Guest Post: Trial by Combat – Rough Justice by Toni Mount

It is an absolute pleasure to welcome author and historian Toni Mount back to the blog, with an article based on her research for her latest non-fiction book, How to Survive in Medieval England. Toni has a wonderful way with words to the extent that her books – fiction and non-fiction alike – are a pure pleasure to read.

So, without further ado, it is over to Toni:

Trial by Combat – Rough Justice

My new book, How to Survive in Medieval England, published by Pen & Sword, is a guide to travelling in history: what to expect, how to dress, how to stay safe and what to look for on the menu.

If you were able to go back in time to medieval England, so much would be very different and so many things missing – all technology, from engines to the Internet. All work would be done by hand. In medieval England, the law sometimes works quite differently from the way we expect today. Trial by Ordeal was a means of deciding who was innocent and who was guilty. A suspect or the accused would be taken to a church and with a priest presiding, subjected to one of a number of horrific acts.

Trial by Fire – a priest (centre) blesses the ordeal as the accused (left) takes the red-hot iron in hand.
[Readers may note the accused wears ‘motley’ – parti-coloured cloth – a sure sign of untrustworthiness.’

A favourite was Trial by Fire. In this case, a piece of iron was heated to red-hot in a brazier and the accused had to remove the metal from the fire – by hand! His burns would be bandaged and left for a week. When inspected by the priest at the end of seven days, if they were healing well this was God’s decision and the accused was innocent. But if the burns were septic and weeping, that was also God’s doing and proved the accused was guilty because God was not on his side.

Trial by Water could be similar with the accused having to plunge his hand into a cauldron of boiling water. Or, an alternative Ordeal by Water involved throwing the accused into a pond or river, though this one always seems most unfair to me. If the accused sank and, therefore, probably drowned, he was innocent because the water, having been blessed by a priest, ‘accepted’ him. If he floated, he was guilty because the blessed water refused him. In which case, he would be hanged, so he died either way.

Another method was Trial by Combat in which the accuser and the accused fought it out with weapons. God would cause whoever was telling the truth to win the battle.

In 1249, a gang of thieves was terrorising Winchester, Salisbury and Guildford, specialising in stealing expensive clothing and shoes. The gang was often violent and, although folk in the area knew who they were, they were too scared to accuse them.

Top right corner – Walter (left) fighting Hamo (right) and Hamo (top centre) being hanged after he lost

In my new book, I include some imagined interviews with real people of the time as a means of telling about true aspects or incidents in their lives. Let’s speak to Walter Blowberme, a member of this notorious gang of thieves:

‘Now Walter, you were caught in the act, I believe, and admitted your crimes. Tell us what you did.’

‘Well, see, we stoled all this valuable stuff, didn’t we? Good cloth, shoes, some jewellery and silver cups. Made a fine profit ’til I got caught, filching a gold brooch. I knewed this meant a date wi’ the hangman for me so I told the sheriff I’d be an approver.’

‘What is an approver?’

‘You don’t know? What a dim-wit. It means my life’ll be spared if I telled the court the names of ten others involved in the crimes. I didn’t want t’ do it, ’cos they was my mates but a man has t’ lookout for hisself.’

‘So you snitched on your fellows. What happened then?’

‘I named six fellows from Guildford who was all members of the gang. They was all arrested, tried and condemned. I didn’t feel too bad about them ’cos I never liked most of ’em, except Tom. It was a shame about him. But I still needed another four fellows convicted to save my own neck, so I accused three from Hampshire. They wasn’t in the gang; just fellows I knowed and didn’t like much. They was found not guilty and released so I had t’ name four others as gang members. It’s a good thing I know so many folk and don’t like none of ’em. These four was nasty bits o’ work, I can tell you, but when the sheriff tried to take ’em, three managed to escape. But because they never turned up in court, they was found guilty anyway. The fourth fellow, Hamo Stare – my sister’s husband what I never liked – was brung to trial but things was so complicated, the judge offered Hamo a trial by ordeal.’

