From Old Church Lore by William Andrews; William Andrews & Co., The Hull Press; London, 1891; pp. 22-36.

stylized border engraving of flowers and interlacing vines [22]

The Romance of Trial.

manuscript letter IN past ages, trial by ordeal was customary in this country, and at the present time in several foreign lands, where education has not swept away superstitious beliefs, it is often used as a means of testing the guilt or innocence of accused persons. The origin of ordeal may be traced back to a remote period. In the Anglo-Saxon judicial systems it formed an important feature, and the first record of it in this country appears in the laws of King Ina, who reigned over Wessex from the year 688 to 727. The clergy figured prominently in the trials.

For three days prior to the time appointed for the trial, the accused passed through a course of severe discipline and austere diet. He declared on oath that he was innocent of the crime laid to his charge. Twenty-four of his friends and foes 23 were brought together, and after a religious service, specially prepared for the occasion, had been performed, the ordeal was then tried. The ordeals were of various kinds, the nobles and other great personages being generally tried with the boiling water ordeal.

A ring or piece of metal, blessed by the priest, was cast into the boiling water, and on either side of the vessel were ranged the twelve friends and the twelve foes to witness the due execution of justice. The arm of the accused was bared, he plunged it into the liquid and brought out the article deposited in it by the priest. The degree of the crime regulated the depth of the water; if slight, it only reached to the wrist, but if serious, the arm was dipped up to the elbow, or higher. The priest quickly bound up the arm, and the bandages were not removed for three days. At the end of the time, if the priest pronounced the arm healed, the sufferer was regarded as guiltless; if not, it was believed that God had interposed and convicted him.

Deputies sometimes performed the ordeals. A notable instance of employing a substitute is that of Theatberge, wife of Lothaire, of France. She confessed to having been guilty of incest, but 24 subsequently recanting, it was decided to try her by the ordeal, and a ring was thrown into boiling water according to custom. The Queen elected a proxy, and it is recorded of him whom she chose that he “produced the ring without injuring his hand, in spite of the fire under the caldron being so intense that the water boiled over.”

It is asserted that the familiar saying of going “through fire and water” for any one is derived from the practice of employing deputies in the performance of ordeals.

In Mr. James Forbes’ “Oriental Memoirs,” published 1813-15, are some details of boiling oil ordeals. One of the cases relates to the coolies of a village in the northern part of Guzerat, who were charged with seizing and imprisoning a Bohra, and extorting a bond from him for 450 rupees. The chief denied the charge, and offered to prove his innocence by trial by ordeal. We are told that “a large copper pot full of oil was put on a fire in the market-place, and a pair of blacksmith’s bellows applied to blow the fire until the oil became very hot.” A rupee was thrown into the boiling oil. The chief next declared his innocence, said his prayers, plunged his 25 hand into the boiling liquid, and brought out the coin. He next exhibited his hand to the spectators, when no traces of scalding could be detected; indeed it appeared as if it had been dipped in cold oil. Himself and his tribe were pronounced not guilty of the charge, and he was dismissed with the gift of a turban.1

The cold water ordeal appears to have been usually employed to try the humbler classes. The accused went through fasting and discipline similar to the trial by boiling water. After attending church, the person on trial was conducted to a deep pool, and then bound hand and foot with cords. The priest next adjured the water to receive the accused into its bosom if innocent, but to reject him if he were guilty. He was cast into the water. If he sank he was deemed innocent, and was at once drawn out by a rope which had previously been tied round his waist. We gather from Hallam’s “Middle Ages” that a citizen of London, having failed in the ordeal of cold water, was hanged by the order of Henry II. The man tried to save his life by offering 500 marks. In cases of murder, if the accused even went through the ordeal of water, he was banished from the realm.


Some attention is paid to this ordeal by Dr. Charles Mackay, in his “Popular Delusions.” “It was,” he says, “a trial of the poor and humble, and whether they sank or swam was thought of very little consequence. Like witches of more modern times, the accused were thrown into a pond or river. If they sank they were drowned, their friends had the consolation that they were innocent; if they swam they were guilty. In either case society was rid of them.” We believe there is little foundation in fact for the foregoing statement by Dr. Mackay. After careful investigation we have not found a record of persons being drowned. The rope fastened to the body of the accused would prevent any such accident.

Towards the close of the twelfth century the use of this ordeal was very general. Lea, in his “Superstition and Force,” says that “The assizes of Clarendon, in 1166, confirmed at Northampton in 1176, direct an inquest to be held in each shire, and all who are indicted for murder, robbery, harbouring of malefactors, are to be at once, without further trial, passed through the water ordeal to determine their guilt or innocence.” Mr. Lea thinks that the basis of this ordeal may be traced 27 back to the primitive Aryans, who believed that the pure element would not receive into its bosom a person stained with the crime of a false oath.

