Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1817, the last challenge to trial by battle took place.

The challenge of trial by battle was the extraordinary denouement of the legal case of Ashford versus Thornton. The outcome of the case was bizarre but the facts were uncomplicated.  

On the morning of May 27th 1817, Mary Ashford’s body was recovered from a pond in a field near Erdingham, Warwickshire. Murder was suspected, the man in the frame being Abraham Thornton. The previous night, Mary had attended a dance at a local hostelry and had danced with Thornton, several times. Thornton had been heard to boast that he had possessed Mary’s sister and would have her too.  When questioned by the constabulary, Thornton admitted having sex with Mary but claimed it was with consent. He was not believed and was arraigned before Warwick Assize on a charge of murder.  

At the trial, the prosecution argued that Thornton had molested Mary and thrown her unconscious into the pool. The defence produced witnesses saying that Thornton was some distance away from the pool at the time that Mary was last seen alive. It took the jury no more than a few minutes to acquit the defendant.  

Mary’s brother William Ashford was enraged at the verdict. He pronounced that Thornton had bribed the defence witnesses and launched an appeal. Appearing at the King’s Bench, when asked to plead, Thornton cast down a leather glove before his accuser and responded in melodramatic tones “ Not guilty and ready to defend the same on body”. Council for the defendant explained to the court that Thornton was willing to undergo trial by battle, a fight with oak clubs, with his accuser. Council further went on to explain that this procedure was a medieval usage and, although not used for centuries, had not been specifically repealed by Parliament. The prosecution countered that there was a principal known as desuetude, which meant that a law ought to become invalid if it was not used.  

The court, after much deliberation, concluded that all law, once enacted, remains law until it is repealed and only Parliament has the power to repeal or change law. Thornton was granted trial by battle but Ashford was but a teenager and frail of body and could not engage in the battle. Thornton therefore won his case.  

Upon this ruling, Parliament hastily reassembled and repealed the right to trial by battle.

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