‘I thought trial by ordeal was made illegal by the Church?’

‘Don’t ask me; I’m not the judge. Anyhow, Hamo chosed trial by combat and I, as his accuser, had to be his opponent. We had wooden clubs and shields and fighted ’til we was both bloody but Hamo gave in first. The judge declared God had gived me most strength, so I must have spoke truly against Hamo. Hamo was hanged – good riddance – and I’d managed to get ten fellows convicted, so my life was spared but I got banished from the district forever ’cos I admitted being guilty of so many crimes.’

‘But you didn’t mend your ways, Walter?’

‘Nay. Couldn’t resist some silver bits, could I? I comed t’ London and just six months later I got caught, thieving a chalice and candlesticks from St Mary-le-Bow church.’

‘And this time there is no second chance for you, is there, Walter?’

‘Nay. This time it’s the gallows for me. T’morrow. Pray for me soul, won’t you?’

Judicial tests and ordeals had been abolished at an important Lateran Council meeting, held by the pope in 1215, stating that churchmen may ‘neither pronounce nor execute a sentence of death. Nor may they act as judges in extreme criminal cases, or take part in matters connected with.’ This meant trial by ordeal no longer had God’s sanction – a priest had to be present as His representative – since it was God who determined the outcome. However, obviously, such trials must have continued for at least another thirty years.

A naughty priest in the stocks along with his mistress – churchmen’s punishments were not so bad.

Churchmen could no longer sit in judgement but neither could they be tried in a state court. They had to be tried in church courts by their fellow clerics and a death sentence could never be past, even for murder. So, in medieval England, if anyone could prove they were a man of the cloth, or a nun, then they could, literally, get away with murder. Here’s how: only trained clerics can read Latin; so if the accused can read the Bible – always in Latin – he must be a churchman. To prove a person can read, the same passage is always required to be read aloud from the Bible: ‘Oh loving and kind God, have mercy. Have pity upon my transgressions.’ (Psalm 51, Verse 1.) This meant that any forward-thinking criminal learned this verse by heart, in Latin, even if he couldn’t read a word. It saved the necks of so many miscreants, it was known as the ‘Neck-Verse’ and got a great number of very guilty people out of trouble.

Readers can find out far more about medieval lives, meet some of the characters involved and get a ‘taste’ of the food of the time in How to Survive in Medieval England, my new book from Pen & Sword, published on 30th June 2021 and available for pre-order now on Amazon.

About the book:

How to Survive in Medieval England by Toni Mount
Pen & Sword History (30 Jun. 2021)

Imagine you were transported back to Medieval England and had to start a new life – without mobile phones, ipads, or social media. When transport meant walking or, if you’re lucky, horse-back; how will you know where you are or what to do? Where will you live? What is there to eat? What shall you wear and how can you communicate? Who can you turn to if you fall ill or are mugged in the street,? All these questions and many more are answered in this new guide book. How to Survive in Medieval England is a handy self-help guide with tips and suggestions to make your visit to the Middle Ages much more fun. Learn the rules so you don’t get into trouble or show your ignorance in embarrassing
situations and read interviews with the stars of the day, from a celebrity chef to King Richard III himself. Have an exciting visit but be sure to keep this book to hand.

About the Author

Toni Mount is a history teacher and a best-selling author of historical non-fiction and fiction. She’s a member of the Richard III Society’s Research Committee, a regular speaker to groups and societies and belongs to the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes regularly for Tudor Life magazine, has written several online courses for and created the Sebastian Foxley series of medieval murder mysteries. Toni has a First class honours degree in history, a Masters Degree in Medieval History, a Diploma in English Literature with Creative Writing, a Diploma in European Humanities and a PGCE. She lives in Kent, England with her husband and has two grown-up sons.




My Books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.


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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Toni Mount

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