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Trial by Combat

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Judicial duel between Marshal Wilhelm von Dornsberg and Theodor Haschenacker in the Augsburg wine market in 1409.note note 
"Trial by combat: Deciding a man’s guilt or innocence in the eyes of the gods by having two other men hack each other to pieces. It tells you something about the gods."
Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

Traditionally, this is one of the three basic legal ways of resolving a conflict or disagreement between two individuals or legal entities, the other two being Trial by Ordeal and Trial by Arbitration (the only one recognised by modern governments, and for which we have plenty of coverage).

The idea behind it is very simple, which is probably why it's been used by numerous cultures throughout history (but mainly Germanic ones): someone is accused of a crime, or two parties are descending into conflict over a matter of opinion or policy. In order to resolve this issue with the minimum of bloodshed, an individual is chosen to represent each side, and they fight. Winner takes all.

This works, supposedly, because Right Makes Might. Whichever side is in the right will win a fight, either because Good Hurts Evil, or because of some kind of divine intervention. This practice was Fair for Its Day, as the divinely sanctioned agreement that the matter was settled definitively no matter the outcome was a good way of preventing generations of blood feuds. Naturally, this idea is passé now, and so the trope is associated with medieval and fantasy settings.

Note that there is no need for either the accused or the accuser to fight for themselves. Just as often, they will choose a champion to fight on their behalf, which is arguably good, because otherwise bullies could handily go around accusing pipsqueaks of crimes against them and beating them up for the recompense. On the other hand, this system gives a major advantage to the rich (or those most willing to spend money on the trial) because these champions often fight for payment, rather than justice, and whoever can hire the best fighter will usually win.

This also says a lot about characterization of those who partake in the death match since an accused protagonist generally doesn't allow others to risk death on his/her behalf, but would rather fight his/her own battles. Alternatively, a heroic character may vouch his/her own life in defense of the accused, especially if said accused is unable to fend for him/herself. On the other hand, many antagonists are all too selfishly willing to avoid severe injuries or death from combat by having a more physically inclined minion to fight on their behalf.

Note also that these fights don't necessarily have to end in death, though they often do, especially if the accused is suspected of a capital crime.

If the trial takes place between representatives of opposing armies, you have a case of Combat by Champion. Victory by First Blood can sometimes settle such a trial, but if the fight is over an insult, it's going to be a Duel to the Death, with all of the Throwing Down the Gauntlet, etc. Be aware of the difference between this and Duel to the Death. Although they are similar and in many cases overlap, the trial is always sanctioned by the pervading culture whereas a duel is sometimes illicit. Also, the way of engaging a trial is different. Whereas a duel can be arranged entirely between the conflicting parties, a trial must be instigated at the behest of some authority figure (who will preside over the fight like a referee and may him/herself serve as champion, especially if he/she is of a Proud Warrior Race), and there have to be witnesses to verify how things went down.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Zechs Merquise is court martialed by OZ for disobeying orders and rebuilding the Wing Gundam. The sentence is death, but his friend Treize manages to propose this as an alternate sentence. Zechs is pitted against countless Alliance soldiers, all fighting to win OZ's favor; if Zechs wins he's allowed to go free. Since this is only about one-fifth of the way through the series, of course he wins.
  • Time Stop Hero: Death row prisoners have to fight in a gladiator arena. If they beat their opponent, they are freed.


    Comic Books 
  • In ElfQuest, this is the first part of The Trial of Hand, Head and Heart which Rayek challenges Cutter to. The trial of Hand combines dexterity and strength and the outcome is intentionally non-lethal for both participants.
  • Green Lantern features a variant in an early 80s issue. Hal Jordan returns to Earth to reclaim his title as Green Lantern, but Guy Gardner has taken up the mantle in the meantime and isn't eager to give it up. Initially the two battle with their rings to determine who is most worthy, but after the Justice League of America interrupt their fight over the huge amount of property damage they're inflicting, they agree to a fist fight in the streets. Doubles as a Shout-Out when Hal pulls a Rope a Dope to defeat Guy, citing Ali's example
  • Kid Colt (2009): Kid Colt takes on Big Bull Banyon, the outlaw Bloodeye's champion, in unarmed trial by combat to save the Bounty Hunter Sherman Wilks from Bloodeye's band of scavengers. Despite having one arm in a sling, he manages to leave Banyon in a great deal of pain.
  • X-Men: The Shi'ar have one such rule. When the challenge is given, it legally cannot be refused. At the end of The Dark Phoenix Saga, Professor X tries this to stop the Shi'ar trying to kill Jean. Lilandra reluctantly accepts, but in private the Kree and Skrull Empires only sign off on allowing this if the X-Men don't win. The fight ends up causing Jean's Phoenix powers, which had been sealed up just before the Shi'ar grabbed the X-Men, to flare up anyway, and so Jean commits a Heroic Sacrifice.

