16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History

Trista - April 9, 2019

The brutal, gladiatorial fight to the death between champions in Game of Thrones has reintroduced trial by combat to the cultural imagination. A long-outlawed practice in most places, it was once a core principle of Germanic law. Many Germanic tribes settled disputes with regulated fights, a method which later spread to Nordic countries in the form of ritual duels called Holmgang. While the notorious Game of Thrones duel made way for magical poisonings and horrific eye-gouging, real-life trial by combat followed strict rules. However, the public viewing of fights is true to the Game of Thrones fashion, with nations even building unique arenas to allow the public to view duels.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
A depiction of trial by combat in the Dresden Codex. Wikimedia.

16. Trial By Combat Was Legal in the US At the Time of Its Founding

At the time of the US’ independence, in 1776, dueling was still a legal means of settling disputes in Great Britain. The United States automatically inherited British common law as a former territory, so dueling was technically legal when the US first became a nation. However, dueling was quickly outlawed in the new nation as the founders developed and codified new laws. By the time of the United States’ most notorious duel, between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804, dueling was illegal. Aaron Burr was forced to flee after killing Hamilton with a pistol shot, as he could have been charged with murder.

Requests for trial by combat still pop up in US courtrooms occasionally, as not all states have clear statutes that prohibit the practice. However, all such requests have been denied by judges. While some legal scholars have argued that modern forms of the method could be allowed, they have gained no wider traction. The most recent request was a tongue-in-cheek request for a duel in response to a civil suit, which was of course summarily dismissed by the presiding judge. The United States isn’t likely to allow Game of Thrones style gladiatorial style combat anytime soon.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
A painting depicting Holmgang by Johannes Flintoe. Wikimedia.

15. Vikings Practiced a Form of Trial By Combat Called Holmgang

No one loved a good fight like the Vikings of early Scandinavia. It is perhaps natural, then, that the Germanic law practice of trial by combat was warmly accepted and woven into the Viking legal tradition. Holmgang, meaning “to walk on a small island,” in reference to the small mats or leathers on which the fights would be waged, was practiced throughout Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark in the medieval era. Scraps of medieval Scandinavian law writings still exist that detail the requirements for issuing a holmgang challenge.

Holmgang challenges were not bound by any form of social class or order, as was common in other countries with trial by combat. A low ranking male could challenge his own master to holmgang if an offense were given. Holmgang were most often fought over honor, property rights, debts, or avenging women and friends. Holmgang were done within three to seven days of a challenge being issued, on small mats of three meters or less that forced the combatants to stay close. If the accused fail to show, he was rendered an honorless man and stripped of many rights. Weak or ill men were allowed to choose a champion to fight in their stead.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
A portrait of Samuel Shepherd. Wikimedia.

14. Trial By Combat Wasn’t Outlawed in the UK Until 1819

Unlike the US which acted to outlaw dueling upon its founding quickly, the United Kingdom tolerated the practice for a couple of extra decades. Dueling had been a favorite aspect of law for the upper classes in England, with the gentlemanly duel at dawn an iconic image of masculinity and good breeding. However, this practice was brought to an end in 1819 by Attorney General Samuel Shepherd. He proposed a Trial by Battle Abolition Bill specifically to end the practice, which he found unjust.

Attempts to ban the practice in the UK started in the 16th century but were unsuccessful. The most significant push to ban the practice came as English laws were reformed in response to the Boston Tea Party. British Parliament attempted to pass legislation that would have outlawed trial by combat in the US colony, but constitutionalist members of parliament repelled it. The final judicial recording of an attempt at trial by combat occurred in 1818, in the case of Ashford vs. Thornton, which thankfully did not actually proceed to the combat portion of the hearing. Much as in the US, requests for trial by combat still occasionally occur in the UK, with one Welshman requesting a trial by combat in response to a parking ticket in 2002.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
A 15th-century drawing of trial by combat. Wikimedia.

13. Trial By Combat Was Part of Germanic Law

Trial by ordeal, in which the accused was put through painful or dangerous experience to prove their innocence, was widely practiced throughout the world. Germanic nations had a different idea: trial by combat, in which both the accused and accuser had to fight to prove their honesty. Numerous Germanic tribes including the Alamans, Burgundians, Lombards, Ripuarian Franks, and Swedes all had some form of trial by combat codified into their legal system. Procedures and rules for trial by conflict appear in numerous Germanic legal documents, including the Lex Alamannorum.

