court, if evidence in an appeal (accusation), whether of treason or any other
offense, was insufficient or unprovable—no witnesses, for example, nor tangible
evidence—the case would often be settled by judicial battle. (As far as I can
determine, this is the only circumstance where Trial by Combat was invoked.)
Some think of this as a precursor to the duel (of honor) fought in later
centuries. The most famous trial by combat in the fourteenth century was
between Henry of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Sir Thomas Mowbray, Duke
of Norfolk. Of course, the combat never took place; the King stopped it at the
last minute. But the ceremony and protocol were all there; we get a colorful
description in the Chronicque de la Traison et Mort de Richart Deux Roy
Dengleterre (the author was probably an eye-witness).
tournament, to be held at Coventry, was announced far and wide. It was the
event of the year; the Duke of Albany's son came from Scotland; the Count of
St. Pol and other nobles came over France. Preparations were extensive; the
King's armory was placed at their disposal. Bolingbroke was sent armorers from
the Duke of Milan, and Mowbray engaged armorers from Germany or Bohemia.
to la Traison, "The lists were to be sixty paces long and forty
wide; the barriers seven feet high. The sergeants-at-arms were not to let the
people approach within four feet of the lists... the penalty for entering the
lists, or making any noise, so that one party might take advantage of the
other, was the loss of life or limb, and also of their castles, at the pleasure
of the King." This was serious stuff! Bolingbroke entered the lists on a
white charger followed by six or seven knights on white horses, his was
caparisoned in blue and green velvet embroidered with swans and antelopes.
Mowbray's horse wore crimson velvet, embroidered with lions of silver and
mulberry trees. There was an exact wording the contestants were required to
state (I remember it well in Shakespeare): Bolingbroke said, "I am Henry
of Lancaster, Duke of Hereford, and am come here to prosecute my appeal in
combating Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, who is a traitor, false and recreant
to God, the King, his realm, and me." The constable opened Henry's visor
to determine he was the man he supposed to be, "the barrier was then
opened, and he rode straight to his pavilion, which was covered with red roses,
and, alighting from his charger, entered his pavilion and awaited the coming of
Richard II presiding at a tournament, from St.
Alban's Chronicle. Source: Lambeth Palace
Library, MS6 f.233[/caption]
At this point, the King
arrived, accompanied by a great retinue. Once they were settled, his herald
announced, "Oez, oez, oez... It is commanded by the King by the
Constable, and by the Marshal, that no person, poor or rich, be so daring as to
put his hand upon the lists, save those who have leave from the King and
council, the Constable, and the Marshal, upon pain of being drawn and hung...
Behold here Henry of Lancaster, Duke of Hereford, appellant, who is come to the
lists to do his duty against Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, defendant; let
him come in the lists to do his duty, upon pain of being declared false."
At once, Mowbray came forward and swore the same oath as Bolingbroke then went
to his own pavilion. The constables measured the length of the lances and the
two squires presented them to their knights. According to la Traison,
"The weapons allowed by the marshal and constable were the
"Glaive", long sword, short sword, and dagger. The long sword was
straight, and called by the French "estoc", whence estocade, a
thrust." The King ordered that they take away the pavilions and "let
go the chargers, and that each should perform his duty". Apparently Bolingbroke
first advanced a few paces when the King threw his threw his staff (warder)
into the list, crying, "Ho! Ho!"
For the King to interfere
in the duel was not unheard of, though it seems that the crowd was bitterly
disappointed to be denied their entertainment; never mind that the fight was to
the death. Apparently there were no other amusements on the agenda. The
contestants were equally skilled in tournament fighting, and by no means was
the result a foregone conclusion. The king withdrew with his council—including
Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt—and discussed the matter for two hours
while the attendees waited. Finally it was announced that Bolingbroke was to be
exiled for ten years and Mowbray for life. From most accounts, the crowd was
incensed at Bolingbroke's treatment; after all, he had done nothing wrong. Few
seemed to object to Mowbray's fate; was he guilty until proven innocent?
Nonetheless, everybody went home unhappy, not least of all the main
contestants. Both were promised large annuities and given a few weeks to put
their affairs in order.
Trial by combat seems to
have died out by the 15th century, and I haven't found anything quite as
dramatic as this contest. The amount of preparation for such a non-event is
staggering. If you happened to be versed in medieval French, you can learn more
about tournament ceremonies in this book, reproduced in Google Books:
"Ceremonies des gages de batailles selon les constitutions du bon roi
Philippe de France".