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THE TRIAL BY COMBAT 

OF 

HENRY DE ESSEX AND 
ROBERT DE MONTFORT 

AT 
READING ABBEY. 



By the same Author : 

" A History of Reading Abbey." 

" The Rise and Fall of Reading Abbey." 

" The First and Last Abbots of Reading." 

" Hugh II., Eighth Abbot of Reading." 

" Sumer is icumen in." 

" The Marriage of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster 

at Reading Abbey." 

' The Shrine of St. James at Reading Abbey." 
' King Henry Beauclerc and Reading Abbey." 

" A Guide to Reading Abbey." 
Etc., etc. 




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Hbe Sdal b Combat 

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Ifoeni'E oe lEssey anb 

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By 
JAMIESON B. HURRY, M.A., M.D. 



With Frontispiece. A" 




LON 7 DON: ELLIOT STOCK 
7 PATERNOSTER ROW, E.G. 

1919 



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Gbis IDolume 

WAS PUBLISHED IN CONNECTION 
WITH THE PRESENTATION TO THE 
READING ART GALLERY OF A 
PICTURE ENTITLED " THE TRIAL 
BY COMBAT OF HENRY DE ESSEX 
AND ROBERT DE MONTFORT AT 
READING ABBEY, A.D. 1163." 



1 



ICbe 



trial by combat of Henry de Essex and Robert 
de Montfort, which Jocelin of Brakelond has re- 
corded in his " Chronicle " and which Carlyle has 
immortalised in " Past and Present," forms a 
dramatic incident in the annals of the " noble and royal 
monastery of Reading," and will be held in perpetual remem- 
brance by those who are interested in that famous home of 
religion and learning. 

This trial appeals also to a larger public, since it illustrates 
an extraordinary development in the administration of justice 
in the Middle Ages, and thus possesses an importance for the 
sociologist, the historian and the jurist. 

Lastly, the fate of Henry de Essex shows how conscience 
makes cowards of us all, and appeals to all persons and ages ; 
it points a moral and adorns a tale. 

J.B.H. 



Contents. 



PAGE 

The Prologue ... ... ... ... 5 

I . Henry de Essex ... ... ... ... 7 

II. Robert de Montfort n 

III. The Battle of Coleshill 13 

IV. Ordeals 15 

V. The Trial by Combat ... 18 

VI. The Monk at Reading Abbey ... ... ... 23 

The Epilogue ... ... ... ... 25 

Notes ... ... ... ... ... ... 27 

Index ... ... ... ... ... ... 30 

^frontispiece. 

The Trial by Combat. 



1 

be 



1 



combatants form the dramatis personce of the 
famous " trial by combat " which forms the subject 
of this Essay. The scanty details of their history 
that have survived may be gathered together in brief 
biographical sketches. 

Henry de Essex was a man " held in high esteem amongst 
the great men of the realm, a man of much account, of noble 
birth, conspicuous by deeds of arms, the King's standard- 
bearer, and feared by all on account of his power." Such is 
the description given by Jocelin of Brakelond in his famous 
" Chronicle." ' 

The founder of the family of de Essex was Robert 
Fitz-Wimark a Norman noble who settled in England in the 
days of Edward the Confessor. He was a great favourite of 
the King, who died supported in his arms, in the presence of 
the Queen " the Lady Eadgyth," Dux Haraldus (afterwards 
King Harold) and Stigand Archbishop of Canterbury, a 
group which appears in the Bayeux Tapestry. 2 His common 
title was Robert the Staller (Regalis Palatii Stabilitor), and he 
held the office of Sheriff of Essex. 

Just before the battle of Hastings Robert Fitz-Wimark 
despatched a message to William of Normandy, urging the 
folly of risking a pitched battle with Harold who was advancing 
to meet him at the head of 100,000 men. Had the advice of 
Robert Fitz-Wimark been followed the whole history of 
England might have been changed. 

At the death of Robert, his son Sweyne assumed the 
affix " de Essex," and is so styled again and again in the Essex 
Domesday. Sweyne was a great landowner and according to 
Domesday held fifty-five lordships in Essex, apart from 
properties in Suffolk and Hants. He built the castle of 



THE TRIAL BY COMBAT AT READING ABBEY 

Rayleigh, called in Domesday Riganea? and was succeeded by 
his son Robert de Essex who founded Prittlewell Priory, near 
Southend. 

Henry de Essex, son and heir of Robert de Essex, survived 
him as Baron of Rayleigh. 4 He was a warden of the Cinque 
Ports and restored Saltwood Castle near Hythe, an ancient 
edifice stated to be of Roman origin. 5 His mother, named 
Gunnor, a Bigod by birth, survived her husband. Henry de 
Essex is represented to-day by the Baroness Berners. 

Henry de Essex appears in history as a witness of the 
Charter of King Stephen (c. A.D. 1140), by which Geoffrey 
of Mandeville was created first Earl of Essex. Subsequently 
he witnessed several other Charters of King Stephen, as well 
as some of those granted by the Empress Maud to the Earls 
of Oxford and of Essex. 6 

In 1154 he was appointed to the office of Royal Constable 
or Constabularius Regis, a position of great dignity in the 
time of Henry I. and his successors ; the Constable was 
practically a quartermaster-general of the Court and of the 
army, 7 and generally found with the garrison in the castle or 
with the army in the field. 8 

Essex also held the important post of Royal Standard- 
Bearer to King Henry II. a post apparently associated with 
that of Royal Constable. 

In 1156 Essex was entrusted with important judicial 
duties, while the King was absent on the Continent, and 
England was left to the management of Earl Robert of 
Leicester and Richard of Lucy, the judiciars. At this period 
a general visitation of the country by itinerant justices was 
introduced, and Essex heard pleas in eight of the Southern 
Counties, being accompanied in the case of two counties 
(Essex and Kent) by the Chancellor, Thomas Becket, who 
for the first time appeared in the character of a judge. 9 

When King Henry undertook his expedition into North 
Wales in 1 157, Essex accompanied the King, and it was during 
this expedition that took place the dramatic incident at the 



HENRY D E ESSEX 

Battle of Coleshill, so pregnant with his future destiny. The 
details of this incident will be dealt with in Section III. 