In the Lex Alamannorum, which was written in the 8th century, a procedure is described for trial by combat to settle a dispute over land boundaries. If two families were fighting over a land claim, soil from the disputed territory was placed in the center of the ring, and the victor had to touch the dirt with his sword. Whoever failed to reach the soil with his sword would be forced to release their claim on the land and pay a fine. Later capitularies, Frankish legislative acts, increased the scope of trial by combat and allowed for options such as letting witnesses fight instead of the accuser and accused.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
A depiction of jousters on horseback by Paulus Hector Mair from the 1540s. Wikimedia.

12. Combatants Often Started On Horseback

Evoking images of the infamous medieval art of jousting, many trials by combat started on horseback, at least for those wealthy enough to have horses. While they did not joust in the traditional way of court performance, they would have fought with weapons long enough to strike a foe from horseback, like a spear or halberd. Once an opponent was unhorsed, the victor in that stage of the melee would slaughter his opponent’s horse before turning to the man himself. Horses were an advanced battle unit in the medieval era and were worth considerable sums of money. Horse thieves were often judged as harshly as murderers. Horses were rarely referred to by breeds in the medieval period and instead classified by their use: agricultural, war, riding, or hauling.

As part of the battle, horses and their tack and gear would be checked for hidden weapons as well as any sign of magical enchantment or hidden religious items such as prayer scrolls that were believed capable of granting someone an edge in combat. Once one horse was dead (or quite possibly both), the participants would engage in armed or even hand-to-hand combat until victory was declared or someone yelled “craven” to admit defeat.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
A battle scene from the Morgan Bible of Louis IX. Wikimedia.

11. Once Horses Were Downed, Sword and Shield Were Used

Sword and shield was a popular weapon combination for both military and civilian use. In Germanic kingdoms, where trial by combat was the most widespread, fencing academies sprung up to train moneyed and noble youth in the art of sword fighting to prepare them for duels. Swords, being an expensive and symbolic weapon of the gentry, were most often used by the upper classes. Lower class combatants would usually be provided with basic staves tipped with iron, war hammers, or cudgels. Lower class combatants were also equipped with a necessary leather shield.

While many modern imaginations now picture duels as pistols by the light of dawn, the bulk of trial by combat’s history was incredibly bloody and often included the gruesome death of horses in addition to the loss of human life. Even if horses were not involved, the actual trial by combat would have been awful to witness, with blade and blunt weapon combat between individuals who often were not evenly matched in terms of martial skill. The barbaric scenes of trial by combat in shows like Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been terribly far from the reality of the events. Although they were a public spectacle, they were far from family-friendly viewing.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
Drawings of Renaissance-era unarmed combat. Association for Renaissance Martial Arts.

10. Hand-to-Hand Combat Sometimes Occurred

The rules of legally codified trial by combat typically included limits on the weapons allowed. The limitations were considerably looser for knights and others of high status, with commoners being relegated to less efficient weapons like cudgels and staves. However, hand to hand combat did sometimes occur in duels. If combatants broke their weapons or became too tired to continue wielding them, the combatants would turn to simply fist-fighting to avoid ending the battle.

One particularly brutal 12th-century Flemish account of trial by combat portrays a gruesome scene that would be fit in a season finale of Game of Thrones. A witness wrote, “Herman the Iron fell prostrate on the ground, and Guy was lying on top of him, smashing the knight’s face and eyes with his iron gauntlets. But Herman… by cleverly lying quiet made Guy believe he was certain of victory.” It was reported that Herman then grabbed Guy by the crotch and ultimately ended up fatally wounding him by “breaking the entire lower half of his body.” Clearly, with honor and property titles on the line, medieval men were willing to fight to their last breath to ensure victory on the regulated field of trial by combat.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
A depiction of medieval combat. Wikimedia.

9. The Accused Was Given the Choice of Trial By Combat

One of the most critical aspects of the legal practice of trial by combat was that it gave the accused a means of protesting guilt. In many Germanic legal systems, an accused, no matter their social status, was afforded the right to request a trial by combat to attempt to prove their innocence. The era believed that this was a progressive and just way of handling legal proceedings, as many previous systems gave the accused no legal recourse against their accusers.

Accused men chose trial by combat for any number of reasons. Insufficient evidence to exonerate the accused was a frequent reason, as well as an injured sense of honor of being accused at all. Civil matters were notoriously slow to solve in the era, with deliberations sometimes taking years. When a valuable property was involved, some medieval men chose to request a trial by combat to at least hasten the decision, even at the risk of it not ending up in their favor. Of course, one can imagine that strong and martially skilled men may have taken advantage of trial by combat to avoid punishment for crimes, but remember the fact that weaker men were allowed to hire a professional champion to fight on their behalf.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
An illustration of a trial by combat arena notated as Fig. 129 “Single Combat to be decided by the judgment of God.” Conquetes de Charlemagne, a 15th century manuscript / National Library of Paris/ Wikimedia.