    Fan Fiction 
  • In The Basalt City Chronicles, the Empire of Smilodons has a hand-to-hand version of this as a civil, rather than criminal, trial. Only in extreme cases are the fights declared to be to the death, and almost always as a means of getting powerful nobles (who would be otherwise forced into a death match) to stop the feuds between their factions (if you win, your faction wins, but you yourself are exiled).
  • In Earth's Alien History, the bill of rights in the Terran Treaty Organization charter recognizes the right of accused criminals to have this in place of trial by jury, if it's a legally ordained practice in their home member-state.
  • An Empire of Ice and Fire: After Tywin is captured by the Stark-Targaryen forces and put on trial for all his crimes, he demands a trial by combat, with the Mountain as his champion. Jon and Daenerys counter by choosing Tyene Sand as their champion, as a reward for her loyalty and the Realpolitik of giving the new ruler of Dorne a chance to avenge her family. It's close, but Tyene ultimately wins, with Tywin being executed immediately afterwards.
  • A Game of Cat and Cat: "Damage Control, or Spanner in the Schemes" has a mention of this being how to fight a trespassing charge in some universes:
    Naoki decided not to tell him about the time he was arrested and sentenced to death by trial by combat for trespassing.
  • The Mountain and the Wolf:
    • The Wolf first shows up to take Oberyn's place as Tyrion's champion, curbstomping Gregor Clegane in the process.
    • The Norscans themselves use holmgang, first seen when the Wolf gives Euron a chance to fight for his life (the Wolf's crew having already cut through most of Euron's, who aren't that eager to die for him), on a platform between their ships.
    • After two Ironborn (Akkarulf and a captain named Gorion) get into an argument over which should lead the Iron Fleet (now loyal to the Wolf), the Wolf declares they'll solve it by (you guessed it) holmgang. However, Akkarulf yields command but demands an apology from Gorion for his insults, and agrees to holmgang when Gorion refuses. The Wolf is left looking clearly unhappy that Gorion withdraws his comments, and looks no happier when Akkarulf explains he thought it was better to spare Gorion and wait for him to screw up than kill him then and there. The Ironborn are murderous raiders, but Chaos Norscans they are not (yet).
  • My Father's Son: On his way through The Reach to reach his main army, Rhaegar is stopped at Highgarden by Jon Fossoway to try and curry favor with King Aerys. Since there's no easy way out for him being accused by The Septon, The Maester, and Fossoway, Rhaegar invokes Trial by Seven as a way to get out of this mess cleanly. Even promising no blood spilled in the process. The lady of Highgarden, glad to support Rhaegar in secret, gives it blessing and Rhaegar wins.
  • The Night Unfurls:
  • Subverted in The Raven's Plan when Black Walder demands one and Edmure pummels him to death with a rock instead.
  • Robb Returns: After his affair with Cersei is exposed, Jaime demands one of these to defend himself. This backfires on him rather badly, as his opponent ends up being Robert, who has spent most of the story getting himself back into fighting shape.
  • The Autobots and Decepticons in Things We Don't Tell Humans are both pretty okay with this version of resolving a conflict, especially if honor is at stake, or if someone doubts if a character is adult enough for a responsibility. It leads to some pretty epic throw downs.
  • As Pegasus Service messengers Rebecka Smith-Rhodes and Alexandra Mumorovka discover in The Price of Flight, in the remote Discworld nation of Island, Trial By Combat is considered an innovative and modern method of settling disputes. As Witches, they are sworn into the legal process and attend court as Expert Witnesses.
  • A Young Girl's Game of Thrones: Myrcella challenges the Stormlords to a Trial of Seven to "prove" to them that Joffrey is the rightful king and that Stannis is a usurper, counting on its religious significance to both ensure they will accept and that they will turn to her cause if she wins. She even joins in the trial herself, proclaiming that the Seven would see her victorious because she is right. Her gamble pays off and she becomes the Paramount Lady of the Stormlands.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Canterville Ghost (the 1944 movie anyway) Sir Simon de Canterville runs away from a trial by combat fight (with TorJohnson), becoming the eponymous ghost after his father walls up the door to his room to prove he isn't there.
  • In El Cid, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar fights (and wins) two trials by combat: one to determine if the Castle of Calahorra belongs to the king of Castile or Aragon, and another to defend his honor when Jimena's father accusses him of being soft on Muslims.
  • Flash Gordon (1980). When Vultan decides to turn Prince Barin over to Ming, Barin demands a trial by combat under Article 17 of Ming's law. Instead of choosing to fight Vultan, Barin chooses Flash as his opponent.
  • In Excalibur, and some of the source materials it's based on, Queen Guenevere is accused of adultery against King Arthur with Lancelot. All of the knights had been afraid to level this accusation because her champion was Lancelot himself, whom no other knight can defeat.
  • The Last Duel adapts the Eric Jager book of the same name about the last legally sanctioned judical duel in France in 1386. More details in the Real Life folder below.
  • Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome: The titular Duel to the Death is part of the official law of Auntie Entity's Bartertown, invoked when Max challenges MasterBlaster. The Post Apocalyptic world has become part of the ritual's pragmatic mythology:
    Dr. Dealgood: (to the audience around the ring) Listen all! This is the truth of it. Fighting leads to killing, and killing gets to warring. And that was damn near the death of us all. (...) But we've learned, by the dust of them all... Bartertown learned. Now, when men get to fighting, it happens here! And it finishes here! Two men enter: one man leaves!
  • Occurs (unsurprisingly) in the 1964 film version of Prince Valiant.
  • Valley Of The Kings: After Akmed Salah accuses Mark of lying, Mark is forced to fight him in a swordfight to prove his innocence.