In the following year he again accompanied his sovereign 
to France and rendered valuable services during the quarrels 
with the King of France, especially in connection with the 
expedition against the city of Toulouse, the capture of which 
would have extended Henry's dominions to the Mediterranean 
and the Rhone. The city was defended both by the Count 
of St. Gilles and by his brother-in-law King Louis VII. of 
France. 

King Henry at first contemplated laying siege to the city 
and was strongly urged in this direction by his Chancellor 
Thomas and his officers, who pointed out what a splendid 
opportunity there was of at one blow capturing the city as 
well as King Louis, Count Raymond Berengar IV. of Bar- 
celona and all their troops. King Henry, however, feeling 
that such an act would be a breach of the obligations and 
fealty which he owed to Louis as his suzerain, turned a deaf 
ear to all appeals, and, accompanied by the King of Scots and 
all his host, retreated towards his own dominions. 

Although Toulouse was abandoned, Henry captured 
most of the neighbouring country, and would have retained 
his conquests but for his great barons, who refused to under- 
take the task of protecting these territories against Raymond 
and Louis unless the King himself remained to support them. 
Only two faithful ministers accepted the duty : Thomas the 
Chancellor and Henry de Essex, the Constable, who rendered 
distinguished service. Their head-quarters were fixed at 
Cahors whence they put down every attempt at rising against 
Henry II. 's authority. 

Unhappily the great and proud Henry of Essex had a 
dark side to his nature, which Carlyle has described in his 
inimitable style : 

" Henry Earl of Essex, Standard-bearer of England, 
had high places and emoluments ; had a haughty high soul, 
yet with various flaws, or rather with one many-branched 
flaw and crack, running through the texture of it. For 
example, did he not treat Gilbert de Cereville in the most 



shocking manner ? He cast Gilbert into prison ; and, 
with chains and slow torments, wore the life out of him 
there. And Gilbert's crime was understood to be only that 
of innocent Joseph : the Lady Essex w r as a Potiphar's Wife, 
and had accused poor Gilbert ! Other cracks, and branches 
of that widespread flaw in the Standard-bearer's soul we 
could point out : but indeed the main stem and trunk of all 
is too visible in this, That he had no right reverence for 
the Heavenly in Man, that far from showing due reverence 
to St. Edmund, he did not even show him common justice. 
While others in the Eastern Counties were adorning and 
enlarging with rich gifts St. Edmund's resting-place, which 
had become a city of refuge for many things, this Earl of 
Essex flatly defrauded him, by violence or quirk of law, of 
five shillings yearly, and converted said sum to his own 
poor uses ! Nay, in another case of litigation, the unjust 
Standard-bearer, for his own profit, asserting that the cause 
belonged not to St. Edmund's Court, but to his in Lailand 
Hundred, ' involved us in travellings and innumerable 
expenses, vexing the servants of St. Edmund for a long 
tract of time.' In short, he is without reverence for the 
Heavenly, this Standard-bearer ; reveres only the Earthly, 
Gold-coined ; and has a most morbid lamentable flaw in 
the texture of him. It cannot come to good." I0 

Little is known in regard to Essex's family. He appears 
to have left two sons, Henry and Hugh. 11 The elder of these, 
Henry of Essex, Junior, was a witness to a Charter granted 
c. 1156 by Henry II. to Richard Talbot of some land in the 
Manor of Linton in Herefordshire. Both of these sons were 
knights. 



10 



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/ / 

11 

IRobert 6e /Ifcontfort. 



EW biographical details are known of the second 
combatant, Robejt de Montfort, a kinsman of Henry 
de Essex and his equal in birth and power. Dugdale 
speaks of him as " an eminent nobleman." 



Robert de Montfort was descended from the Hugh de 
Montfort who accompanied William the Conqueror over 
from Normandy and was present at the Battle of Hastings. 
His pedigree is given by Dugdale, although considerable 
doubt attaches to some of the entries. 12 

In the first year of Henry II. 's reign, he took his uncle 
Waleran, the Earl of Mellent, at a conference held near 
Bernay. The next recorded event appears to be the accusa- 
tion of treachery brought against Henry de Essex at the Battle 
of Coleshill. The details of the judicial duel resulting from 
this charge are given in Section V. 

Robert de Montfort also gave to the monks of Thorney the 
moiety of the Church of Wenge in the County of Rutland, and 
to the monks of Bermondsey the tithes of Langfort, Bodeny, 
Wikes and Nacheton. He also appears as a witness to a 
Charter given either in February or March 1158 by Henry II. 
at Woodstock, conferring a barony on William Malduit. 13 

Robert de Montfort next appears in history as taking part 
in the wars of 1173 between King Henry and Raymond of 
Toulouse aided by the younger Henry. 

In the 1 2th century, there were two famous houses in 
France bearing the name of Montfort, both of them destined 
to figure in the annals of English history. The more famous 
of the two was that of Almeric and Bertrada : the other with 
which we are more closely concerned was the house of 
Montfort on the Risle, represented by Robert de Montfort. 14 



ii 



THE TRIAL BY COMBAT AT READING ABBEY 

Both these houses were conspicuous in the earlier risings of 
the feudal baronage against the repressing policy of William 
and Henry I. Both houses were represented among the 
partizans of the young King against Henry II. in 1173, 
Robert de Montfort being amongst them. 

Robert de Montfort's sister Adeline became the wife 
of Robert de Vere (as recorded in the Pipe Roll of 1130), 
who thus became possessed of the honour of Haughley 
(" Hagenet "), and with it the office of Constable, in which 
capacity Robert de Vere figures among the witnesses to 
Stephen's Charter of Liberties in 1136. The same office of 
Constable was subsequently held by Henry de Essex, and 
Round suggests that possibly the accusation of treason later 
on was partly due to a grudge on the part of the descendant 
of the dispossessed line against the existing possessor of the 
fief. 15 



12 



r ' r 

III 

ttbe Battle of (lolesbill. 



