English Coroner System Part 5: Trial by Ordeal
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History of the Medieval English Coroner System By Prof. Bernard Knight, CBE

Part 5: Trial by Ordeal, Injuries & Outlaws

Ordeal by Fire

By Fire & Water

For the first decades of his renewed existence, the medieval Coroner had to be present at some curious and barbaric rites connected with the law. These were the various "ordeals," a semi-magical method of determining guilt or innocence which goes right back to pre-historic times through many cultures prior to the coming of the Anglo-Saxons. For example, guilt could be tested by the ordeal of fire, where the suspect had to carry a bar of red-hot iron in his hands while he walked nine marked paces. In the unlikely event of no burns appearing on his hand, he was judged innocent. Otherwise, he was promptly hanged. A variation was licking red-hot iron with the tongue or, sometimes, the suspect had to run barefoot over nine red-hot ploughshares. Then there was, of course, the ordeal of water, where the accused was thrown into water and if they sank, they were declared innocent, but if they floated, they were guilty and taken out and hanged - a sort of no-win situation! The Coroner was always present to record these happenings, again with an eye on the forfeiture of the felon's goods. In 1215, though, the practices were forbidden by an Edict of the Lateran Council.

The Bier

A less excruciating but, eventually, equally fatal ordeal was that of the bier. It was an ancient belief that the slain dead could indicate their killer. There were various ways of testing this, but, in England, it was usual for the accused to be made to approach the bier on which the corpse lay. In view of witnesses, including the Coroner, who stood there with his pen and Rolls, the wounds of the victim were observed to see if they began to bleed again. Of course, this is well recorded by Shakespeare in "Richard III":

"O gentlemen see, see! Dead Henry's wounds
Open their congealed mouths and bleed afresh!"

And it was the Coroner's job was to record all these events.

By Combat

Ordeal by combat and battle was also witnessed and recorded by the Coroner. Here the aggrieved party claimed the right to fight the alleged offender - or to pay a champion to fight for him. This usually arose through an "appeal" which, in those days, meant a private prosecution organised by the Coroner. Though this died out effectively in the 13th Century, it was forgotten rather than legislated against and, as late as 1818, it was found not to be illegal for a man, charged with murder, to claim the right of combat with his accuser. This case then led to its formal abolition in the early 19th Century.

The Coroner as Police Surgeon

Some of the functions of the Coroner fell into abeyance in the 13th Century, but in some areas they survived for a long time. In rape, for example, the woman ravished had to raise the hue-and-cry and wherever possible produce some evidence of the rape, such as bloodstained or torn clothing or a flow of blood from her body. These had to be shown to the men of the neighbouring townships, to the Bailiff of the Hundred and to the Coroner himself, who acted (almost like a modern police surgeon) as a corroborator of the ravishment. In Lincolnshire in 1202, for instance, the Coroner visited the victim of an alleged rape two days after the event and wrote in his Rolls that "she was bloodstained and disgracefully treated...".

The Coroner's para-medical functions were also displayed in cases of non-fatal wounding, where he had to view the injuries, count the wounds, measure their length and breadth and record on his Rolls exactly where on the body they were situated. In cases of wounding, the mere presence of blood was not enough to satisfy the coroner, as it could be too easily fabricated - he would have to testify to actual breaches of the skin. The person accused of a non-fatal wounding was not arrested or imprisoned before trial. He had to find four people to stand surety for him and put up "bail money". The Coroner carefully recorded all this and if the miscreant vanished long before the trial, he ensured the forfeiture of the securities and often imprisonment of the four luckless bondsmen.

When a citizen brought an appeal of wounding, the Coroner had to decide what was to be done with the culprit. If the wound looked as if it might be fatal - a common result in those days of primitive therapeutics - then the suspect was kept in custody until it was clear as to whether the victim was going to survive or die. If he died, the prisoner was held until the Judges came, when hanging was the inevitable sequel, unless he could break gaol and get sanctuary. If the victim lived, then the Coroner would take securities to try to ensure the appearance of the culprit at trial.


Due to escapes and sanctuary, there was great difficulty in getting cases to trial in medieval England. The Coroner was involved in an elaborate process to try to enforce the appearance of parties at court - and, of course, in those days, much of his work was nothing to do with the present Coroner's obsession with dead bodies. A lot of the original Coroner's work was really administrative. When the time came at the County Court for the parties to surrender their bail, four calls of the accused's name were made, one at each consecutive hearing. If he did not appear at the fourth call, he was declared "outlawed", unless two men pledged themselves, with further financial bonds, to present him at the next (the fifth) County Court - which, unlike the General Eyre, was held quite often. If he failed to appear then, the two men lost their money and the man was outlawed, and as usual the Coroner had to be present at all such "declarations of outlawry" to record it on his Rolls.

In the Middle Ages to be outlawed was like being dead. The outlaw had no legal existence, being "outside the law". All men's hands were against him and he could be legally killed on sight by anyone who came across him. Outlaws were said to have "wolves' heads" which could be cut off by anyone. In Richard the Lionheart's time, five shillings were paid for every such head, rather like the squirrel bonus of the present day.

By the 14th century, the Coroner had to hold inquests on slain outlaws and send the law officers responsible for the killing to the court, where they were automatically acquitted for justifiable homicide. Captured outlaws were hanged, after the Coroner had attended proceedings to prove, from his Rolls, that a promulgation of outlawry (called the "exigent") had formally been recorded at some prior date. Many outlaws were later pardoned, usually by having fought in the army or otherwise helped the King's service. They could also buy their pardons and all these had to be reinstated into the law by the Coroner. Many outlaws seem to have ignored the "exigent" and carried on their lives as before. Even Coroners were occasionally outlawed. Amazingly, in 1445, the Sheriff of Sussex was ordered to replace John Veske, who had continued in office as County Coroner despite, apparently, having long been outlawed

Approver's Appeal

One type of appeal, namely a private prosecution, has already been mentioned. The other was the "approver's appeal", which was the same as turning King's evidence, or Queen's evidence today. If a felon was able to implicate enough of his fellow criminals, so that they were convicted, he might escape a hanging and either be imprisoned for life or be allowed exile abroad. Very few of these appeals succeeded. The approver first had to confess his own guilt to the Coroner in the presence of a witness. When the case came to court, the approver had to plea for a Coroner to be assigned to him and the latter had to hear and record all the incriminating evidence against the man's confederates. Many others turned approver in prison after sentence. Almost all these appeals were merely ruses to delay execution, to give more time to escape or bribe the gaolers.

Part 4: The Right of Sanctuary
Part 6: Treasure Trove & Nautical Activities

Readers interested in the activities of the medieval coroner should check out Bernard Knight's 12th century Mystery Novels featuring Crowner John de Wolfe, the first coroner for the County of Devon.

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