  • Jim Butcher likes this trope:
    • Codex Alera: There are at least two forms of this: the Marat have a different form of trial for each clan; the Gargant clan go by this method, calling it "Trial By Strength." Then there's the practice of juris macto among the Aleran people, which is a ritualized and legally binding form of Duel to the Death and covered on that page. Headman Doroga has a few things to say about the "ritual" part. It is worth noting that the phrase juris macto gets thrown around a lot, but is only actually invoked twice in six books. Just mentioning it usually hits the pugnacious like a bucket of cold water.
    • The Dresden Files:
      • Changes: Harry and Susan are forced to fight one of these when they are pursued into the Erlking's halls by vampires, and the Erlking doesn't know who is right. Besides, he likes a good show. Harry later takes on Duchess Arianna, a severely badass vampire (one level down from and aspiring to be the Lords of the Outer Night, Physical Gods to a being. However by now Harry has taken several levels in Badass wields Soulfire gifted by the Archangel Uriel and is the Winter Knight. At the end Harry turns Arianna into a crater on the floor.
      • White Night: At the end, when Harry and Ramirez challenge Vitto Malvora and Madrigal Raith to a duel. There is heavy application of sarcasm from the White King of all people when Madrigal and Lady Cesarina Malvora try to duck the challenge.
  • Dora Wilk Series: In the climax of Winner Takes It All, Dora undergoes one when she's (falsely, but that's unprovable) accused. She fights against her accuser, Archangel Raphael, and actually wins, only Raphael decids to stab her in the back when she's leaving the ring. She gets better, though.
  • The Duel Ordained by the Goddess in Even Though I'm a Former Noble and Single Mother is a traditional method that nations can use to settle disputes between each other. One such duel is used to settle the issue of whether Shirley's daughters should be taken to the Empire. Shirley wins easily, despite her opponent being the Empire's strongest knight and despite attempts to hinder her using hidden traps.
  • The climax of Ivanhoe culminates in trial-by-combat. Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe fights on behalf of Rebecca, the daughter of Isaac of York, who has been accused of witchcraft solely on the basis of her being Jewish, as thanks for her helping him when he was wounded. Wilfred's victory is seen as a sign from God that Rebecca is innocent.
  • The El Cid examples above are adapted from the 1390 epic poem Mocedades de Rodrigo ("Youth of Rodrigo"), which is not historically accurate.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: This is a legal way to solve a dispute in Westeros. Any person can request a trial by combat, and knights specifically cannot be denied one if they ask. The accuser and accused can ask for someone else to volunteer as well, if they are not fighters. An accused or accusing woman will automatically be volunteered by a man. The trial ends only if one of either parties yields or dies. There is also a rare variation known as trial of seven, which is an ancient Andal tradition that is connected to the Faith of the Seven. This happens if a person is accused by multiple people. In this case, the accused and six companions fight seven men chosen by the accuser, with the latter normally being among them.
    • In A Game of Thrones, after being brought to the Eyrie, Tyrion Lannister is accused of the murder of Jon Arryn. Bronn volunteers to fight for Tyrion against Lysa Arryn's champion, Ser Vardis. Bronn wins.
    • In A Storm of Swords, Tyrion is accused of killing his nephew Joffrey. Oberyn Martell volunteers to fight for him against Cersei's champion, Gregor Clegane. Clegane wins, but he is poisoned by Oberyn's spear and dies a horrible, slow death. Nevertheless, when Tyrion escapes, he has to flee Westeros, since he has been branded guilty.
    • In A Feast for Crows, trial by combat supposedly figures into Cersei's plan to have Margaery Tyrell accused of adultery and forced to be championed by an incompetent member of the Kingsguard, which has rather backfired.
    • Viciously subverted by Rickard Stark's death. After his son Brandon was accused of treason by Aerys II Targaryen, Rickard demanded a trial by combat, which Aerys acceded. When he arrived at the arena, Rickard was instead captured and suspended from a rafter atop burning hot fire, to be cooked to death inside the armor he was wearing. Reason? Aerys said that fire is his champion.
    • The first two stories of Tales of Dunk and Egg end in a trial by combat. In one case, Dunk was accused by multiple people and ended up demanding the trial of seven variety. He absolutely destroyed his accuser Aerion Targaryen by beating the stuffing out of him.
    • Fire & Blood provides two examples
      • King Maegor (the Cruel) went through one with the Faith Militant. He won, but injuries he sustained kept him down for a month. The first thing he did on getting back up was torch the Faith's sept with his dragon while a lot of people were inside.
      • During the Dance of the Dragons, Criston Cole tried asking for one of these when surrounded by enemy troops and outnumbered, presumably banking on his superior fighting skills. He's immediately refused and turned into a human pincushion, specifically because his enemies want to deny him a dignified death.
        Pate of Longleaf: I'll have no songs about how brave you died, Kingmaker. There's tens o' thousands dead on your account.
  • Occurs in The Knights of the Cross when Danusia gets kidnapped by The Teutonic Knights, her father Jurand knows the exact culprits but won't accuse them, since she is being held hostage. When the order's emissary arrives, he feels insulted that anyone would accuse the knights when the victim's father doesn't and challenges anyone who would "slander" his brothers in arms to a Duel to the Death. Obviously, Zbyszko takes the challenge.
  • Occurs in The Song of Roland, when Thierry fights Pinabel to prove the guilt of Ganelon.
  • Chessmen of Mars: Captives in the city of Manator must play a life-sized version of Jetan, with each taking of a piece being a duel to the death. Captives, criminals and slaves can win their freedom by winning enough games.
  • The Whitecloaks in The Wheel of Time use this as a way of settling disputes when there is no evidence, though it has fallen out of practice by the time of the books. However, the lawful-minded Galad uses the tradition to challenge the Commander for the suspected murder of his mother, killing him and winning command of the order as a side-bonus.
