken by the Court to prevent Fornication have succeeded, may be known by the great number of offenders which are every Sunday doing Penance for it in their Churches".

Dragging behind a boat was the ultimate deterrent for women guilty of persistent sexual misbehaviour. There are some 15 recorded cases. It was especially repugnant to the military, and the last sentence passed in 1734 was never carried out. But among them was that of Jane Kissage in 1705. A scrap of paper, the order to the Sumner to put it into effect alone survives. It reads :

"The within Jane Kissage, for a prentended fornication, etc., is to be dragged in Ramsey burn at full sea for ye space of an hour, and her mother for burying a block under pretence o f her daughter`s child is to stand on ye shore in pentential manner whilst the said Jane her daughter is dragged after a boat".

What scenarios can be written to that! But the chief of male Kissack sinners is surely found here in the very same year. Headed Bishopscourt, dated Nov., 28, 1705, the sentence reads :

"In Nomine Dei ,
Whereas William Kissack of Kirk Christ, Lezayre, hath committed adultery with his wife's sisters daughter, Anne Christian to the great dishonour of God and of His Holy Church, and damnation of his immortal soul without the great mercy of God upon his sincere repentance, is therefore censured as followeth.


To be committed a month in St. German`s Prison, and before his release to give Bonds to perform the ensuing censure, vizt. To make one Sunday`s penance at the Church door of every Parish, and at ye Market Cross of every Town within this Isle, in the habit and manner following. That he be ready at the ringing of the last peale to Morning Prayer, to begin his penance, bare-footed and bare-legged and bare-headed, covered over with a white linen sheet, and a small white wan(d) in his hand; and so to stand during the Going in and the Coming out of the Parishioners; and also to stand at ye said Market Crosses f or ye space of two hours (on ye Market Days) from nine to eleven in the forenoon, with a Schedule on his breast intimating his crime, which is to be read by the Ministers of the respective Parishes, and to be repeated by the offender, as followeth:

"Good Christian People ,
I am thus most justly censured for my abominable Sin of Adultery and Incest with my Wife's Sister's Daughter, Ann Christian, whereby I am grievously fallen, and have given great offence to all good Christians here present, and to all who shall hear thereof, and therefor I do most humbly and penitentially pray from the bottom of my heart, and upon my bended knee beseech God in his Son Christ`s name, who shed his blood for all Sinners that do truly repent and believe in him, to forgive me all my sins, but this especially. And I earnestly desire you and ye whole Church of Christ to forgive this scandal given to the Christian Religion, and that you offer up your fervent prayers to Almighty God our merciful father that he would raise me up again by true repentance, and give me the assistance of His Holy Spirit, and that (if it be his Blessed Will) I may be restored to an happy state of salvation, and by the idulgence of the Church may be received into the communion and fellowship of its members. So that I may both in body and soul be sanctified here on earth, and with you be glorified hereafter in Heaven. And therefor Good Christian People, I beseech you to pray with me, saying: Our Father, which art in Heaven, etc. (see Note 1)

Tho. Sodor
Sam. Wattleworth
Robt. Parr
Jon. Curghey

To the General Sumner or his Deputy, to see this duly executed and certifcated returned herewith of the performance thereof, to be recorded."

How many of the 21 public penance appearances above prescribed he actually performed we do not know, but often there was a remission of maybe half. Nor how he fared in St. German`s. The popular impression that prisoners were penned scores at a time in the dungeon crypt, only 34 feet by 13, is probably overdrawn. Waldron implies that already in his time the garrison would allow prisoners more tolerable quarters in the Castle, no doubt at a price. The dungeon was last used in 1780.

In the mid-19th century a curate of Lezayre kept a table of illegitimate births in the parish from 1800 to 1848, by 7-year periods. The total baptisms in those periods were :- 386, 441, 430, 419, 455, 492 and 489. and the corresponding illegitimacies :- 22, 28, 39, 47, 56, 58 and 30 an overall proportion of 3112:280, an average of 9%, with a variation between 5.5% in periods between 1800 and 1814, and 12.5% between 1821 and 1841.

However, the Spiritual Courts spent much more time on settling the estates of the deceased than on the sins of the living. The Wills of the wealthy might be legally-prepared documents, occasionally with copperplate calligraphy and red seal appended, yet these stand out in the files among the scribbled Manx quartos like picture hats in a village market. The wills of the illiterate were normally nuncupatory, i.e., spoken out, wherever possible in the presence of the Parish Clark, who would write it down before witnesses. Occasionally there was no clerk, perhaps even none who could write. Then the Parish Quest took sworn statements from those present, and sifted out of them the relevant intentions of the deceased. But frequently there was no will of any sort. Then the Quest would meet, appoint four honest men to make an inventory of the estate, and then divide it among the heirs. A wife automatically owned half of the property, and could not be dispossessed of any of it without her consent. So inventories constantly record items such as Half a Cow or Half a Spade. Where there was land, the heir was always the eldest son, or the eldest daughter if there were no sons. Inherited land was by law so entailed and could not be willed to another. Property personally acquired could be left at will. But mostly among the poor there was just nothing to leave.

It is from Wills that inferences can be drawn about the social status of a family. It may be possible to indicate something of the standing of the various Kissack families from statistics of wills. How many of them had anything to leave? How did their social position differ from parish to parish? I have made a rough tabulation of the respective numbers of family wills, baptisms and burials for 5 parishes where our presence was significant, Lezayre, Maughold, Jurby, Santon and Patrick, divided into 18th and 19th centuries. Patrick and Jurby had relatively small family presences in the 18th century, and so figure only in the later one. In the 18th century the ratio of Wills to Burials were : slightly above 1 in 2 for Santon; and 1 in 3 for Lezayre and Maughold. In the 19th century, above 1 in 2 in Patrick; 1 in 2 in Maughold and Santon; 1 in 3 in Lezayre, but 1 in 13 in Jurby. The ratio of Wills to Baptisms are (for the 18th century only) :above 1 to 2 in Santon; 1 to 3 in Lezayre and Maughold; 1 to 3 in Patrick, and 1 to 11 in Jurby. The implications for Jurby can be assessed later.


Note 1 - Correspondence received casts some doubt on Rex's conclusion - read more

Please note that the copyright of the 'Seed of Isaac' and 'The MacIsaacs' remains with the family of Rex Kissack and no part may be reproduced from this site without their permission.


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