1 



quarrel between Henry of Essex and Robert of 
Montfort originated in a famous incident which 
occurred during Henry II.'s first Welsh war, i.e. 
A.D. 1157. The English King had for some years 
been seeking an excuse for interfering in Welsh affairs and 
eventually found his opportunity in the domestic quarrels of 
the Welsh princes. Owen Gwyneth, prince of North Wales, 
had confiscated the estates of his brother Cadwallader and 
banished him from the country. Thereupon Cadwallader 
took refuge at the English Court and implored Henry's 
assistance in the recovery of his lands. Apart from such 
persuasion Henry was tempted into war both by a desire for 
glory and by the hope of recovering territories which had 
formerly been tributary to England. 

Accordingly a Council was held at Northampton in 
July, at which orders were issued for an expedition into North 
Wales. The force employed was the usual feudal levy, but 
instead of calling out the whole body of knights to serve their 
legal term of forty days, Henry required every two knights 
throughout England to join in equipping a third no doubt 
for a threefold term of service. By this expedient he obtained 
a force sufficient for his purpose, and guarded against the risk 
of its breaking up before the completion of its task. 

The invasion of Wales was both by land and sea. The 
English forces assembled near Chester, on Saltney Marsh, 
and were joined by Madoc Ap Meredith, prince of Powys, 
while the Welsh forces under Gwyneth with his three sons 
were entrenched at Basingwerk. The King, with his youthful 
daring, set off at once by way of the sea coast, hoping to surprise 
the Welsh. But Owen's sons were on the watch and suddenly 
attacked the foe in the narrow passage of Coleshille, 16 where 
they had secretly hidden a powerful ambuscade. The 



THE TRIAL BY COMBAT AT READING ABBEY 

English, entangled in the woody, marshy ground, were easily 
routed by the nimble light-armed Welsh. Suddenly a cry was 
heard " The King is slain," as a result of which Henry of 
Essex, the hereditary Standard-bearer of England, dropped 
the Royal Standard and fled in terror. 17 King Henry, how- 
ever, soon showed himself alive, rallied his troops and cut his 
way through the ambush with such vigour that Owen judged 
it prudent to withdraw from Basingwerk, and seek a safer 
retreat amongst the hills round Snowdon. 

Henry pushed on to Rhuddlan, and there fortified the 
castle. Meanwhile a great fleet under the command of Madoc 
Ap Meredith had sailed for Anglesey, where a few troops 
were landed, who ravaged the country and even plundered 
the churches. Indeed so outrageous was their conduct that 
the incensed islanders combined to attack the invaders as 
they were returning to their ships overloaded with spoils, and 
cut them to pieces. 

The troops that had remained on board were so terrified 
at the fate of their comrades that they forthwith sailed back to 
Chester, only to hear on their arrival that the war was over. 
Owen, afraid of being hemmed in between the English army 
and the fleet, had sued for peace, reinstated his banished 
brother, done homage to King Henry, and given hostages for 
his future loyalty. As the South Wales princes were all 
vassals of North Wales, Owen's submission was equivalent 
to a formal acknowledgment of Henry's rights as lord 
paramount over the whole country, and the King was techni- 
cally justified in boasting that he had brought the whole of 
Wales under his jurisdiction. 

Essex appears to have been acquitted by his Sovereign of 
dishonourable conduct, since he was intrusted with an 
important command in the subsequent expedition against 
Toulouse. 18 



IP 
rbeals. 



BY the ordeal or Dei judiciitm was meant in the Middle 
Ages a miraculous decision as to the justice or 
otherwise of an accusation or a claim, such ordeals, 
in which the most solemn rites of religion were 
associated with the public administration of justice, being 
generally accepted as conclusive evidence of guilt or innocence. 

In a people just emerging from ignorance and barbarism, 
the ordinary rules of evidence as accepted to-day were too 
complex to be appreciated, even if the magistrates possessed 
the necessary power of discrimination and execution. Some 
shorter and simpler process was required ; especially was 
some sign that appealed to the senses likely to carry con- 
viction. Still better if such sign indicated in the popular 
imagination the interference of the Deity. What better 
evidence indeed could be desired as to the truth or otherwise 
of an accusation? How could an omniscient Deity, without 
whose knowledge not even a sparrow falls to the ground, 
remain indifferent if solemnly invoked by his own priests and 
worshippers ! 

Thus in course of time such ordeals became recognised 
by the legislature and regulated with minute exactitude. 
The accuser first of all swore to the truth of the charge, while 
the accused attested his innocence by oath. Then followed 
the necessary preparations for the ordeal. These included 
fasting, prayer, priestly adjuration and the administration of 
the Holy Communion with the words " Corpus hoc et sanguis 
Domini nostri Jhesu Christi sit tibi ad probationem hodie," 
may this body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ prove thee 
innocent or guilty this day. 10 

In Anglo-Saxon times the ordeal took one of four forms : 

i. The accused was required to eat the corsnet or cake 
of barley bread, while the priest prayed that, if guilty, the 



THE TRIAL BY COMBAT AT READING ABBEY 

accused might tremble and look pale, and that, when he at- 
tempted to chew, his jaws might be fixed and the bread ejected 
from his mouth. 

2. In the ordeal of immersion the accused was stripped 
of his clothes, and his hands tied crosswise to his feet. Then 
a cord was fastened round his waist, and he was slowly lowered 
into a pool. If he sank, he was pronounced innocent ; if he 
had the misfortune to float, his guilt was clear and he was 
handed over to justice. 

3. For the ordeal of hot water a fire was kindled under a 
cauldron of water in a remote part of the church, and a stone 
or piece of iron placed at the bottom. Meanwhile the priest 
chanted the Litany. As soon as the water reached boiling 
point the accused plunged his naked arm into the cauldron 
and brought out the stone or iron. The arm was immediately 
wrapped in a clean cloth and sealed with the seal of the 
church. After three days the seal was broken and the bandage 
unwound ; if the skin had perfectly healed, the accused was 
adjudged innocent. 

4. For the ordeal by hot iron an iron weighing from one 
to three pounds was placed on hot coals just as Mass was 
begun. At the last collect the iron was removed from the 
fire, when the accused seized it in his hand, carried it for a 
measured distance equal to nine of his own feet and threw it 
down. The treatment of the burn and the indications of 
guilt or innocence were the same as in the ordeal by hot water. 