  • Honor Harrington engages in 3 duels in the eponymous series. The first two were Curb Stomp Battles, in which she only got wounded because her Dirty Coward of an opponent cheated. The third was specifically this trope, against the traitorous Steadholder Burdette. He didn't even get a chance to make a move before she took his head off. Interestingly, Manticoran law recognizes duels as a substitute for a civil trial. Therefore, the first duel technically counts as this for libel and battery.
  • Used in one Brother Cadfael story to get rid of a murderer (and rival in love) against whom there was no real evidence.
  • Such a system is in place in the King Arthur legendarium. Every knight knows that Guinevere is cheating on Arthur with Lancelot, but an accusation without any proof can only be made by challenging the queen's champion—Lancelot himself. Since he's an invincible knight, no one dares asperse her loyalty out loud.
    • In the 12th century text Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, Lancelot comes to Guinevere at night and has to move the iron bars over her window in order to get in. He injures his finger in the process and proceeds to bleed on her sheets as they have sex. The next morning their host's son Meleagant sees the blood. He puts 2 and 2 together and comes up with 11, alleging that Kay (an injured man who bleed on his own sheets last night) was in the queen's bed. Guinevere swears up and down that she just had a nosebleed and Kay was not in her bed, then calls Lancelot to serve as their champion and defend her and Kay's honor. Before the duel, holy relics are brought forth and the combatants swear upon the relics to give power and legitimacy to the fight.
      Meleagant: [kneeling and laying his hands upon the relics] So help me God and this holy relic, Kay the seneschal lay with the Queen in her bed last night and, had his pleasure with her.
      Lancelot: [doing likewise] And I swear that thou liest, and furthermore I swear that he neither lay with her nor touched her. And may it please God to take vengeance upon him who has lied, and may He bring the truth to light! Moreover, I will take another oath and swear, whoever may dislike it or be displeased, that if I am permitted to vanquish Meleagant to-day, I will show him no mercy, so help me God and these relics here!
  • Being based on King Arthur and other medieval literature, the country of Arendia in The Belgariad uses this system as well. It comes up in the second book when, because Garion is unable to prove that an ambassador is plotting to kill the king in order to foment war without naming his friend Lelldorin as a co-conspirator, the renowned and eminently honourable Mandorallan challenges the ambassador in order to prove his misdoings.
  • In one of Teresa Edgerton's Celydonn stories, a villainess demands that the king's greatest knight fight for her as champion before she will consent to help his party. He explains that it's just a popular superstition that if you get the strongest knight, you win, that there is more in the combat. (She escapes before being brought to trial, making the matter moot.)
  • In the Chivalric Romance The Earl Of Toulos, the earl gallantly fights on behalf of his Peerless Love Interest against a Malicious Slander that she was adulterous.
  • In Susan Dexter's The True Knight, Titch fights for Gerein because his arm is broken, and wins him an exile instead of death.
  • This is an old clan law that comes up in Wolf Brother when Torak is accused of stealing prey.
  • In Updraft, it's legally permissible to challenge the Singers, who are responsible for interpreting and enforcing law, in single combat. This can be done both by ordinary citizens and by Singers who disagree with their leaders' decisions. Combat takes the form of airborne duels using the hang-gliders-like wings commonly used for transport.
  • The Crowner John Mysteries: This is an option available to the nobility in the period when the books are set. In Crowner's Quest, John uses this to obtain Justice by Other Legal Means by acting as champion to a 13 year old boy whose father had been murdered.
  • 1066 and All That discusses this (along with "the Ideal form of trial") in the context of Henry II's legal reforms:
    The Combat was a system by which in civil cases the litigants decided their dispute by mortal combat, after which the defeated party was allowed to fly the country. But Henry altered all this and declared that a Grand Jury must decide first what the parties were fighting about: a reform which naturally gave rise to grave discontent among the Barons, who believed in the Combat, the whole Combat and nothing but the Combat.
  • This gets brought up multiple times in the Deverry novels, but only actually happens once. Such trials are generally discouraged, and if it's obvious that one party is a clearly superior fighter than the other (as happens in the one trial by combat to actually happen on page), the weaker party is permitted to seek a champion to stand on his behalf to prevent the trial from being judicially sanctioned murder.
  • In Splinter of the Mind's Eye, a Star Wars Legends novel, a tribe of cave-dwelling native Mimbanites, the Coway, capture Luke, Leia, and their companions. Halla tries to convince the Coway that they are not with the Empire, and Luke has to fight a Coway champion to prove they're telling the truth.
  • In The Blasted Lands Series, the kingdom of Fellein has a long tradition of solving legal matters through combat, despite Desh Krohan's efforts to get the practice abolished. This is where Andover Lashk gets his revenge on the guards who destroyed his hands. The Emperor finally gets around to banning the practice after his idiot nephew insults Drask Silver Hand, who demands satisfaction.
  • Comes up a couple times in the Tortall Universe, as it features knight protagonists. Unusually for the series, the gods are very real in the setting, but whether or not they help is another matter.
    • In the first series Song of the Lioness, Duke Roger demands one of these to prove his innocence against Alanna's accusations. He immediately starts cheating using magic, but Alanna is able to counter it with a magical stone she received from the Goddess, and wins. Although sadly enough, he doesn't stay dead.
    • In Protector of the Small, it's mentioned that some people treat jousting as this, and several conservatives challenge Kel to prove that women shouldn't be knights. When she wins, they still don't respect her and claim that it changes nothing. Cleon doubts that the gods actually pay attention to minor jousts, and there's nothing in narrative to suggest otherwise.