Many strange stories are related respecting the ordeal of red-hot iron; and not a few of a tragical character. There were two ways of performing the red-hot iron ordeal. One was by taking up a piece of red-hot iron, weighing from one to three pounds, or walking barefoot and blindfolded over nine red-hot ploughshares placed lengthwise at irregular distances. If the accused passed through this ordeal without being hurt he was deemed innocent. There is a popular story that Emma, the mother of Edward the Confessor, was charged with undue familiarity with Alwyn, Bishop of Winchester. She proved her innocence by passing unharmed over heated ploughshares.

Among the many instances of persons tried by this ordeal of hot iron may be mentioned Remigius, the Bishop of Dorchester, who was accused of treason against William the Conqueror. One of the bishop’s followers underwent the ordeal, and cleared his lordship of the charge.

It has been suggested by some authorities 28 on this subject that the apparently hot iron was really cold and painted red. In some instances the hands and feet were perhaps rubbed with certain compositions which would enable the persons going through the ordeal to touch the iron without doing injury to themselves. We know that in our own time, to shew the power of resisting fire is not by any means a difficult feat, and it often forms an item on the programmes of popular entertainments.

Shakspeare and other writers refer to the ancient superstition that the wounds of a murdered person would bleed again if touched by the murderer. In Richard III., the dramatist writes as follows respecting Richard, Duke of Gloster: —

“O Gentlemen, see, see !  dear Henry’s wounds,
  Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh!
  Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity;
  For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
  From cold and empty veins, where no blood dwells;
  Provokes this deluge most unnatural.”

Stow, in his “Annals,” records that the king’s body “was brought to St. Paul’s in an open coffin, barefaced, where he bled; thence he was carried to Blackfriars, and there bled.”


King James, in this “Dæmonologie,” thus refers to this superstition: “In a secret murder,” says the King, “if the dead carkasse be at any time thereafter handled by the murderer, it will gush out of blood, as if the blood were crying out to heaven for the revenge of the murderer.” Dryden adverts to the theme: —

“If the vile actors of the heinous deed
  Near the dead body happily be brought,
  Oft hath been proved the breathless corpse will bleed.”

This ordeal in bygone times was frequently tried, and it was the means of bringing not a few murderers to justice. In some instances the details of the crimes and their detection read more like romance than a statement of facts.

In the olden days witnessing an execution was a sight not to be missed by old or young folk; even children wended their way to the fatal tree. Sir Symonds D’Ewes, the antiquary, in his boyhood days, attended the execution of a man named Babb, and subsequently wrote an account of the painful circumstances connected with the case. We gather from his notes that Babb had formerly lived near to Wambrook, on the southern border of Somerset. He had sought in vain for the hand in marriage of a widow living 30 near Taunton. She, however, declined his proposal. Babb, although greatly disappointed at his failure, resolved to make one more attempt to win the woman. He hid himself in a brewhouse used by the widow, and when she appeared he once more pressed his suit. She heard him with disdain, and almost before he had finished his speech she said, “Have thee, base rascal? No!” She then struck him on the head with a pewter candlestick. This made his blood boil, and he inflicted upon her sixteen wounds, causing her death. Afterwards, he put the knife in her hand, making it appear as if she had committed suicide, and then quietly stole away from the place.

The unfortunate widow was buried, but tongues and brains were not set at rest, for it was the opinion of not a few that she had met her death at the hands of a murderer. Amongst the active in this matter was a leading local magistrate, named Mr. Ware, Hestercombe House, near Taunton. Like other people of this period, he believed in the ordeal by touch. “This active magistrate,” we find stated, “caused the body to be disinterred, that all the inhabitants living within a circle of three miles might assemble to touch the body, and go through 31 this powerful ordeal. Babb ran away to escape this dreadful mode of testing the inhabitants’ innocence. His racking conscience gave him no repose; he returned and yielded himself up to justice.” At the next county assizes for Somerset, held at Chard, in the year 1613, he was tried, found guilty, and condemned to death. Shortly afterwards he was hanged near Wambrook.