After the Norman Conquest a fifth form of ordeal was 
introduced which had hitherto been unknown to the Anglo- 
Saxons, viz. the ordeal of the judicial duel or trial by combat. 

By William the Conqueror's legislation all these forms 
of ordeal appear to have been recognised. The old law of 
England retained its primary place, while Norman law was 
introduced for exceptional cases, and at first for the benefit 
of Frenchmen only. But by degrees the trial by battle became 
fashionable, 20 even in cases where only Englishmen were 
concerned, and all the original Norman minutiae were re- 
tained. This form of ordeal embodied some of the features 



16 



ORDEALS 

of chivalry and doubtless appealed to a people of a warlike 
spirit more than did the earlier ordeals so closely associated 
with priestcraft. 

By the middle of the twelfth century the trial by battle 
had become the fashionable form of ordeal, and was the one 
adopted to settle the dispute between Henry of Essex and 
Robert of Montfort. For the defeated there was no appeal 
from what was regarded as judicium Dei. Vae victo. 

We may well feel amazed at the folly of our ancestors in 
pronouncing a man guilty unless cleared by a miracle, and in 
expecting that the laws of Nature would be suspended by 
Providence in order to save an innocent man. Such combats 
declared no impartial judgment but the might of the strongest, 
and often ended in a way clearly contrary to justice. Never- 
theless such ordeals were sanctioned and approved both by 
the Crown, the Church and the people. To-day we know 
better than to believe that Heaven unquestionably gives 
victory to the innocent party ; else the martyrs of the Church 
would be proved guilty by their death. Later on indeed 
these ancient ordeals were condemned by the Church, and 
gradually went out of use, while the trial by battle lived on, 
surviving in the Statute Book long after it had been forgotten 
in practice, till it was formally abolished in the year 1819. 



Y> 

ZIbe TErial b Combat. 



NOT far from the River Gate of the "Royal and 
Noble Monastery of Reading " is situate an eyot 
bathed by the " silver streaming Thames," 
amongst green pastures dotted with sheep and 
cattle, and sparkling with cowslips, kingcups and buttercups. 21 
To the North and the South rise gentle hills enclosing the 
valley of the Thames and formerly fringed with forests 
stretching for many miles up and down the river. Above this 
eyot towered the massive walls of King Henry Beauclerc's 
foundation, which kept watch and ward over the village of 
Radingia nestling under its shadow. There dwelt the brethren 
whom William of Malmesbury eulogizes as " a noble pattern 
of holiness and an example of unwearied and delightful 
hospitality." Over its portals hovered the Angel of Mercy 
administering relief from a never failing treasury to the poor, 
the sick, the pilgrim, the leper. Ever within the sacred 
aisles rose the glorious service of praise to the Almighty and 
of intercession for the sins of mankind . This eyot has won 
an immortal place in history as the scene of a duel a entrance. 

The charge of treason which Robert of Montfort brought 
against Henry of Essex referred to the incident during the 
battle of Coleshill, which has already been described. King 
Henry took no notice of the alleged act of treachery at the time, 
apparently attributing it to sudden terror and not to wilful 
or criminal misconduct. But so odious an accusation, in- 
volving a capital crime, proved too serious to be permanently 
overlooked, and as each party accused the other, King Henry 
decreed that the truth must be elucidated by a trial by combat. 

On March 31, 1163, King Henry presided over the Curia 
Regis held at Windsor at which Robert of Montfort formally 
appealed Henry of Essex of treachery at the battle of Coleshill 
six years before. In the quaint phraseology of the period 

18 



THE TRIAL BY COMBAT 

hoc offert probare versus eum per corpus suum, " he offers to 
prove the same by his own body." Essex on the other hand 
protested his innocence, and hoc offert defender e per corpus 
suum, " he offers to rebut the charge by his own body." 
Whereupon consideratum est quod duellum sit inter eos et 
Henricus del vadium defendendi se et Robertus probandi, " it 
was decided that there should be a duel between them, and 
that Henry would give a pledge that he would defend himself 
and that Robert would prove his charge." Veniant tali 
die armati, " let them come armed on such a day." 22 

Gloves were then exchanged as a symbol of plighted 
faith and of the challenge and acceptance, while the parties 
found " wads " or pledges, i.e. neighbours became bail for 
their due appearance. This giving of "wads" was described 
as vadiare bellum, " to wage battle," whence is derived the 
name " wager of battcl " by which the judicial combat was 
known to English law. 23 

The King appointed that the trial by battle should take 
place on April 8th at Reading, to which town he himself pro- 
ceeded, accompanied by the great nobles of the realm. 

From all points of the compass flock crowds of sightseers. 
Some would be lodged at the Hospitium of St. John, some in 
the humble cottages of Radingia ; others doubtless brought 
tents and pitched them under the willows bordering the 
Thames. 

Our authority for the duel is the story told by Essex 
himself in the Abbey of Reading to Abbot Samson of St. 
Edmundsbury, who doubtless rejoiced in such a tribute to the 
glorious King and martyr Edmund. 

Carlyle retells the tale in a stirring passage and shews 
how the unjust Standard-Bearer becomes a lamed soul which 
cannot fight. 

" And it came to pass, while Robert de Montfort 
thundered on him manfully with hard and frequent strokes, 
and a valiant beginning promised the fruit of victory, Henry 
of Essex, rather giving way, glanced round on all sides ; 
and lo, at the rim of the horizon, on the confines of the 



THE TRIAL BY COMBAT AT READING ABBEY 

River and land, he discerned the glorious King and Martyr 
Edmund, in shining armour, and as if hovering in the air ; 
looking towards him with severe countenance, nodding his 
head with a mien and motion of austere anger. At St. 
Edmund's hand there stood also another Knight, Gilbert 
de Cereville, whose armour was not so splendid, whose 
stature was less gigantic ; casting vengeful looks at him. 
This he seeing with his eyes, remembered that old crime 
brings new shame. And now wholly desperate, and chang- 
ing reason into violence, he took the part of one blindly 
attacking, not skilfully defending. Who w^hile he struck 
fiercely was more fiercely struck ; and so, in short, fell 
down vanquished, and it was thought slain. As he lay 
there for dead, his kinsmen, Magnates of England, be- 
sought the King, that the Monks of Reading might have 
leave to bury him." 24 

Under the care of the monks he recovered and eventually 
joined that famous community of brethren. 