  • Planet of Adventure. In "The Dirdir", when Adam Reith and his friends have been captured by Dirdirman and presented to their Dirdir masters as prey for Hunting the Most Dangerous Game, he invokes the right of arbitration—challenging the charges against him, and then challenges the arbitrator when the verdict goes against him, so by Dirdir law they have to fight it out. Fortunately the Dirdir believe in killing with tooth and claws, and so the Dirdirman try to emulate their masters by doing likewise, but Rieth is better at hand-to-hand combat than they are.
  • In Shadow of the Conqueror, knowing that he can't beat Daylen with his 11th-Hour Superpower, Ahrek instead challenges him to this: a Sword Fight under the judgment of the Light, with no magic involved. Daylen, being a Death Seeker who only stays alive because he believes it's the Light's will, is happy to accept.
  • The War Gods: Early in The War God's Own, Sir Vaijon is egged into publicly insulting Bahzell, who invokes this trope. (Given that Tomanāk is the god of both war and justice, it makes sense that his Order would have established procedures for judicial combat.) Bahzell delivers a carefully non-fatal curb-stomping to Vaijon. Tomanāk then shows up himself to make sure the rest of the chapter is going to behave themselves without making Bahzell fight any more judicial duels over his Champion status.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek:
    • Star Trek: The Original Series:
      • In "Arena", Kirk has to face an alien captain in order to determine which spaceship will be destroyed by Sufficiently Advanced Aliens who don't like how less advanced races bring their disputes into their territory. In the end, Kirk "wins" the fight, but by showing mercy to the Gorn who had been prepared to kill him, and by showing a willingness to settle the misunderstanding that had caused the conflict in the first place, Kirk convinces the aliens to spare both their ships. Actually killing the Gorn, it's implied, would have doomed Kirk's own ship.
      • In "The Omega Glory", Kirk fights Captain Tracey to prove to the Yangs that he (and not Tracey) is trying to help them (the Yangs believe that Good is stronger than Evil).
    • While there are Klingon lawyers, trial by combat is a means of resolving legal disputes for the Klingons. For example, in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The House of Quark", Quark has the evidence to show that a Klingon used dishonorable financial manipulations to undermine a rival house, but even with his proof, he's forced into a Trial by Combat over the accusation. Quark throws his weapon down in the fight. When the rival moves to strike Quark down, it shows that the rival truly is dishonorable.
  • In the V (1983) episode "Trial By Combat", Diana and Lydia fight one to decide whether Lydia is guilty of killing Charles.
  • Lois & Clark: Lord Kal-El became the ruler of New Krypton to prevent Lord Nor from doing so. Lord Nor charged Kal-El with treason and a Kangaroo Court held under Kryptonian Law sentenced him to death. A few minutes later, Nor drops the Villain Ball hard enough to swing the main prosecutor to Kal-El's side. Said prosecutor was only all too happy when it was pointed out to him that the defendant wasn't informed, he had the right to invoke this trope — this means that Kal-El is Off on a Technicality.
  • In Lost Girl, the Fae often settle things this way. The first episode has Bo forced into a two-step trial: first, she had to fight a hulking behemoth to the death; second, she had to overcome a creature's mental attack.
  • Game of Thrones:
    • Bronn against Ser Vardis over Tyrion's supposed murder of Jon Arryn, ending in Tyrion's favor.
    • Sandor Clegane against Beric Dondarrian over Sandor's murder of Mycah the butcher's boy. In spite of the fact Sandor is guilty, and the fact Beric wields a Flaming Sword while Sandor is terrified of fire, Sandor wins and is released.
    • The show faithfully recreates the novel's trial of Oberyn Martell against Gregor Clegane over Tyrion's supposed murder of Joffrey. Although Tyrion is innocent, his champion Oberyn loses, so he's sentenced to death. Instead, he escapes.
    • Subverted with Cersei and the Faith Militant. They have Tommen abolish the practice so Robert Strong, unbeatable fighter that he is, won't be an option for her to escape her crimes. It doesn't work out when Cersei blows up half of King's Landing.
  • In season 3 of Arrow, Oliver takes the place of Thea as Sara's killer when confronted by the League of Assassins and takes a trial by combat against Ra's Al Ghul himself. Oliver doesn't last very long, but since it's Ra's Al Ghul, there's probably some sort of magical life-giving pit that could bring him back to life...
  • In one episode of Cadfael, Cadfael and Hugh Beringer don't need to bring charges against the man who killed the Victim of the Week because they met in combat (and the killer was unarmed, no less) to fight a duel, since the dead man was a bully who was betrothed to the killer's long-lost daughter. Perfectly sound and legal on the medieval Welsh border.
  • In The Flash (2014), Gypsy attempts to arrest HR, but Cisco offers to be his champion in a trial by combat. Cisco wins, so she allows HR to go free.
  • Legends of Tomorrow has the team infiltrate Nanda Parbat. Unfortunately, Sara, suffering from a temporal psychosis of sorts, gives them up to the assassins. Ra's Al Ghul sentences them to death. However, Rip, familiar with the League's rules, challenges Ra's to this trope. He miscalculates, unaware that Ra's can choose someone else to fight for him. Ra's chooses Sara, so Rip chooses Kendra. Fortunately, just before Sara can deliver the killing blow, she remembers Kendra and the team. Then the fortress is attacked by Chronos, and Ra's tells the Legends to clean up their own mess. After that, he tells Sara she's free to go. Sara tells him that he's going to have a second daughter at some point in the future and that, in 2012, he should send her to an island in North China Sea, creating a Stable Time Loop.
  • Aliens in the Family: When the Elders want to take Bobut, Doug has to defeat one of them in a sword fight to keep custody. Snizzy questions the wisdom of this, but is ignored.
  • The Magicians (2016): The heroes have to go through a bizarre Humanity on Trial event where they have to defend their right to the thrones of Fillory. Even though at this point they're all sick of Fillory, they insist on staying and helping the world get itself in order anyway, because Fillory helped them when they were down, so they're returning the favor. It's only after that we find out the precise nature of the trial was based on a misunderstanding.
    Tick: The judge you requested for trial. A wombat?
    Margo: Wombat? Jesus, Tick, we said trial by combat!

