In a case at law there is only so much that can be proved by paperwork. Sometimes you have to take a man’s word for it. And if two men say different things – what then? Today we rely on Judges to decide – to ‘judge’ the case. That is what they do.
In Norman times (and during the early medieval period generally) there was another solution – the ordeal.
But let us look first at oaths. Oaths are still with us today, as is the criminal offence of perjury. However because of the belief system in medieval times, perjury was considered far more serious than it is today. It was taking the name of God in vain and so the perjurer would have to face not only the wrath of man, but also the wrath of God in the hereafter. This was a big disincentive.
The solemnity was often further enhanced by the practice of swearing an oath on the relics of saints. For example when the monks of Thorney were in dipsute with a local landowner, they carried the relics of their saints to the land for the landowner to swear upon. In those days, few people would risk lying in such circumstances.
Oaths were an important part of the legal process and used in both civil and criminal cases – as still happens today.
Ordeals on the other hand are not (save as discussed below). They involved a direct appeal to God to resolve an issue by divine proof. There were two kinds:
- Where the party underwent some kind of test where the outcome determined the case, and
- Where the two parties or their champions fought it out in single combat, where, it was believed, God would give victory to the righteous.
Lets look at ordeal by test first. This type of ordeal was used almost exclusively for criminal trials. There were basically two kinds – ordeal by hot iron and ordeal by water.
Ordeal by hot iron
Here the accused would have to walk a set number of paces holding a piece of heated iron. The hand was then bound – if the wound healed cleanly he was innocent.
Robert Bartlett in his book England under the Norman and Angevin Kings gives a great description of the ritual used:
The ordeal iron was first exorcised. The priest placed it on the alter prior to celebrating mass. He invoked God’s blessing on it :
“Bless O Lord, through the strength of your power, this metal, removing every demonic falsehood and dispelling the magic and trickery of the unbelievers, so that in it the truth of a most truthful judgement should be manifested”.
He again blessed the hot iron:
“Deign to send your holy and true blessing on this iron, so that it should be a pleasing coolness to those who carry it with justice and fortitude but a burning fire to the wicked …” He concluded “May the blessing of God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit descend on this iron , to discern the true judgement of God”.
Ordeal by water
Here the accused was thrown into a pit or pool of water. If he sank he was innocent, if he floated he was guilty.
To our eyes one would have thought it should have been the other way around, as there is not a lot of point in being found innocent if it means death by drowning. Presumably they managed to get the accused out before this happened.
Ordeal by water was mentioned in Henry II’s Assize of Clarendon of 1166:
“anyone, who shall be found, on the oath of the aforesaid [a jury], to be accused or notoriously suspect of having been a robber or murderer or thief, or a receiver of them … be taken and put to the ordeal of water.”
Ordeal by fire and water in practice
The amazing thing about ordeals generally is that apparently just under 2/3 of those who undertook the ordeal passed!
The pipe rolls tell us that of the recorded cases, 17% were hot iron and 83% water.
Apparently, hot iron was supposed to be the ordeal traditionally used for free men and ordeal by water for unfree, which just goes to show that (like today) the lower classes tended to attract more attention from those in authority than their ‘betters’.
Ordeal by iron was generally the only ordeal used in the trial of women, as it was considered more seemly than plunging them in water.
Trial by combat
Trial by combat (or battle) is believed to have been introduced to England by the Normans, although it was well used in other parts of Europe and is thought to have originated in Germany.
It was used not only in criminal trials but also in civil cases, although the value of the land had to be over 10 shillings.
Readers of Cadfiel books will no doubt remember the trial by combat in One Corpse Too Many when Hugh Beringer proves the guilt of Adam Courcelle in this way.
Trial by battle was not very popular though, being regarded as a risky and uncertain business. After the Assize of Clarendon which introduced trial by Jury, the jury trial was almost always preferred, and it fell into disuse.
Here is a description of trial by battle from Wikipedia:
Trials by combat at common law in England were carried on with quarterstaves, on a duelling ground of sixty feet square. Each litigant was allowed a rectangular, leathern shield, and could be armed with a suit of armour, provided that they were bare to the knees and elbows, and wore only red sandals on their feet.
The litigants appeared in person; women, the elderly, the infirm of body, and minors could have champions named to fight in their stead. The combat was to begin before noon, and be concluded before sunset. Before fighting, each litigant had to swear an oath disclaiming the use of witchcraft for advantage in the combat, which oath is in words and figures as follows:
“Hear this, ye justices, that I have this day neither eat, drank, nor have upon me, neither bone, stone, ne grass; nor any enchantment, sorcery, or witchcraft, whereby the law of God may be abased, or the law of the Devil exalted. So help me God and his saints.”
Either combatant could end the fight and lose his case by crying out the word “Craven”, from the Old French for “broken”, which acknowledged “(I am) vanquished.” The party who did so, however, whether litigant or champion, was punished with outlawry. Fighting continued until one party or the other was dead or disabled. The last man standing won his case.
A modern coda
Trial by combat was abolished by Parliament in the nineteenth century. However, this did not stop 60 year old unemployed mechanic Leon Humphries, from asserting his right in 2002 to trial by battle as an alternative to paying a £25 motoring offence.
His right to fight a champion nominated by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) was, he claimed, still valid under European human rights legislation.
Predictably (although disappointingly) the Bury St Edmunds magistrates disagreed, and he was fined £200 with £100 costs. A prosaic end to a noble tradition.