As a result of his defeat Henry "of Essex was outlawed 
and his great fief was added to the Crown demesne. 25 

Let us attempt to reconstitute the scene of this historic 
duel, as represented in Mr. Harry Morley's picture now 
hanging in the public Art Gallery at Reading. 

The frontispiece to this booklet, reproduced from the 
picture, gives a general impression of the scene, although 
owing to the absence of colour much of the vividness of 
the original is lost. Imagine then an eyot in the Thames, 
long, low and narrow, separated from either bank by 
enough water to make any effort by partisans to interrupt 
the combat difficult, nay impossible, without boats or barges. 
All craft of any size would be secured by the King and Abbot, 
and presumably moored alongside the island under armed 
guard. 

A barrier surrounds the lists, for the occasion was suffi- 
ciently near the days of the Norse " holmgang n and 
" enhazelled fields " of battle to have been influenced by 
early traditions. Commanding the lists are two daises at the 



THE TRIAL BY COMBAT 

western end, the taller one for the King, the lower for the 
Abbot, screened from the weather by '' baudekins " and 
surrounded by royal guards. 

King Henry II. is seated on his dais, with the nobles of 
his court on his left. To his right sits Roger, Abbot of Reading, 
surrounded by monks. 

In the sky above are seen St. Edmund with starved 
Gilbert de Cereville by his side. At a table immediately in 
front of the King sits the clerk of the court, while just behind 
him are two sergeants of the King armed with billhooks, 
acting as a body-guard. Near to the clerk of the court is seen 
the priest ready to assist the defeated combatant. Beyond 
the group of monks is the tent of Montfort with a crowd of 
supporters, while on the left of the picture and in the fore- 
ground are the tent and supporters of Essex. Beyond the 
river in the distant background rises the Abbey church, with 
a huge central tower and west front. 

Within the lists are seen the two combatants : Henry de 
Essex, wounded and defeated, has fallen to the ground, 
having lost both shield and sword, while his adversary Robert 
de Montfort stands lost in wonder at the unexpected turn of 
events. 

At judicial duels principals almost certainly fought on foot ; 
the only record makes no allusion to horses, while the site in 
the Thames makes it difficult to believe that horses were used. 
The genius of our race had already begun to assert itself, and 
throughout the whole of the Middle Ages Englishmen at almost 
every battle of importance fought on foot. 

These combats of men armed cap-a-pie were tests of 
endurance and of hardihood. Thus in Mallory's Morte 
a" Arthur knights butt one another like rams, and wrestle and 
thump until one or other is thrown. Such contests between 
well armed and well matched combatants might last for hours, 
and at times men died of exhaustion with scarcely a wound. 

So long as a combatant kept his temper down and his 
shield up there was little chance of injury, the conical steel 
cap, well wadded with wash leather, deadening the blows 
above the shoulders, while the long curved shield covered 
its bearer from chin to knee. 



21 



THE TRIAL BY COMBAT AT READING ABBEY 

Occasionally, as when Essex saw the apparition of the 
martyr King and Saint and of his dead victim, some inward 
pang stung a fighter to impatience and provoked him to bring 
the long hours of foining and " tracing " to a swift conclusion. 
Then he would throw his shield over his shoulder, grasp his 
sword in both hands, and, holding his dagger between his 
teeth, strive to beat down his enemy's guard and force his way 
in to closer grips. The risk was extreme. If his foe warily 
retreated and avoided his weighty strokes, or received them 
on his buckler the exhaustion of the effort left the attacker at 
the mercy of the attacked, who would set about him briskly 
and inflict some wounds before he could rearrange his shield. 

Such seems to have been the issue of the duel in question. 
The uncontrolled fury of Essex exhausted itself in frantic 
strokes and rushes while de Montfort calmly awaited the 
moment for attack, and speedily finished the struggle by a 
few disabling wounds. 

At the word of the King, the priest is admitted into the 
hitherto jealously guarded enclosure, and, kneeling beside 
the fallen man, makes his submission known, or in case of need 
administers extreme unction. 

In the picture the King is seen robed in a fur-lined mantle with a long 
tunic, his head being covered with the cap of a Count of Anjou and Norman 
crown. 

The Abbot and monks are seen wearing black Cluniac habits. St. 
Edmund is shewn with a crown mounted with crosses, a coat of scale armour, 
a sword and arrows, the arrows being his saintly attribute. The line round 
his neck denotes that he was beheaded. 

Gilbert de Cereville, a person of less importance than St. Edmund, is 
represented of smaller stature ; his emaciation recalls one of Essex's crimes. 

Both combatants are wearing coats of chain mail, hoods and leg pieces, 
with round helmets, gloves and surcoats ; they are armed with sword and 
shield. 

The period of the duel corresponds roughly with the transition from the 
long kite-shaped shield, to the shorter triangular form. Essex's shield belongs 
to the latter type which was carried on the fore-arm, and is charged " arg, 
a fesse dancette gu " ; the charge is repeated in his surcoat. Montfort 
carries a shield of the older pattern which was held by thrusting the whole 
arm through the shield. This shield is charged " bendy often or az." ; the 
same device appears on the surcoat. 



22 



PI 
ILbe /Iftonfe at IReabing Hbbe\>. 



A SLOW and mournful procession might be seen on the 
evening of April 8th, 1163, as the wounded and 
unconscious Essex was borne on his shield from the 
scene of battle to the famous monastery which the 
great Henry Beauclerc had founded about forty years ago. 
Doubtless the King with his nobles, Abbot Roger with his 
brethren and the victorious Robert of Montfort joined in the 
procession which wended its way through the River Gateway, 
past the famous Hospitium and round the North side of the 
splendid Abbey church which was nearly ready for its 
" Hallowing " in the following year by Archbishop Becket. 

