I was reading The History of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of London, by William Herbert (1836), and came across an interesting turn of phrase. In a section discussing early guilds predating the Livery Companies, he cites John Stow's Survey of London (1598) concerning a guild of knights dating to the reign of King Edgar (959-975).

(Below is from a copy of Survey of London found here, emphasis mine)

This Portsoken, which soundeth, the Franchise at the gate, was sometime a Guild, and had beginning in the dayes of king Edgar, more then 600. yeares since. There were thirteene Knights, or Soldiers welbeloued to the king and realme, for seruice by them done, which requested to haue a certaine portion of land on the East part of the Citie, left desolate and forsaken by the Inhabitants, by reason of too much seruitude. They besought the king to haue this land, with the libertie of a Guilde for euer: the king granted to their request with conditions following: that is, that each of them should victoriously accomplish three combates, one aboue the ground, one vnder ground, and the third in the water, and after this at a certaine day in East Smithfield, they should run with Speares against all commers, all which was gloriously performed: and the same day the king named it knighten Guild,

Herbert goes on (p.8) to explain that the combat 'above ground'

seems to have meant the just or foot combat as distinguished from that on horseback

and that the 'water combats'

Water combats were boat-justs, or titlings, on the water (of which a representation can be found in Strutt's Sports and Pastimes, p. 132.) The conqueror was he who could parry the baton of his antagonist with his shield, and whilst himself remained firm could overthrow the latter into the water.

But concerning the combat required under-ground Herbert says (emphasis mine):

Of the nature of the first kind of combat, that "under-ground", we have not seen any account

So do any historical accounts explain what form this medieval combat trial under-ground, required by King Edgar to grant the guild-rights to this group of 13 medieval knights, might have taken?

Note the nature of the explanations by Herbert of the various events performed indicate the nature of these events are tournament style events, not actual combat. Also note I am looking for an answer backed by Historical sources.

  • 1
    Given that the other two "combats" were highly stylized, I wonder what kind of sporting event would have taken place to simulate sapping. A ditch digging competition perhaps?
    – SPavel
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 15:47
  • I had an idea that it might be a mistranslation. Stow lifted that quote from The Cartulary of Holy Trinity Aldgate which I found here: british-history.ac.uk/london-record-soc/vol7/pp167-192. It is a modern English translation. I was hoping to find the original Latin somewhere but no luck so far.
    – Willk
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 23:56
  • @Willk Good find, much closer timewise to the original event.
    – justCal
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 0:53
  • Wow, a triathlon
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 11:11

2 Answers 2


In a pit, for spectators.

I had an idea that "under" was an error converting the original Latin to English. I found the original latin

and chipped away at it some then thought to ask AlexP who participates in the WorldBuilding stack. His emailed answer to me is excellent in many ways. It would be a shame not to share the whole of it.

Willk 11:39 AM (8 hours ago) to AlexP

Hello AlexP. I hope all is well with you. Here is a diversion for me I thought might divert you as well.

middle ages - What is meant by this medieval reference to combat 'under-ground'? - History Stack Exchange

I had the idea that Stow's survey of London mistranslated the original. Or as seems more likely to me now, could not read it. I found the original here https://www.gla.ac.uk/myglasgow/library/files/special/images/chaucer/H215_0149rwf.jpg

You are full of surprising knowledge. Maybe some paleography? What do you read in the line after "tria duella"?

Best - WIllk

AlexP 4:11 PM (3 hours ago) to me

Hello William,

The text is from the Calendar of Letter-Books of the City of London, volume C, 1291-1309, folio c.xxx.iv. b. It is published online by British History Online (BHO), which is said to reproduce the edition published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1901. I don't know about that edition. They say that they made the electronic edition by double rekeying from the 1901 printed edition, so the text should be somewhat trustworthy. Neverthelss, there are glaringly obvious transcription errors in the online version of the BHO, so it is unusable.

A good online copy of the 1901 edition edited by Reginald R. Sharpe and printed by order of the Corporation of the CIty of London under the direction of the Library Committee is available onlie at Archive.org as https://archive.org/details/ccalendarofletter00londuoft. In R. R. Sharpe's edition the relevant passage reads:

Temporilbus Knwti Regis Anglorum fuerunt tresdecim Milites regi et regno multum amabiles qui quandam terram in orientali parte London' ab incolis pro nimia servitute derelictam a rege pecierunt quatenus predictam terramn et Gilde libertatem imperpetuum eis concederet. Quibus Rex libenter concessit condicione qua sequitur videlicet quod quilibet eorum tria duella scilicet super terram subtus et in aqua victoriose perageret. Et postea certo die in campo qui rnodo vocatur Estsmithfeld contra quosque aduenientes ipsimet hastis decertarent quodque gloriose factum est.

meaning, as far as my rusty and always unreliable Latin goes,

In the time of Knuth King of the English, there were thirteen knights, much beloved by the king and the kingdom, who petitioned the king to concede to them in perpetuity and with Guild liberty a piece of land in the eastern part of London, which had been abadoned by the inhabitants because of the excessive obligations. To whom the King gratiously conceded [the request] on condition that any one of them win three duels, namely on land, below ground, and in water. And then in a certain field called Estsmithfeld the very same fought with lances against whoever came forward, which was gloriously done.

