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Trial by Combat of Henry de Essex and Robert de Montfort at Reading in 1163

Oil on canvas by Harry Morley - 1918

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Trial by Combat of Henry de Essex and Robert de Montfort at Reading in 1163, by Harry Morley, 1918

Trial by combat was a Common Law method for an aggrieved party to seek retribution for a serious crime. Henry de Essex, Henry II’s constable and standard-bearer, was charged by Robert de Montfort with cowardice during the Battle of Coleshill in 1157. In the confusion of the battle Essex had fled, thinking that the king was dead. The king was not dead but was almost defeated because of Essex’s flight.

To clear his name of cowardice Essex decided to stand trial by combat. The painting shows the combat on a small island in the Thames at Reading, now known as De Montfort Island. Reading Abbey can be seen in the background. During the fight Essex had a vision of St Edmund and Gilbert de Cereville. He had contested the privileges of the Abbey of St Edmund and had wrongly cast Gilbert into chains and tortured him to death. Essex was defeated by Montfort and was thought to be dead. His body was taken to the Abbey for burial. However, he recovered and became a monk at the Abbey.

This is one of ten paintings illustrating important events in the history of Reading Abbey. They were commissioned from 1909 onwards by Dr Jamieson Boyd Hurry, a local doctor with a particular interest in Reading Abbey.

Museum object number REDMG : 1931.279.1

width 1510 mm, height 2090 mm

See related topic: Reading Abbey