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Wager of Battel

A type of trial by combat between accuser and accused that was introduced into England by William the Conqueror (King William I) and his Norman followers after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Wager of battel was founded on the belief that God would give victory to the party who was in the right. The kings maintained control over the practice, and it came to be reserved for cases affecting royal interests, such as serious criminal cases or disputes over land.

King William and his successors had distributed much land to their loyal supporters, but a century after the conquest it was impossible to produce witnesses who had seen the symbolic delivery of a clod of dirt or a twig representing title to the land. A party could, therefore, hire someone, a champion, to swear that the champion's father had told him on his deathbed that the party was the true owner of the land. The other party also produced a champion who swore just the opposite. The defendant's champion came forward and threw down his glove as a pledge. The plaintiff's champion accepted the challenge by picking up the glove, and the two waged battle or set a time to do so. The winner was held to have good title to the land. It was said that many monasteries, which owned vast tracts of land, had virtual stables of champions in waiting to settle disputes that might arise.

In the early twelfth century King Henry I specifically recognized the right to defend by battel, but the party accused might elect wager of battel or trial by jury. If he chose the wager of battel, he answered the charge before the court by saying that he would be tried by God; if he chose a trial by jury, his plea was that he would be tried by the country. The last demand for wager of battel occurred in 1818. The practice was abolished by statute during the reign of George III (1760–1820).



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