At last the Infirmary, the infirmatorium monachorum, 
was reached where the precious burden was deposited and 
entrusted to the Infirmarian. The grievous wounds received 
from the mighty blows of de Montfort would be carefully 
dressed with salves made from herbs grown in the adjacent 
herb-garden. Amid the peaceful surroundings of the In- 
firmary, Essex doubtless soon regained consciousness. As 
soon as he had sufficiently recovered from his wounds he was 
doubtless clothed in the habit and cowl of a monk and en- 
trusted to the master of the novices, who would teach him the 
practices of the religious life. 

At the end of the novitiate, a day was appointed for the 
taking of vows, after which solemn ceremony the candidate 
received the kiss of peace as a token of his reception 
into the full charity of brotherhood. 

It was a strange fate that converted the famous Royal 
Constable, the hereditary Standard-Bearer of England, into one 
of the brethren of Reading Abbey ! The gleaming helmet, 
hauberk, lance and shield were exchanged for the black Cluniac 
robe and cowl, the military pomp and excitement of tourna- 



THE TRIAL BY COMBAT AT READING ABBEY 

ments and court life for the peaceful, studious life of a monk, 
the blare of the trumpet for the chants of the choir, the 
service of the king for the service of the King of kings. 

Doubtless it was true of his new life as of the old that 
milicia est vita hominis super terram, " the life of man upon the 
earth is a warfare." But the new warfare was against the 
world, the flesh and the devil, to be fought with spiritual 
weapons. What memories of his past life must have crowded 
upon him as he joined in the services of the Church, or minis- 
tered to the lepers in the hospital of St. Mary Magdalene, or 
entertained the pilgrims in the noble Hospitium of St. John. 
The lesson, however, seems to have been well learned since, in 
Jocelin's words, " he wiped out the blot upon his previous 
life under the regular life, and in his endeavours to cleanse 
the long week of his dissolute life by at least one purifying 
sabbath so cultivated the studies of his virtues as to bring 
forth the fruit of happiness." 



24 




ITbe Epilogue. 



IF historical associations rank amongst the most precious 
possessions of a community, Reading may indeed be 
counted as amongst the most favoured of towns. Her 
annals are inextricably interwoven with the religious, 
political and social history of the British nation. Her citizens 
have played a worthy part in the building up of England. 
May her past achievements prove a perpetual stimulus to 
high ideals of civic life and civic work ! 

Happily in spite of medieval vandalism and modern 
cupidity Reading retains memorials and institutions which 
recall the many centuries that have passed since the beginnings 
of Radingia, and serve to illustrate for the rising generation 
the development of education, of art, of science, of industry, 
of music, of poetry. All such memorials and institutions 
should be preserved with jealous affection, since they form 
instructive object lessons for both young and old. 

It is no small privilege to be able to linger on the spot 
where in 1136 King Henry Beauclerc was laid to rest, where 
in 1164 the great Archbishop Becket dedicated the Abbey 
Church to the worship of God for ever and ever, where in 
1 185 Heraclius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, kneeled before Henry 
of Anjou imploring him to undertake a crusade in order to 
rescue Jerusalem from Saladin, where ca. 1240 the musical 
though anonymous monk wrote down " Sumer is icumen in >: 
for our perpetual delight, where in 1359 John of Gaunt was 
married to his fair cousin Blanche of Plantagenet in the 
presence of Edward the Third, and where in 1539 the last 
Abbot of Reading, Hugh Faringdon, was martyred pro 
Christo et ecclesia. 

The spot especially associated with the memory of the 
trial by combat is the little green eyot still bathed by the 
silvery Thames, which was once stained by the blood of Henry 

25 



THE TRIAL BY COMBAT AT READING ABBEY 

of Essex. Who can think of that eyot without recalling the 
days when so-called justice was administered by the barbarity 
of a duel a entrance ? Strange that our forefathers could have 
tolerated such a brutal arbitrament between right and wrong. 
In the particular trial by combat beneath the shadow of 
Reading Abbey right doubtless triumphed. But there is not 
always a St. Edmund hovering in the air, " nodding his head 
with a mien and motion of severe anger " against the guilty 
party. 

The absurdity of such a judicial system is indeed 
apparent when it is remembered that rich men were actually 
allowed to hire an expert champion to fight for them ; thus 
w r as the poor man heavily handicapped in his appeal for justice. 
The strongest arm or the deepest pocket usually won the day. 

Well it is that those days have gone for ever. During the 
seven hundred and fifty years that have elapsed since the 
trial by combat in 1163, the administration of justice has made 
vast strides. Then too often might was right. Happily we 
may boast to-day, with at any rate some approximation to 
truth, that la legge e uguale per tutti, "the law is the same for 
all." 



26 



IFlotes. 



1 " Chronica Jocelini de Brakelonda," ed. by Rokewood, p. 50 ; 
" Chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond," ed. by Clarke, p. 102. 

2 For further details cf. Freeman, " Norman Conquest " (1869), III., 
p. 9 ; (1876), V., 734 ; J. H. Scott, The family of " de Essex," Berks, Bucks 
and Oxon. ArchaeoL J., Vol. XXIV. (1918), p. 63 ; Fowke, " The Bayeux 
Tapestry," p. 48 (PI. XXXII.). 

3 Cf. " Rayleigh Castle," by E. B. Francis, " Transactions of the Essex 
Archaeological Society" Vol. XII. 

1 According to Dugdale, Henry de Essex had a brother Hugh de Essex, 
who resided at Rivenhall, a manor forming part of the estate of his grand- 
father Sweyne de Essex. It is in the descendants of this Hugh that the 
family continued to survive in the male line for nearly 500 years. The last 
representative of this line was Sir William Essex, Baronet (created Nov. 25, 
1611) of Bewcott or Beckett House, near Shrivenham, Berks, whose daughter 
Lovise, or Louise, Essex, on the death of her brother Col. Charles Essex, 
slain at the Battle of Edgehill, 1642, became his representative. With the 
descendants of this lady rests the honour of representing this branch of the 
family at the present day. 

5 Camden, " Britannia," ed. by Gough, I., p. 364. 

6 Eyton, " Court and Itinerary of King Henry II." Cf. Index s. Con- 
stabularii Regis. Charters granted by Essex are rare. One or two are 
printed in the " Colchester Cartulary." 

