Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Trial by Ordeal Definition:

The trial of a criminal or civil action, in medieval England, by torture or drowning.

A medieval form of trial in addition to trial by battle, reserved for those suspected of crimes, and which had several forms, all designed to sort out the innocent from the guilty by appealing to God's will(!).

In trial by cold water ordeal, the accused was thrown into a pool of water bound. If he sank and drowned he was innocent (and conveniently dead). If he floated and did not sink, he was taken to have been "rejected" by the water and must necessarily be guilty.

This trial was generally reserved for male accused who didn't own land.
Ordeal by hot water was a bit more creative. The accused had his arm thrust into boiling water to the wrist of elbow and ordeal by hot iron, the accused had to carry a piece of red hot iron for a certain distance, bare-handed naturally. In both cases, the accused had his wounds bandaged and if it was properly healing after three days, this counted towards his innocence.

This type of trial was generally reserved for suspects who were either male land-owners or female.

However, even for those who were successful in trial by ordeal, but held in "bad repute", they were still obliged to leave England "with the first favourable wind".

Those that lost the hot water or iron ordeals lost their right foot and later, by 1126, Henry II added the right hand to the sentence. In addition, the guilty forfeited all his chattels to the King.

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