Medieval Assignment: Medieval Justice-Amanda Tan

1.       The Medieval Courts:

Types of Courts:

  • Church Courts-

Only church courts could judge bishops, deacons, priests, clerks, monks and nuns, the church gave out lighter sentences than royal courts and they could not sentence death. All members of the clergy could read and write, therefore a literacy test sometimes used to prove that a person worked for the church, and should be tried in the more lenient (mild, merciful) church court.

  • Manor Courts-

Many of the disputes in the manor courts had to do with farming and property(using too much manure, ploughing another person’s land). Manor courts dealt with charges of assault, petty theft, public drunkenness and other small crimes, this court would even allow serfs to sue if they felt it was unfair.

Manor courts were like a village meeting, most of the villagers would attend, witnesses were very important. Heavy fines were enforced for lying in the court; villagers decided who won the case.

Representatives of the lord, called stewards, acted as judges deciding the sentence of the court (which was usually a fine).

  • Royal Courts-

Royal Courts took care of serious crimes such as murder, treason, rape, burglary, poaching game from royal forests, cutting trees or even taking deadwood for fuel from royal forests. Royal courts used the ‘common law’, it was called common law because it was the same for the whole kingdom, royal courts could order the execution of murderers and thieves. After the execution of a criminal the court would take away all of his or her property.

A Medieval Royal Court

2.       What were the Medieval Trials?.

Law and order was very harsh in Medieval England. Those in charge of law and order believed that people would only learn how to behave and act properly if they feared what would happen to them if they broke the law. Even the smallest offences had serious punishments. The authorities feared the poor simply because there were many more poor people than rich people, and any rebellion could be potentially damaging to the ‘richer’ or ‘wealthier’ people as the Peasants Revolt in 1381 proved.

By the time of Henry II, the system of law in England had been improved because Henry sent out his own judges from London to listen to cases throughout all England’s counties. Each accused person had to go through an ordeal.


3.       Types of Trials:

The types of ordeals were:

 –Ordeal by fire:

An accused person was to hold an iron bar or put his hand in boiling hot water, his hand was then bandaged and left for three days. If the wound had clear signs of healing after three days, you were innocent. If the wound had no clear signs of healing, you were guilty.

  • Ordeal by water:

An accused person was tied up unto a ducking stool. He was then dropped into the water, if he drowned then he was innocent, but if was guilty he would float to the top and then be later executed.

  • Ordeal by combat:

This was used by noblemen who had been accused of something. They would fight in combat with their accuser. Whoever won was right and whoever lost was usually dead at the end of the fight.

The accused holding a red hot poker

They practiced these ordeals because they believed that God would only protect the innocent!!

In 1215, the Pope decided that priests in England must not help with ordeals. As a result, ordeals were replaced by trials by juries. To start with, these were not popular with the people as they felt that their neighbors might have a grudge against them and use the opportunity of a trial to get their revenge. After 1275, a law was introduced which allowed people to be tortured if they refused to go to trial before a jury. If you were found guilty of a crime you would expect to face a severe punishment. Thieves had their hands cut off, women who committed murder were strangled and then burnt, people who illegally hunted in royal parks had their ears cut off and high treason was punished by being hung, drawn and quartered.

There were very few prisons as they cost money and local communities were not prepared to pay for their upkeep. It was cheaper to execute someone for their crimes.

Most towns had a gibbet just outside of it. People were hung on these and their bodies left to rot over the weeks as a warning to others. However, such violent punishments clearly did not put off people or stop them. In 1202, the city of Lincoln had around 114 murders, 89 violent robberies and 65 people were wounded in fights. Only 2 people were executed for these crimes.


4.       Court Leaders:

The court leaders of the medieval courts were the church. The church was more powerful than the king. If the pope disliked the king he could take him off the throne. The reason that the church/pope was so powerful was because he could interpretate the will of the Lord. And because people believed this their own fear they obeyed him and the church.

The church believed that being king or having the throne was merely a gift or a privilege from the Lord their God.

5.       How would God feel about the ordeals:

When the court trialled people by ordeal they were basically testing God. The Ten Commandments clearly states, “Do Not put the Lord your God to the test.” God does have sympathy for those who have been condemned or accused for wrong they have not committed, this does not mean that he is not a merciful God, it merely means he wants to take those condemned to a better place, his place…to be with him.


Author: Unknown Year: 2007

Author: Red Apple Education Year: 2012

Author: Unknown Date: Unknown

Author: Saldais.M, Wiley Year: 2006

Book: Humanities Alive History


My diorama displays the accused going through the medieval ‘trial by fire ordeal’ practise. In this diorama it shows a woman having to place her hand in boiling water for five seconds, it is then cleaned and dressed by the priest who spectates the whole ordeal. If the blisters hadn’t healed or hadn’t had any obvious signs of healing, the person was guilty. If the person was guilty for a serious crime, e.g. treason, witchcraft, stealing etc.  The person would have been tortured until death or executed. Another trial by ordeal which was displayed in this diorama was an accused person having to hold a red hot poker for five seconds, the priest once again dresses the wound/blister and if it hadn’t healed or hadn’t had any obvious signs of healing, he would be condemned as guilty.

My Diorama from the front view!!

The accused having their hand submerged in boiling hot water!!

The priest spectating the ordeals.

Another accused victim holding a red hot poker.

Amanda Tan 8B