CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London trial combat freemen rights franchises compurgation
Subject: Trial by combat between townsmen
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Liber Albus, f.35
Transcription in: Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Liber Albus. Rolls Series, no.12, vol.1 (1859), 109.
Original language: French
Location: London
Date: 1242/43


Adam Roem accused John Buquente of felony and robbery and proposed to prove the charge as a member of the franchise of London. John denied everything and waived his freeman's rights, offering to defend himself by his body. Adam said that he would not lose his franchise for John – for no freeman had to do combat if he did not wish. It was then decided [by the court] that John must do his law, himself being the eighteenth [oath-taker]; for, since both belonged to the franchise, no battle had to be undertaken unless they both wished it, regardless of what the law [of the land] prescribed. For through that [method] the strong man could bring down the weak, the young man the old; for the elderly and the feeble would not be able to make proof by battle against the strong and the young.


This was a case reviewed by the London eyre of 1244.

Roem's intent was to prove his accusation according the the methods prescribed by the city constitution, regarding a freeman's rights to wage his law. The charter of Henry I exempted the citizens of London from having to undergo trial by combat. Adam's refusal was likely motivated by fear that he could not triumph through such a method. The court prescribed compurgation by eighteen hands (the accused's being the eighteenth) as the appropriate method for determining the charge. The passage concludes with part of the rationale for townsmen wishing to avoid trial by combat: a pragmatic view, compared to the notion that God would give strength to the party in the right. Compurgation may not have been the best approach to justice, but it was fairer than combat, particularly for townsmen who were relatively untrained in martial arts.

For another instance of trial by battle, see a case at Leicester which purportedly moved the burgesses to seek from the lord of the borough an exemption from that method of judicial determination.



"do his law"
Defending oneself by having eighteen persons swear to one's innocence (without direct reference to any evidence in the case) was the requirement of the "Middle Law", a method of trying crimes falling under the category of "mayhem". The defendant had to swear to his or her innocence three separate times, each other followed by a supporting oath from six of the compurgators

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 23, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003