8. Trials By Combat Were Public Events

In a time without cheap or readily available books, little available artificial light by which to complete hobbies, and grueling daily life of war or farming it is perhaps no surprise that watching two men attempt to murder each other was a huge celebratory event that drew large crowds of spectators. Trials by combat were, in fact, considered community events and notices would be posted in the local newspaper announcing the time, date, location and the name of the combatants. People from all over the area would assemble to witness the fight, which could last as long as 24 hours and provide an entire day of free entertainment.

Watching trials by combat is part of what is called bloodsport, a type of entertainment that involves bloodshed. Other notable historical bloodsports include the Roman gladiator battles, bull and bear baiting, dog fighting, and cockfighting. In modern times, boxing and mixed martial arts fights are typically considered bloodsports. Animal fighting has mostly fallen out of favor throughout much of the world but is still practiced, usually through bull baiting and cockfighting, in some areas. While it isn’t generally a significant aspect of society today, bloodsport has been an incredibly common and a favorite part of various cultures throughout history.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
An illustration of a medieval woman. Wikimedia.

7. Some People Weren’t Allowed to Fight For Themselves

The Viking Holmgang is one of the few systems of trial by combat that allowed men of any social status and occupation to challenge another. Most Germanic systems of the practice had some regulations on who could and could not offer challenges and fight. Members of the clergy widely refused the method and instead were offered the ordeal of the cross. In this ordeal, both the accused and the accuser must stand against a cross with the arms raised in the position of Jesus’ crucifixion. Whoever lowered his arm first was declared guilty or the loser of whatever property was in question.

In many Germanic systems, serfs and slaves were not allowed to challenge men of higher social status as trial by combat was a right of free men. Disabled and elderly men were permitted to issue challenges, but not to fight for themselves as it was clear they would be unable to compete for their case adequately. Women were, in all cases, barred from fighting in them, even in the more progressive Viking holmgang system. Women had far less legal recourse in situations where they were accused, most often of adultery or witchcraft, and would most often, at best, have to survive an ordeal, especially in cases of supposed witchcraft.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
A historical re-enactor at a German medieval festival. Wikimedia.

6. Professional Champions Could Be Hired

In Game of Thrones the dwarf Lannister, Tyrion, hires Oberyn to be his champion in a trial by combat. A move like that is actually quite historically accurate, as Tyrion would have been considered disabled and thus unable to fight. In fact, in some Germanic law systems, even able-bodied men were allowed to hire professional champions to compete in their stead. However, hiring a professional was often viewed as dishonorable. Contemporary writings often referred to the hiring of professional combatants as something done by, “Women, the young, the old, the sick, the crippled, clerics, and Jews.” Medieval anti-Semitism aside, it was clear that society at the time looked down on not fighting for one’s cause.

Professional combatants were similarly disparaged. Although they were able to make good money fighting on behalf of other men, they were viewed as dishonorable and the lowest of society. Oberyn was treated similarly by most of the nobles in Game of Thrones, with few being impressed by his history as a profoundly successful professional champion. Although he was able to defeat a storied knight successfully, he was still a “sellsword,” an honorless mercenary. Much like the later distaste for mercenary companies, men who sold their military skill on behalf of others were viewed with mistrust.


16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
Ruins of an ancient arena in Milan, Italy. Giovanni Dall’Orto / Wikimedia.

5. Arenas Were Built to House Spectators

In the early days of trial by combat, the fighters would battle on a public green on a piece of measured leather that dictated the field of combat. However, as the popularity of public trials grew cities began to build more and more elaborate stages to house spectators. These arenas allowed the higher ranking members of a community to have a bird’s-eye view of the carnage, while poorer seats were reserved for lower status witnesses. In England, arenas became known as ” the lists” a term associated with later jousting practice in which knights attempted to join “the lists.”

The same rules applied within these platforms and the fighting was mostly unchanged; it merely created a more magnificent public spectacle around the fights. Presumably, some cities charged admission to the new arenas, and one can only imagine that enterprising merchants found ways to sell snacks and trinkets to the gathered crowds. When one envisions a circus or outdoor concert, packed with barkers selling t-shirts, posters, beers, and so on, it isn’t far off from the packed, jubilant affairs that were medieval trials by combat.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
“The Code Of Honor–A Duel In The Bois De Boulogne, Near Paris” by G. Durand in 1874. Wikimedia.

