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Trial by cake: The irony of the ancient ordeals

How dried bread killed one of England’s most powerful earls

Being a judge is one of the most challenging jobs on earth.

It must be tough to bear the burden of deciding the future of another breathing, living human being. For some people, the burden might be crippling.

Fortunately, Renaissance judges in England found an out: Ordeals.

So what is a trial by ordeal about?

It is quite simple, really.

Whenever someone is accused of a crime; in the absence of witnesses or a confession; the dispute is settled by subjecting the defendant to a painful, unpleasant and eventually dangerous experience.

If the defendant survives, his innocence is proven, and the people have a show to enjoy. If the defendant bleeds or dies, however, — it depends on the ordeals- he is considered guilty, the accusing side is vindicated, and the people still have a show — a win all over the board.

And in 16th and 17th century England, there was an ordeal for everything. Water, Fire, Poison, Hot iron, Spontaneous bleeding. You name it, they had a trial based on it.

A lot of trials were excruciating to pass, the trial by combat, for instance. But some ordeals seemed quite easy to succeed in. Take, for example, the trial by cake.

The “Corsned” or trial by cake is an actual ritual used in 16th century England, where the accused is supposed to swallow a dry lump of consecrated bread or cheese to prove their innocence. If the piece goes down smoothly, that’s a proof of innocence, but if the accused chokes even once, they are considered guilty.

I didn’t expect anyone to fail their trial by bread, and yet, this was the downfall of one of England’s powerful earls.

Let me get you the whole story.

This scene opened in 1020. Cnut The great, ruler of England, just appointed our main character, Goldwin, as the Earl of Wessex.

When Cnut died in 1035, the kingdom is divided between his successors, from which Goldwin apparently favoured Harold Harefoot. In a show of allegiance, it is rumoured he even deceived and killed another pretendant to the throne of England, Alfred Aetheling, for him.

A few years later, Harold Harefoot dies, and Goldwin requires new allies, which he makes by marrying his daughter, Edith, to Edward the Confessor in 1045. At that time, Edward is king of England, and plot twist, none other than the brother of Alfred Aetheling. Weird flex you say? I thought so as well!

Despite Goldwin’s part in his brother’s death, Edward saw his father in law as a useful ally, and their relationship remained cordial until 1050.

But Goldwin was getting too power-hungry, championing his own countrymen and refusing his king’s order, which got him and his family exiled in 1051. But not for long.A year later, Goldwin comes back home with armed forces, and with the support of the peasants and the navy, gets back his earldom from Edward.

The earl of Wessex continued his merry earl life until un unfortunate dinner in 1053 with his king, where, faced with accusations on his part in killing Alfred Aetheling, Goldwin demands a trial by cake to King Edward. Apparently, Goldwing said,“May this crust which I hold in my hand pass through my throat and leave me unharmed to show that I was guiltless of treason towards you and that I was innocent of your brother’s death!”

And then, in a superb act of irony, proceeded to swallow the crust, choke and die. Did he choke on a crust, or did he choke on his blatant lie? I keep asking myself.

And that is the story of how a crust of bread defeated the earl even the king of England couldn’t overcome.

However strange or violent trials by ordeal may seem to us now, I appreciate how speaking they are of the faith of the people of the time. After all, the objective of the ordeals was to bring God’s hand into a muddied situation.

As society evolved, people’s faith fizzled away until every trial disappeared entirely from the legal practices. All that remains today are a few Wikipedia pages, a handful of history works, and a whole lot of Reddit posts and memes.

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