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What Were English Trials and Ordeals, During the Middle Ages?

Updated on October 7, 2011

King Alfred the Great

King Alfred the Great, (Reign 871-899)
King Alfred the Great, (Reign 871-899) | Source

For nearly 300 years, the Anglo-Saxon monarchies of England put forth a court system that would make many of us beg for the modern style judiciary. Trials for a crime were not quite as civil in Anglo-Saxon England, as they are today in most of the modern world. If you were a repeat offender, or could not produce the required vouchers to declare that you were a good person and innocent of your crime, you would be subject to one of several "ordeals." These were tests of God to determine your innocence. In a very similar manner to that of the Salem witch trials, the ordeals often had little to do with the crime itself.

King Alfred the Great was the originator of this system in England. England was still a very feudalistic society during this time period, so Alfred was not exactly "King of England" as much as he was a king IN England. This system would remain the most common until King Henry II took power in 1133. He would eliminate the trial by ordeal system and implement the trial by jury which we are more familiar with today.

Depiction of an ordeal by cold water
Depiction of an ordeal by cold water | Source

Trial by Cold Water

The accused was set to undergo a trial by water, in which they would be lowered into a body of water and watched to see if they would float, or if they would sink. Because this was a test of God, it was believed that if they sunk, then the body of water accepted them and they were innocent. On the contrary, if they floated then the water was rejecting them so they were obviously guilty.

Depiction of an ordeal by hot iron.
Depiction of an ordeal by hot iron. | Source

Trial by Hot Iron

The accused would be required to carry a red-hot iron rod in both hands for nine feet. This would, of course, badly burn the persons hands and require time to heal. After three days, a the church member presiding over the case would check the hands of the accused. If they had begun to heal without infection, then they were innocent. If they had begun to fester, God was clearly punishing them and they were convicted.

Depiction of an ordeal by hot water.
Depiction of an ordeal by hot water. | Source

Trial by Boiling Water

The trial by boiling water is very similar to the trial by hot iron, in that the accused would have their flesh examined by a member of the church after three days to check for infection. The difference is that in this ordeal, the accused had to plunge both of their hands into boiling hot water to fish out a small stone.


Today we see these trials by ordeal as crazy or perhaps "cruel and unusual punishment", but one must keep in mind that the Anglo-Saxons were a very religious people who believed in spirits, demons, spell and an absolute ruling God. If you were accused of a crime, there was another alternative to escaping the ordeals. This required the person to gather thirty of their peers who would, on their behalf, give an oath of innocence. Failing to gather the thirty compurgators or being a repeat offender would be a sure ticket to the trials by ordeal.

BBC Parody of the Ordeals

An amazing book on this topic!

History Of England, Volume 1 (Prehistory To 1714)- (Value Pack w/MySearchLab) (5th Edition)
History Of England, Volume 1 (Prehistory To 1714)- (Value Pack w/MySearchLab) (5th Edition)

I used this book for an English History class in college. Excellent read, not "textbook" like at all. Really in depth on some of the happenings during each time period.



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  • thebeast02 profile image

    thebeast02 6 years ago from Louisiana

    Absolutely, and this wasn't an isolated system. Various other societies used systems at least similar to this one, with methods that had little to due with the person's actual involvement in the crime to determine guilt.

  • jjackson786 profile image

    Jennifer 6 years ago from Pennsylvania

    Great hub! I think it's ironic that for the first trial, it almost depends entirely on a person's body density as to whether or not they will float or sink in water (and is completely out of anyone's control); for the second and third trials, it is now common knowledge that burn injuries are highly susceptible to infections, especially those involving the blood. I can't imagine how many innocent people were put to death because of these misunderstandings. Very interesting stuff!