    Tabletop Games 
  • Ars Magica: The Order of Hermes accepts a formal, nonlethal Wizard Duel as a legally binding way to resolve formal and informal disputes, with some limits. It's rationalized as minimizing both outright bloodshed and magi interfering in each other's affairs — though it's no coincidence that the Founder who formalized duelling in Hermetic Law was a power-hungry master duellist himself.
  • BattleTech: The Clans base their entire culture around this, with seven official Trials (all settled by combat) that dictate Clan life: The Trial of Position note , the Trial of Bloodrightnote , the Trial of Refusalnote , the Trial of Grievance note , the Trial of Possession note , the Trial of Absorptionnote  and the Trial of Annihilation.note  Duels are fought "unagumented" or "augmented", with the former meaning "fists or melee weapons only" and the latter involving BattleMech, Power Armor or aircraft duels. The Clans instituted such a system in order to militarily resolve conflicts (being a Proud Warrior Race, military resolution was seen as an inevitable outcome) using a minimum of forces without it spilling over into full-blown civil war.
    • It should be noted that act of choosing a champion is largely reserved for political bodies (example, a Grand Council. Mech Warrior Aidan Pryde had to fight four to one odds with his fellow witnesses when he challenged a Coucil decision). The act of an individual trying to name a champion can be interpreted as an admittance of weakness if not by the rival fighter, but by a political rival in the same Clan. More than one Clan leader has been called out for hiding behind rank and brutally killed in a Circle of Equals.
    • The Clans also have the the tradition of batchall, or battle challenge, which is a ritualized part of a battle (usually a Trial of Possession). The aggressor will challenge their opponent and state how many troops and weapons they will be bringing, and the defender will be allowed to answer with how many troops they will bring and state the battlefield. This then becomes something of a negotiation between the two to state how many units they'll bring to the battle (with the goal being to reduce the numbers as low as reasonably possible while still being able to win), and once the decision has been made, the two meet for their ritualized battle. When the Clans invaded the Inner Sphere, the Great Houses' militaries ruthlessly exploited this to fight in "dishonorable" battles since survival was at stake and they couldn't beat the Clans individually.
    • One of the biggest examples of a trial by combat was the Battle of Tukayyid, in which ComStar wagered Earth itself in a massive ritual battle with the Clans on the titular planet. Seven Clans would attempt to invade the planet and capture specific objectives, and if the Clans won they would gain Earth, while if ComStar won, the Clans would agree to a fifteen year cease-fire. Several of the Clans who participated fell into the trap of Honor Before Reason or were otherwise outmaneuvered by ComStar and defeated, with only Clan Wolf being effective enough to achieve both objectives, while Clan Jade Falcon and Clan Ghost Bear both achieved a draw (the Bears actually succeeded in completing one objective before being forced to retreat, while the Falcons failed to complete either objective but did so much damage before they were repulsed that ComStar counted it as an effective completion anyway). Thus, the Clans withdrew and the Inner Sphere gained a badly-needed period to recover and re-arm.
  • Dragonlance: In Ascalon, the Imperial League of Minotaurs (Krynn's very own Roman Empire) arbitrates everything this way. However, they were wise enough to realize that even this kind of trial needs rules. While even petty larceny must ultimately be arbitrated this way, only the really grave crimes require a Duel to the Death; minor crimes can be resolved by disarming or first blood. And for all except the really bad crimes (like assassinating the emperor), the accused may select a champion to fight in their stead, with evidence determining just how effective a champion one may select.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • One method used by the Inquisition to determine whether a person is guilty is to pit them against a Grey Knight (a Magic Knight chapter of Space Marines). If the Knight wins, then clearly the God-Emperor struck down the infidel. If he somehow wins, he clearly used daemonic magics to do so and is killed (even if he didn't, there's the fact that he just killed a beyond-rare Super-Soldier).
    • Traditionally, disputes on Craftworld Saim-Hann are resolved through matches of ritualized combat. This is typically done to the first blood or some other agreed-upon defeat condition, but facilities occur from time to time. Other Craftworlders find this practice barbaric, but Saim-Hann's people in turn don't understand why someone should wast their time with lengthy debates.
  • Warhammer Fantasy: Trial by combat is still practiced in certain rural areas of the Empire. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay even has a class, the Judicial Champion, who represents the local courts.