7 J. H. Round, " The King's Serjeants and Officers of State," p. 76. 
Carlyle (" Past and Present," Ch. XIV.) speaks of Henry de Essex and Robert 
tie Montfort as Earls, but gives no evidence of such a dignity. 

8 The office of Constable under Henry I. and Stephen was held by 
Robert de Vere who gained this office by his marriage with Adeline the 
daughter of Hugh de Montfort and sister of Robert de Montfort, as recorded 
in the Pipe-Roll of 1130. She also brought him, with that office, the great 
" Honour of Hagenet " (i.e. Haughley, co. Suffolk), held at the time of 
Domesday by Hugh de Montfort, who was also of note in Kent. After Henry 
de Essex's forfeiture, this " Honour " was known in the hands of the Crown 
as " Honor Constabulariae," apparently indicating that it carried with it the 
constableship. Cf. Round, " The King's Serjeants," p. 81 ; " Geoffrey de 
Mandeville," p. 326. 

9 Stubbs, " Constitutional History " (1897), Vol. I., p. 491. 

10 " Past and Present," Ch. XIV. 



THE TRIAL BY COMBAT AT READING ABBEY 

11 Dugdale, " The Baronage of England," Vol. I., p. 463. The Alice of 
whom Dugdale speaks as the wife of Henry de Essex was probably the wife 
of one Robert de Essex, possibly a young brother. Round, " Geoffrey de 
Mandeville," p. 391. 

12 According to Dugdale (" The Baronage of England, Vol. I., p. 407) 
Hugh de Montfort was a son of a Norman, Thurstan de Bastenbergh, and 
after the Conquest was appointed with William Fitz-Osberne and Odo, 
Bishop of Bayeux, to administer justice throughout the whole Kingdom. For 
these services he was awarded several Lordships in Kent, Essex, Suffolk and 
Norfolk, including Saltwood near Hythe. Eventually he lost his life in a 
duel with Walcheline de Ferrers, leaving a son and heir Hugh (II.). 

Hugh (II.) by his first wife had two sons Robert and Hugh (III.). 
Robert became general of the army under King Rufus, but was subsequently 
charged with disloyalty to King Henry I. Eventually he obtained permission 
to go to Jerusalem, leaving all his possessions to the King. He presented to 
the Abbey of Bee the churches of Montfort, Appeville and Froulencourt, that 
of Appeville being in the canton of Montfort sur Risle. Both he and his 
brother Hugh are stated by Dugdale to have died on a pilgrimage without 
issue. Dugdale apparently means without male issue, since he goes on to say 
that Robert left a daughter by a second wife, who married Gilbert de Gant, 
and left a son called Hugh, who assumed the name of Hugh de Montfort (IV.) 
after his mother, " who was so great an inheritrix." 

Hugh (IV.) married Adeline, daughter of Robert, the Earl of Mellent,and 
joined with her brother Waleran and other supporters of William son of Robert 
Curthose in a conspiracy against King Henry I. in the year 1124. Eventually 
these conspirators crossed over into Normandy where Hugh was taken prisoner 
together with his brother-in-law Waleran, and kept for many years in prison. 

He left two sons, Robert who defeated Henry de Essex in the trial by 
battle, and Thurston, together with two daughters, one of whom was named 
Adeline. 

X 3 Eyton, " Court and Itinerary of Henry II.," p. 34. 

J 4 Norgate, " England under the Angevin Kings," Vol. II., p. 138. 

'5 " G. de Mandeville," p. 327. 

16 Coleshille, i.e. the " coal hill," according to Giraldus Cambrensis ; 
also called Consilt. According to F. M. Stenton the exact site of the Flint- 
shire Coleshill is not known. It was, however, remembered in the i4th 
century and formed a stage on the main road from Chester to Comvuy laid 
down in the Gough Road Map in the Bodleian Library. 

17 According to Lord Lyttleton Henry of Essex himself uttered the cry. 
" History of King Henry II," Vol. II., p. 384. For further details of the 
battle, cf. Lloyd, " A History of Wales," Vol. II., p. 498. 

18 If Henry of Essex really displayed cowardice, it seems strange that the 
fact was hushed up for six years. Salzmann thinks it more probable that Robert 
based his accusation on some flying rumour and that the result of the duel 



TV O T E S 

was unjust, than that King Henry should have condoned the Constable's 
cowardice and allowed him to continue in honour at his court. L. F. Salzmann, 
" Henry II." (1914), p. 32. 

19 J. Lingard, " The Anglo-Saxon Church," Vol. II., p. 133. 

20 Freeman, " Norman Conquest " (1876), Vol. V., p. 873. 

21 The island still termed " De Montfort Island " lies just below Caver- 
sham Bridge. 

22 This form of words appears frequently in Bracton's Note Book, ed. 
by F. W. Maitland, passim. According to Hutton (St. Thomas of 
Canterbury, p. 127) Robert de Montfort on the night before the duel kept 
vigil at the Soissons shrine of St. Drausius, the saint who renders combatants 
invincible. The distance from Soissons to Reading proves that there is 
some error in the date. 

2 3 Neilson, " Trial by Combat," p. 37. 

24 " Past and Present," Ch. XIV. It is interesting to compare St. 
Edmund's apparition with his appearance to King Swein in 1016. Cf. 
J. B. Mackinlay, St. Edmund, King and Martyr, p. 179. 

25 Amongst Henry de Essex's possessions was Saltwood which had been 
granted by the Conqueror to Hugh de Montfort. It was recovered by 
Lanfranc in the great placitinu on Pennenden Heath, was thereafter held by 
the Montforts from the archbishop as two knights' fees, was so held by Henry 
de Essex as their successor and seized by the Crown upon his forfeiture. 
Round, " Geoffrey de Mandeville," p. 326. Cf. also Eyton, " Court and 
Itinerary of King Henry II.," p. 254. 



29 



H 

Abbey of Bee 

,, of Reading 
Abbot Hugh Faringdon 

Roger 

,, Samson 
Adeline de Montfort 
Anjou, Henry of 
Archbishop Becket 
,, Lanfranc 

Stigand... 



