Medieval Trial by Combat at Fry's Island, Reading

On 8 April 1163 two armed men faced one another, gripping swords and shields, on what is now Fry's Island, a small island on the River Thames between Caversham and Reading. Henry II watched carefully as they eyed one another and waited for the order to begin. This was a Trial by Combat. One of the knights accused the other of treason, while the other fought for his innocence. Henry II, at Windsor just two weeks earlier, had decided that it would be up to God to show him who was right. 

Modern reenactment of knights fighting, Photo by Casper Johansson on Unsplash

The dispute began at the Battle of Coleshill in Flintshire in 1157, just six years earlier. Henry de Essex was Henry II's Standard Bearer at the battle, which was a result of Henry going to war with the Welsh over Cadwallader's banishment by his brother Prince Owen Gwyneth of North Wales. In the confusion of the battle, it was declared that Henry II had been killed, and in panic, Essex dropped the king's Standard and fled for safety away from the scene. Henry, however, was alive. Soon afterwards Robert de Montfort, another man close to the king, accused Essex of treason for dropping the Standard and running away from his king.

Henry declared that a Trial by Combat would be held to determine who was right, a old tradition that involved God's judgement demonstrated to the people. Henry watched the trial on the island, while Essex and de Montfort grappled with one another, charging and dealing out blows. At one point in the fighting, Essex claimed that he looked up at the sky and saw a vision of St Edmund the Martyr and a knight, Gilbert de Cereville looking down with a harsh expression. With renewed vigour, he attacked de Montfort with more energy. Jamieson B. Hurry, the Reading Historian of the early 1900s, argued that Essex with 'uncontrolled fury' became quickly exhausted and was more easily defeated by the calmer de Montfort. Lying on the ground on that riverside island, Essex either signalled that he had given in, or was lying unconscious. He was taken to Reading Abbey where the monks tended to his wounds (probably, as Hurry says, using mixtures using herbs from the Abbey Gardens). Against the odds, he survived, and was received as a brother into the abbey, living there as a monk for the rest of his life, carrying out duties and devoting his life to prayer. It's possible that Essex, when he recovered, considered his survival the work of God, particularly after his vision on the field, explaining the reason for his eagerness to settle in the abbey. 

A painting commissioned by Hurry depicts the trial taking place, Henry II looking on as Essex lies bloodied on the ground, the figures of St Edmund and de Cereville looking on from the sky. It was painted by Harry Morley in 1918 and is in the collection of Reading Museum

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Source: Jamieson B. Hurry, The Trial by Combat of Henry de Essex and Robert de Montfort at Reading Abbey, London 1919. 

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