  • In Lohengrin, this is what kicks off the action. Elsa of Brabant is accused of murdering her brother Gottfried and the one doing the accusation is her Evil Uncle Telramund, who goes to King Henry the Fowler to get her executed; however, the King decides to invoke this as an alternative. The one who replies to this call is the titular Lohengrin, the Swan Knight, who defeats Telramund in combat and gets Elsa released.

    Video Games 
  • Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning plays with this in the Teeth of Naros DLC. In the Kollossae debating forum, called the Lykeios, self-titled philosophers, experts on matters of morality, society, and theology, frequently debate with each other by stating their argument and then fighting a duel to see who's right. They do this because they believe that the gods will grant strength to the righteous, which makes for some interesting dialogue if you enter the ring with an argument like "Power and Morality are unrelated." Also, their battle commentary is ridiculous.
  • In Assassin's Creed, King Richard declares Trial by Boss Battle when Altaïr accuses Robert de Sable of leading a massive conspiracy. At the end, Richard believes that God wanted Altaïr to win, and he must have been telling the truth; Altaïr takes the skeptical approach and tries to convince the king that he was just the superior fighter.
  • In Neverwinter Nights 2, you have to sit through a mostly pointless trial by judge. Pointless because whichever way the judge rules, the losing party will invoke the right of Trial by Combat to give you a Boss Battle. Although there are advantages to winning (you're legally exonerated for the crime for which you were framed), and losing (you basically admit that you did it). People react appropriately.
  • Dragon Age
    • The dwarves have Provings, duels held in the dwarven city of Orzammar for a variety of purposes, this trope among them. According to dwarven religion, the spirits of their ancestors will give their strength to whoever has the right of their cause, meaning that whoever wins by definition has the favor of the ancestors, and is therefore correct. Provings are thus often used to resolve disputes of honor or even criminal trials; when the player takes part in one, one of the fighters is mentioned to have fought a Proving to prove his innocence, successfully acquitting himself in this fashion. Due to the sacred nature of Provings, fixing them or otherwise interfering with their course is considered a grave offense, usually met with exile or death.
    • This is how the Landsmeet is ultimately resolved in Dragon Age: Origins. Regardless of how well you've curried favor with the nobility, you will still need to fight Loghain in a duel to decide who will lead Ferelden against the Blight. Any one of your companions can fight in your stead if you don't want to do it (except Dog), though choosing Alistair will prevent you from being able to recruit Loghain, since Alistair will just Finish Him! immediately. In addition, having Alistair kill Loghain will remove the option of marrying him to Anora, since Anora isn't likely to marry her father's killer.
    • In Dragon Age II, this is a possibility when facing the boss of the second act, depending on Hawke's choices. Accepting the offer results in a one-on-one trial by combat between Hawke and the boss, while rejecting it has Hawke fight with their party against the boss and an army of minions. However, the boss only allows this option because they genuinely respect Hawke's talent. Hawke can choose to fight the Arishok in one-on-one combat to make the Qunari leave Kirkwall (and, if she's still there, free Isabella from enslavement). It's also implied that the Arishok wanted a way out of this whole mess while following the Qun, and dying in combat to Hawke was the only thing he could think of. Regardless of which option is taken, Hawke earns the title "Champion of Kirkwall" once the battle is over.
  • Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne has the Mantra Army court. You have to face down three judges to exonerate yourself from suspicion of being a Nihilo spy. First one is an Orthrus, then a Yaksini. Last judge to defeat is Thor.
  • In Gems of War, the authorities in Whitehelm won't give Sapphira a proper trial (for whatever it is she's even accused of — they were slow in saying), and she insists on trial by combat instead. The authorities undermine even this by insisting that it be in daylight (and she's a vampire).
  • Warframe: "Operation: Rathuum" is about one of these. A group of Grineer defectors have been captured, and stand trial in "Rathuum" ("Trial by Combat" in the Grineer Conlang). But the match is so rigged in the favor of the executioners that Rathuum is more of a fancy execution instead of a proper trial. Luckily for the accused, the leader of the Steel Meridian syndicate (herself a particularly powerful Grineer deserter) has found a loophole which allows for the Tenno to participate in place of the deserters. In spite of the fights being rigged, the Tenno, being the Space Ninjas that they are, win anyway. Being a Sore Loser, the Grineer officer and judge declares a mistrial, accusing the Tenno of cheating, requiring the deserters be freed the old fashioned way by acquiring the coordinates of their prison and letting a syndicate loose on the guards.
  • Final Fantasy XIV: Ishgard is a firm believe in Might Makes Right, and anyone accused of crime or heresy under Ishgardian law may demand a trial by combat in an attempt to prove their innocence. The trial pits the accused (or, if the accused is a non-combatant, a champion of their choosing) against an equal number of petitioners, before an audience of witnesses. Three such trials are plot points in the Heavensward expansion.
    • During the Main Scenario, Alphinaud and Tataru are accused of consorting with heretics by one of the knights of the titular Heavens' Ward, widely considered the twelve greatest warriors in Ishgard. And he names one of his brothers-in-arms as his second. Alphinaud, having some skill in arcanima, has to fight for himself, but Tataru is a non-combatant, and so names the Warrior of Light as her champion.
