Ashford v Thornton
|Ashford v Thornton|
The Court of King's Bench, circa 1808
|Full case name||William Ashford v Abraham Thornton|
|Decided||16 April 1818|
|Citation(s)||(1818) 1 B. & Ald. 405, 106 ER 149 at 457|
|Prior action(s)||Acquittal of Thornton on charges of murder and rape. (R. v Thornton, Warwick Assizes, 8 August 1817)|
|Subsequent action(s)||On 20 April 1818, Ashford indicated that he sought no further proceedings, and Thornton went free.|
|All judges gave opinions upholding the defendant's right to wage battle.|
|Trial by battle|
In 1817, Abraham Thornton was charged with the murder of Mary Ashford. Thornton had met Ashford at a dance, and had walked with her from the event. The next morning, Ashford was found drowned in a pit, with little outward signs of violence. Although public opinion was heavily against Thornton, the jury quickly acquitted him, and also found him not guilty of rape.
Mary's brother, William Ashford, launched an
The court decided that the evidence against Thornton was not overwhelming, and that trial by battle was a permissible option under law; thus Thornton was granted trial by battle. Ashford declined the offer of battle and Thornton was freed from custody. Appeals such as Ashford's were abolished by statute in 1819, and with them the right to trial by battle. Thornton emigrated to the United States, where he died around 1860.
Can it be possible that this "wager of battle" is being seriously insisted on? Am I to understand that this monstrous proposition as being propounded by the bar—that we, the judges of the Court of King's Bench—the recognized conservators of the public peace, are to become not merely the spectators, but the abettors of a mortal combat? Is that what you require of us? 
It is uncertain when the last actual trial by battle (often spelled "battel") in Britain took place. While some references speak of such a trial being held in 1631, records indicate that King
The wager of battle was not always available to the defendant in an appeal of murder. If the defendant was taken in the mainour (that is, in the act of committing his crime), if he attempted to escape from prison, or if there was such strong evidence of guilt that there could be no effective denial, the defendant could not challenge. Similarly, if the plaintiff was a woman, above 60 years of age, a minor,
 lame or blind, he or she could decline the challenge, and the case would be determined by a jury. Peers of the realm, priests, and citizens of the
Proposals to abolish trial by battle were made in the 17th century, and twice in the 18th, but were unsuccessful.
 In 1774, as part of the legislative response to the
Mary Ashford, a young woman of about 20 years of age, worked as a general servant and housekeeper to her uncle, a farmer at Langley Heath,
Among those attending at the Tyburn House was Abraham Thornton, the son of a builder from
At about eleven o'clock, Cox began urging Ashford to leave. When the two did leave, it was with Thornton, who accompanied Ashford closely, while Cox walked behind them. Instead of returning to Erdington, Ashford announced that she would go to her grandfather's house, stating that it was closer to work. This was true, but ignored the fact that she would have to return to Erdington to obtain her working clothes in the morning. Cox journeyed to Erdington, while Ashford and Thornton went off together.  At about a quarter to three, a labourer saw Thornton leaving a friend's house with a woman, and greeted Thornton, but the woman (undoubtedly Ashford) held her bonnet over her face.  Just before 4 a.m., Cox was awakened by Ashford, seeking her working clothes. Ashford changed and hurried off, stating that she needed to be home before her uncle left for market. A returning reveller from Tyburn House saw her walking quickly. He was the last person known to see her alive. 
At around 6 a.m., a passing labourer saw women's items near a water-filled pit. One of the items was a woman's shoe with blood on it. He raised the alarm. He and others were able to use a rake to find a body in the pit – that of Mary Ashford. Two workers from a nearby factory found a series of footprints on the newly harrowed field near the pit, showing that a man and a woman had travelled together, almost up to the pit, and that the man returned alone. Ashford was known to many of those who gathered around the pit, as was the fact that she had gone to Tyburn the previous evening. The local mill owner, who took charge, went to Tyburn to discover with whom Ashford had left the party. Daniel Clarke, the landlord, began to ride towards Castle Bromwich to try to locate Thornton, and encountered him almost at once. When Clarke told Thornton of Ashford's death, Thornton stated that he was with her until 4 a.m., and at Clarke's request went with him to Tyburn. 
Thomas Dales, an assistant constable, arrived from Birmingham, where he was one of those responsible for policing the town. On ascertaining the situation he interrogated Thornton, and soon arrested him. However, Dales did not keep any notes and later proved unable to remember much of what the prisoner told him. Thornton was then examined by the local magistrate, William Bedford, who ordered Thornton searched. The search revealed that Thornton was wearing underclothing with bloodstains, and Thornton admitted having sexual intercourse with Ashford the previous night. The prisoner's shoes were removed, and comparisons with the footprints in the field were made by the factory workers, who later testified at trial that they matched. A post-mortem examination revealed that Ashford died from drowning, and that the only marks on her body were two lacerations in the genital area. The examination concluded that until the sexual act which caused the bleeding, Ashford was a virgin. She was