Coming specifically to the specific question, I read

quilibet eorum tria duella super terram subtus et in aqua

where rum, ter, and et are pretty ordinary scribal abbreviations.

OK, the ter abbreviation is maybe a bit unusual, but you can see the same word terram with the same bewildering appearance in the second line from the top: tis amabiles qui quandam terram in orientali parte: ter -- round -- script a bit squished - .

There is a statue of a knight in Devonshire Square in London, with a plaque which reads

King Edgar (959–75) granted this derelict land to thirteen knights, on condition that they each perform three duels, one on land, one below ground, one on the water. These feats having been achieved, the King gave the knights, or Cnihtengild, certain rights over a piece of land etc.

Or at least so says Flickr user Jim Linwood, who took a photograph of it in 2010. The photograph is available on Wikimedia under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

A bad PDF copy of Adriano Cappelli's canonical Elements of abbreviation in medieval Latin paleography (English translation by David Heimann and Richard Kay, 1982) is floating on the internet; for example, I found it at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/213385262.pdf

Ah, and I strongly believe that the "under ground duel" refers to a fight on foot, in a pit or a ditch; which pit or ditch could then be filled with water for the third duel. In this case, the first "above ground" duel would have been on horseback. The document says that the trial was held in an open field against all comers, and was gloriously done, which, I would say, means that onlookers could appreciate the sport, with the knights demonstrating a complete set of combat skills.

All the best, AlexP

Willk 5:13 PM (2 hours ago) to AlexP

Gloriose factum est! More than I could have hoped for, with additional references to look at and commentary on the hard-to-read writing. If I answer that question on history stack now it will be largely cribbed from your insights. Given how often that happens on WB stack one would think I would be ok with it. Sort of ok with with. But if you would like to post this as an answer that would be wonderful - it has everything I hoped my answer would have.

AlexP 5:26 PM (2 hours ago) to me


I don't intend to post an answer on History SE. I do not participate to that Stack. If you want to, the please go ahead.

And I realized that I forgot to say that in that passage, per is also a scribal abbreviation. (Much more common that the ter.)


It would make sense for a fight for spectators to be in a pit, so everyone could see. That is how they did with bear baiting and other blood sports, so it would make sense for a show duel too. I found references to the water duel as a sort of tilting but people would be in fast moving boats aiming for targets instead of on horseback. http://www.larsdatter.com/water-joust.htm

  • 1
    @justCal - good thought. will do.
    – Willk
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 1:22
  • 1
    (Finally got a minute to get back to this.) Thanks for the excellent continued research (to AlexP as well). The format of the long email chain makes for confusing reading, historical citations might benefit from an extra layer of formatting to distinguish them from the email conversation. That said I seem to be missing the research which actually supports the jump to the conclusion that this is a pit fight.
    – justCal
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 12:55

Underground meant fighting in a mine. The kind of mine that sappers dug to literally 'undermine' a wall. Defenders upon hearing the mine being dug would attempt to dig a countermine that intersected the mine. Either the countermine would be dug under the mine and then collapsed taking the mine above with it or it opened up both mines to each other. When this happened combatants from both sides could then engage in combat with each. Given the nature of the cramped conditions this often resulted in a duel.

Henry V during the hundred years war is noted as being such a duelist in a mine, taking part in underground duels at Harfleur in 1415 and Melun in 1420.

A little more at medievalists.net:

  • 4
    Thank you for your answer, but please note the details in the question. I am asking for a historical explanation tied to a specific event from the late 10th Century. This occurred about 450 years before Henry V, before the Norman invasion, before the crusades, and before the construction of stone castles in England was commonplace. This event was also not an actual occurrence of battle, but more likely was some act of chivalry (think jousting) which each of 13 knights had to perform and be victorious 3 times each in order to obtain a charter for a new guild.
    – justCal
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 12:01
  • @justCal Your question asked for any historic account that would explain the meaning of underground. In the absence of mining then underground will still refer to subterranean and given that London was still full of Roman ruins in the 10th century it's not hard to consider the various basements that would have been around and been a place for enemies of the crown to reside. Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 1:36
  • Yes. A good deal of the combat in the 1683 Siege of Vienna was of this type-- mi er acd counterminers fighing in their tunnels.
    – Spencer
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 23:33

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