19th C Society / History / Nineteenth Century

Throwing Down the Gauntlet One Last Time

One May evening in 1817 a young builder called Abraham Thornton met 20-year-old Mary Ashford at a dance. Mary’s body was found the next morning, she had drowned in a pit. Abraham was soon charged with murder and rape. Though those involved didn’t yet know it, this was to be a case to go down in history; the last ever legal claim for a trial by battle.

Mary, who was a housekeeper to her uncle had left the dance at The Three Tuns pub with her friend Hannah Cox and Abraham Thornton at about 11 o’clock in the evening. Hannah walked a little way with the pair and then left Mary with Abraham. Mary had made an excuse to go in the direction of her grandfather’s house rather than back to Erdington with Hannah.

Dr. Syntax plays the fiddle at a village dance Rural Sports by Rowlandson, from The Tour of Dr. Syntax In Search of the Picturesque, 1810

Dr. Syntax plays the fiddle at a village dance (“Rural Sports” by Rowlandson, from The Tour of Dr. Syntax In Search of the Picturesque, 1810)

Around 3am a local labourer saw Abraham leaving a friend’s house with a woman who was covering her face – probably Mary. At 4am Hannah was woken up by Mary looking for her work clothes which she had left at Hannah’s house. She said she had to rush to get home before her uncle left for the market. A man saw her walking quickly in the direction of her uncle’s house shortly after this. Her body was discovered at 6am.

Prints on the field around the pit showed a man and woman had walked up to pit and only a man had walked back. Many of those who gathered around the pit in the early morning knew Mary and set about trying to find out who she had left the party with. Soon, Abraham Thornton was arrested.

Abraham was discovered with blood on his underwear. Mary has two laceration in the genital area and an examination determined she had been a virgin before that evening. Abraham admitted to sleeping with Mary but not to murder. The police man who first interrogated him didn’t take notes and couldn’t recall much of the interview later on.

Public feeling was heavily against Abraham Thornton, yet he was acquitted of both charges. He called eleven witnesses which placed him away from the scene at the time Mary was being drowned. Medical evidence said her injuries could be from consensual sex. The jury decided in six minutes.

Mary Ashford’s brother, William, appealed. When the case went to Westminster Hall Abraham pleaded ‘Not guilty; and I am ready to defend the same with my body’. He threw down – as a gauge of battle – an antique gauntlet without fingers or a thumb, of white tanned skin ornamented with silk fringes and sewn work with leather fastenings. The other, he put on his own hand.

pair of gloves v and a

A pair of white kidskin gloves with decorative cuffs from the 1600s. Source: V&A Museum

William’s solicitor had heard rumours that this would happen. He wrote, worried to his clerk:

it seems the Appellee [Abraham] has the option of waging Battle and of challenging the Appellor [William] in single combat ….It is rumoured here that is the plea intended to be set up by the Def. and unless we can devise any means by arguement [sic] to induce the Court not to allow it, I am very apprehensive our poor little Knight will never be able to contend the Battle with his brutish opponent

According to ancient law not used in England since the 15th century Abraham would win if he killed William, if he could fight him from sunrise to sunset, or if William declared himself beaten.

William did not pick up the gauntlet and despite his solicitor’s best efforts the judge upheld Abraham’s right to issue the challenge. William could choose to meet Abraham in battle or to drop the charge, he chose the latter and the case ended.

We are delivering the law as it is, and not as we wish it to be, and therefore we must pronounce our judgment, that the battle must take place.

Lord Ellenborough

The scandal led to the abolishment of trial by battle in June 1819. The bill was rushed through quickly, rumour has it that another defendant had followed in Abraham’s footsteps and requested trial by battle. Though trial by battle hadn’t actually occurred for about 400 years, it was a practise the justice system wanted to erase once and for all.


Depiction of a 1409 judicial combat in Augsburg from the 1540s. Source: Wikipedia


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