Charles I. presented to Dr. Wren, the father of the famous Sir Christopher Wren, the rectory of Great Haseley, near Oxford. During his incumbency, occurred a sad event, which made a great impression on his mind. He detailed, in Latin, particulars of the matter, and duly attested the truth by signing it. Lucy Phillimore, the author of an ably-written work on “Sir Christopher Wren: his Family and his Times,” supplies an English version of the tragedy. “Among the retainers of Lord Norris,” we are told, “was an old man who had charge of the fish ponds; he had one nephew, who was the heir of all his uncle’s possessions and savings. The nephew enticed the old man out one night, waited till he fell asleep under an oak tree, murdered him by a blow on the head, dragged the body to one of the ponds, tied a great stone to the neck, 32 and threw the corpse in. There it lay five weeks, during which time Lord Norris and all the neighbours wondered what had become of the old man. At length, attracted to the spot by the swarms of flies, the body was found by the men who were about to clean the pond. They raised the corpse with great difficulty, and recognised it. The stone tied to the neck was evidence of foul play, though no one could guess the murderer. Lord Norris, in order to detect the criminal, after the usual manner, commanded that the corpse, preserved by the water from the last extremity of decay, should, on the next Sunday, be exposed in the churchyard, close to the church door, so that every one entering the church should see and touch it. The wicked nephew shrank from the ordeal, feigning to be so overwhelmed with grief as to be unable to bear the sight of his dearest uncle. Lord Norris, suspecting that the old man had been murdered by the one person whom his death would profit, compelled him to come, and to touch with his finger, as so many had willingly done, the hand of the dead. At his touch, however, ‘as if opened by the finger of God, the eyes of the corpse were seen by all to move, and blood to 33 flow from his nostrils.’ At this awful witness, the murderer fell on the ground and avowed the crime, which he had secretly committed, and the most just judgment of God had brought to light.” The murderer was tried before one of His Majesty’s judges, and the circumstances of the crime fully stated. He was condemned to death, and the sentence was duly carried out by the hangman.

Another strange story comes down to us from the days when the first Charles was king. It relates to Herefordshire. Johan Norkell was found dead, and it was believed that she had laid violent hands upon herself. After she had been buried about a month, circumstances caused it to be suspected that she had met her death by foul play. The case came under the consideration of a coroner and jury, and they final resolved to have the body exhumed, and cause the four suspected persons to touch it. The result of the ordeal was narrated at the assizes by an old minister as follows: “The body being taken out of the grave and laid on the grass, the accused were required to touch it. On laying on their hands on the brow, which before was of a livid and carrion colour, it began to have a dew or gentle 34 sweat upon it, which increased by degrees until the sweat ran down the face. The brow then turned to a lifelike and flesh colour, and the dead woman opened one of her eyes and shut it again, and this opening of the eye was done three times. She likewise thrust out the ring or marriage finger three times, and the finger dropped blood on the grass.” The old minister swore to the correctness of the foregoing, and, says James Grant, in “The Mysteries of all Nations,” from whom we draw the evidence, another clergyman corroborated it. Sir Nicholas Hyde, the eminent lawyer, who rose to be Lord Chief Justice, questioned the correctness of the evidence, but the members of the jury did not agree with him, finding three of the prisoners guilty of murder. Two were executed, and the third, a woman, was reprieved.

On much weaker evidence to the preceding cases, Philip Stanfield was condemned in 1688, for the murder of his father, Sir James Stanfield. An account of the matter will be found in Chambers’s “Domestic Annals of Scotland,” vol. 2, pages 491-2. The case may be briefly stated as follows: The body of Sir James Stanfield, of New Mills, was found in a stream 35 near Haddington. It appeared that he had met his death by strangling. James Muirhead, a surgeon, and another person swore than when Philip Stanfield was helping to place the body of his father in a coffin, blood started from the left side of his neck upon his touch, and that he exclaimed, “Lord have mercy upon me!” On this slight evidence he was, 7th February, 1688, pronounced guilty of parricide, and was publicly executed on the 24th of the same month, and his body hung in chains. He protested his innocence to the last. “The whole case,” says Dr. Robert Chambers, “seems to be a lively illustration of the effect of superstitious feeling in blinding justice.”

On the 14th June, 1641, a commission which sat at Dalkeith, pronounced Christina Wilson guilty of the death, by sorcery, of her brother, Alexander Wilson. She had been, prior to the trial, directed by the minister and others to touch the corpse of her brother. After an earnest prayer, in which she fervently prayed to God, who had made the sun to shine on their home, to bring the murderer to justice, she touched the body. It bled, although it had not done so when touched by others. This was deemed sufficient proof of 36 her guilt, and on this evidence she suffered death.

With directing the attention to the survival of touching the dead, we must draw to a close our study of the romance of trial. In the north of England, and other parts of the country, it is the practice of persons who come to see a corpse to touch it, as a token “that they wished no ill to the departed, and were at peace and amity with them.”

Elf.Ed. Note

1  Elf.Ed. Note: According to a conversation on this subject with Dr. Serjit Maniktala, a turban was a valuable reward, as it was a royal item of dress.