4. Fights Had Strict Rules

Game of Thrones depicted its most infamous trial by combat in a rather David versus Goliath looking manner with a hulk of a man in iron armor fighting a smaller, faster, and more intelligent man in simple leather armor. Despite being entertaining, such disparities in armor and weapons would not have been allowed in medieval trials by combat. Strict rules dictated not only the weapons allowed, the size of the fighting area, and other practical matters but included rules on matching combatants in terms of skill, size, and weaponry used. No fair fight would allow one man on horseback with a halberd and another on foot with a dagger. Since the winners were believed to be divinely favored, it would have been unjust bordering on heresy to stack the odds in favor of one combatant.

In the event of a disabled or elderly man being unable to fight, a professional combatant would be provided or purchased, depending on the circumstance and status of the man in question. If one combatant hiring a champion, the other combatant would be given a similar opportunity to procure a winner if they felt they wouldn’t be evenly matched against a professional fighter. Trials by combat had the equivalent of referees who inspected and approved armor and weapons before the fight began to ensure fairness.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
The Devil bargains with God over Job’s faith in Duomo (San Gimignano). Wikimedia.

3. Successful Fighters Were Considered Chosen By God

In a highly religious era, the victor in trial combat was believed to have been chosen by God in his righteousness. It also very conveniently protected the referees and winner of a trial from any accusations of cheating, wrongdoing, etc. since that would be tantamount to questioning the judgment of God himself. In practical terms, the men of the era believed the god would not let an innocent and virtuous man die, so it would be impossible for the wrong man to be killed in a trial by combat.

Of course, in practice, this is incredibly far from the truth, and likely many medieval men died who were genuinely innocent due to lack of martial skill, bad luck, cheating, or any combination of the above. It was these arguments of the lack of real justice that ultimately led to the practice being outlawed throughout Europe in the 17th through 19th centuries. It is also likely why the method never caught on in my areas, with the practice being unheard of in Anglo-Saxon law before the Norman Conquest, in Islamic law and throughout much of the rest of the world. Even many medieval lawmakers felt that stabbing or bludgeoning your fellow man to death wasn’t a great way to prove your worth as a person.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
An illustration of a Holmgang duel. Jake Rowling / Wikimedia.

2. Combat Ended After 24 Hours or An Admission of Defeat

While many trials by combat began on horseback, they often ended with two exhausted, unarmed man scrabbling on the ground. Horses were often killed early in the fight by long weapons such as spears. Once horses were removed from the battle, knights would wield swords while ordinary men often used staves, clubs, and crude maces. Anyone who has ever swung a real sword knows how incredibly heavy they are to the untrained arm, and how exhausted one gets after swinging one repeatedly – especially in a life or death scenario!

Given this tiring work, many men often threw down their weapons at some point during the fight, too exhausted to keep swinging them accurately or effectively. In times like these, men turned to fist-fighting or wrestling. Trickery became a more critical part of fighting at this point, as illustrated in the 12th century Flemish case where a knight played dead to lure his opponent into letting his guard down, at which point he beat him to death. If a combination of brutality and trickery didn’t end the fight within 24 hours, the defendant would be declared innocent, and the accuser would be labeled “infamous” and lose many of his rights.

16 Brutal Realities of Trial By Combat Fighting Throughout History
A painting of hanged men by Pisanello. Wikimedia.

1. Defeated Defendants Were Maimed or Killed

There were only three ways for a trial by combat to end: 24 hours of survival of both parties, one party saying the word “craven” to admit defeat or one of the participants being killed or rendered unable to fight. In cases where a man yelled craven, he would be labeled “infamous” which was a mark of incredible dishonor that carried with it penalties including the loss of many of the rights of a free man, including property ownership. This concept applied to the accuser as well as the accused.

If a combatant were knocked unconscious or otherwise unable to finish the fight but did not die, the losing combatant would be swiftly punished. In severe cases where a man accused of a serious crime was wounded but did not die, he would typically be hanged immediately after the end of combat. In less serious cases, a hand would be cut off, and their property seized. Indeed, this was a deeply unpleasant system of justice. If you wanted to accuse someone of a crime, you had to be willing to stake your life on it physically. If you were wrongly accused, you similarly had to stake your life on it, and even if you weren’t outright killed you still might end up facing the death penalty for a crime you didn’t commit.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Trial By Combat Was Real – And Way Worse Than ‘Game of Thrones’ Portrayed It” Donn Saylor, Ranker. n.d.

“Trial by combat” Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. December 2019.

“Holmgang”Wikipedia contributors. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. December 2019.