Basingwerk . . . 
Bastenbergh, Thurstan de 
" Baudekins " 
Bayeux, Odo, Bishop of 

,, Tapestry 
Bee, Abbey of 
Becket, Thomas 
Berengar, Count Raymond 
Berners, Baroness 
Brakelond, Jocelin of 



C 

Cadwaller 

Cahors 

Carlyle, Thomas 

Caversham 

Cereville, Gilbert de 

Chester 

Coleshille, 

Consilt 

Constable, office of 

Corsnet 

Curia Regis . . . 

Curthose, Robert 



ID 





PAGE 




PAGE 




28 


Domesday Book 


7,8,27 




18-23, 26 


Drausius, St. 


29 


don 


2 5 


Duel, judicial ... 16, 


18, 19, 21 




... 21,23 


Dux Haraldus 


7 




19 








12 


B 






... 22, 25 








23,25 
on 


Eadgyth, the Lady ... 


7 


"^ Earl, title of, wrongly applied 27 






Edmund, St. ... 10, 


19-22, 26 






Edmundsbury, St. ... 


19 






Edward III., King ... 


25 






Essex, Charles 


27 






Earl of 


8 


an de 


... 13, 14 
28 


Henry de 


7, pas si HI 




... 21 


Henry de,Jnn. 


IO 


) Of 


28 


Hugh de 


IO 




j 


Lady ... 


IO 




1 
28 


Lovise 


27 






Robert de 


8 




, 9> 23, 25 


Sheriff of ... 


7 


/monci 


9 
8 


Sir William ... 


27 


r 


... 7,25 


Sweyne de 


... 7,27 






Jf 








Faringdon, Abbot Hugh 


25 




13 


Ferrers, Walcheline de 


28 




9 


Fitz-Wimark, Robert 


7 




9, !9, 27 








29 








IO, 2O-2 


(3 






13 






9, ii, 


I 3 ,l8,28 


Gant, Gilbert de 


28 




28 


Gaunt, John of 


25 


"8,9, 


12,23, 27 


Gilbert de Cereville ... 


IO, 2O-2 




15 


Gloves, exchange of ... 


19 




18 


Gunnor 


8 




28 


Gwyneth, Owen 


... 13, 14 



3 C 



INDEX 



1b 

Hagenet, Honour of ... 12, 27 

Hastings, battle of ... 7 

Haughley, Honour of ... 12, 27 

Henry I., King ... 8,23,25 

,, II., King ... 8, passim 

de Essex ... 7, passim 

de Esssex , Jun . ... i o 

Heraclius ... ... ... 25 

" Holmgang," Norse ... 20 

Honour of Haughley ... 12,27 

Hospitium of St. John 19, 23, 24 

Hot iron, ordeal by ... ... 16 

,, water, ordeal by ... 16 

Hugh de Essex ... ... 10 

,, de Montfort 28,29 



Malduit, William 

Mallory 

Malmesbury, William of 
Mandeville, Geoffrey de 
Maud, Empress 
Mellent, Earl of 
Meredith, Madoc Ap 
Montfort, Church of 
Island 

Hughde... 
,, Robert de 
,, sur Risle ... 
Morley, H. 
M or te <f Arthur 



1 1 



PAGE 
II 
21 

18 



28 

'28 

*9 

28,29 

, passim 
11,28 

20 
21 



Immersion, ordeal by 
Infirmary, the 
Island, de Montfort 



16 

23 
29 



Normandy, William of ... 7 

Northampton, Council at ... 13 



Judicial duel 
Judicium Dei 



Ik 



King Edward III. 
Harold 
Henry I. 
Henry II. 
Louis VI I. ... 
Rufus 
Stephen 
Swein 
William I. 

X 

Lailand Hundred 
Lanfranc, Archbishop 
Leicester, Robert of 
Linton, Manor of 
Louis VII., King 
Lovise Essex 
Lucy, Richard of 



16, 18, 19, 21 
... 15. 17 



25 

7 

8,23,25 

8, passim 

9 

28 

... 8, 12 

29 

n, 12, 16, 29 



IO 

29 

8 

IO 

9 
27 



Odo, Bishop 
Ordeals 
Oxford, Earl of 



Pennenden Heath 
Plantagenet, Blanche of 
Prittlewell Priory 



1R 

Radingia 

Rayleigh, Baron of ... 

,, Castle 
Raymond of Toulouse 
Reading 

,, Abbey 
Riganea 

Risle, Montfort sur ... 
Rivenhall 



28 
l6 



29 
25 



18, 19, 25 



ii 

... 19,25 

18-23, 26 

8 

... 11,28 

27 



INDEX 



Robert de Essex 

,, de Montfort 
Roger, Abbot 
Round, J. H. 
Ruddlan 
Rufus, King 



St. Drausius 

,, Edmund ... 

,, Edmundsbury 

,, Gilles, Count of 

,, Mary Magdalene Hospital 
Saladin 
Saltwood 
Samson, Abbot 
Scots, King of 
Soissons 
Standard-Bearer, Royal 

Stenton, F. M. 
Stephen, King 
Stigand, Archbishop 
" Sumer is icumen in ' 



PAGE 




PAGE 


8 


Swein, King 


29 


1 1 , passim 


Sweyne de Essex 


... 7,27 


... 21, 23 






... 12,27 


TT 




H 






28 


Talbot, Richard 


10 




Thorney, monks of ... 


II 




Thurstan de Bastenbergh 


28 




Toulouse 


9, n, 14 


29 


Trial by combat 


16, 18, 26 


10, 19-22, 26 






19 


D 




9 






ospital 24 


Vere, Robert de 


12 


25 






8, 28, 29 


TRH 




19 






9 


" Wads," the giving of 


I 9 


29 


" Wager of battel " 


19 


... 8-10, 


Walcheline de Ferrers 


28 


14. 19,23 


Waleran 


... 11,28 


28 


Wales, expedition into 


8, 13, H 


... 8,12 


William I., King n, 


12, 16, 29 


7 


Windsor, Curia at 


18 


' ... 25 


Woodstock, Charter given 


at ii 



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