    • The first quest of the Dark Knight job questline starts off because someone outside the Tribunal was one of the witnesses for a trial shortly before the Warrior's arrival. He tells the player of the man in dark armour with a BFS who he just saw get defeated, and reluctantly tells you where they'll be dumping the body. The events that follow when you go to inspect said body lead to the unlocking of the job, and are a giant pile of spoilers beyond that.
    • The last quest of the Dark Knight job questline involves the player, their job tutor Sidurgu, and his ward Rielle being forced into a trial by combat by Ystride de Caulignot, for Rielle's crime of being born to a heretic who entered into a relationship with Ystride and sired Rielle for the purposes of bringing down Ishgard from within. It turns into the Ishgardian justice version of Just You and Me and My GUARDS! when she holds the "trial" in the middle of the Coerthas Western Highlands with no witnesses in sight for malms and sics an entire contingent of knights on the three.
  • In the first story chapter of For Honor, Holden Cross of the Blackstone Legion is invading the stronghold of a traitor named Hervis Daubeny. After breaching the gate and killing a few soldiers who attacked him, Cross calls for the soldiers to stop and challenges Daubeny to trial by combat so no one else need suffer. Daubeny refuses to fight Cross, so he offers for Daubeny to fight his second. Daubeny names the player character's Warden as his second, turning the battle into Combat by Champion.
  • The orc tradition of Warcraft features a form of trial by combat known as the "Mak'gora", a sacred one-on-one duel. Mak'gora was adopted by all races of the Horde as well, the Tauren Carne Bloodhoof challenged the orc Garosh Hellscream to Mak'gora for leadership of the Horde. There are several rules regarding the Mak'gora. Each fighter must have a witness, each fighter can only use one weapon, and battles are to the death.
  • In The Elder Scrolls, this is how dragons handle any debate or disagreement. Because dragons are ferocious and prideful creatures with an innate desire to rule and dominate, and their language and voices are literal reality-warping magic, they do not have any distinction between debate and combat, and might literally makes right.
  • Guild Wars 2: If you're playing as a human noble, in an early Personal Story mission you find proof that another noble is working with bandits. When you bring him to trial, he immediately invokes the "most ancient tenets of Krytan law" to make it trial by combat instead of a normal trial. It was a set-up — the noble in question was told to do that by Minister Cauducus, because if he won he'd be ruled innocent and if he lost no one would find out he was working on behalf of Cauducus.
  • Several regions in King of the Castle have traditions of trial by combat.
    • The Grandees of the South are firm believers in the virtues of allowing accused criminals to "demonstrate" their innocence in arena fights, and several potential story events revolve around a randomly chosen Grandee demanding their right to trial by combat after they are implicated in a crime. The King can refuse, risking a spike in Defiance, or accept and nominate a champion to face the accused (or even do so themself).
    • In years gone by, the official justice system for the Barons of the March was the jousting arena, and if jousting comes back into fashion in the March thanks to royal patronage, they may ask to revive this system as a replacement for the courts.
  • Destiny 2: The Rite of Proving is an ancient Cabal tradition of trial by combat, which had fallen out of use by the present due to the previous Emperor's distaste for it. Instead of banning it outright, which would have led to backlash, Calus introduced the role of "imperial arbiter" who would decide the outcome in case of a draw. This was a reasonable-sounding decision, and Calus used it to screw with the Rite of Proving by slowly making the Rite arbiter's authority more and more disruptive to duels until they were combatants in their own right, empowered to force the outcomes Calus wanted, and before long nobody was interested in settling disputes by combat any more. The Rite of Proving was one of the traditions the succeeding Empress Caiatl revived, minus any frills or arbiters, strengthening her power base by appealing to a core of Cabal conservatives and populists.
  • Horizon Forbidden West: In the backstory, Fashav, a Carja soldier trying to stop the worst of his people's atrocities, ended up captured by the Tenakth. He heard them speak of a ceremony called the "kolrut," which he assumed was some primitive trial by combat. He demanded the right to the kolrut, fought machines in the arena, won... at which point he discovered that the kolrut was actually the entry test for the elite peacekeepers of the tribe, serving directly under the chief. By all accounts, everyone took this surprisingly well, and by the time of the game Fashav is one of the most respected Marshals.
  • An apparent law of Outworld in Mortal Kombat X. After interfering with a public execution, the protagonists are brought before Kotal Kahn and threatened with an execution of their own. Kung Jin then manages to invoke this trope on the emperor, knowing full well that victory grants a pardon while defeat means death. He makes sure to spare Kotal afterwards, naturally.


    Web Videos 
  • Minecraft SOS: Owen's contribution to Spawn for a server-wide building challenge is "the Debate Settling Ring", a stone fighting arena where two individuals can duke it out physically with Good Old Fisticuffs, with the first person to fall into the ditch surrounding the perimeter being the loser.

    Western Animation 
  • Tetramands (Four Arm's species) are revealed to abide to this method in episode "Universe vs. Tennyson" of Ben 10: Omniverse. It's literally called "Tetramand Trial of Combat"
  • In the Hercules: The Animated Series episode "Hercules And The Prometheus Affair", Hercules defies the gods and frees Prometheus from his imprisonment. After some consideration, the gods agree that Prometheus can keep his freedom if he can defeat the eagle that eats his liver in battle. Hades refers to the trial as a "Trial By Fire" and empowers the eagle with a flaming body and wings. Prometheus almost loses, but Hercules interferes and helps defeat the eagle. Although upset, the gods allow Prometheus to go free.
  • Star Trek: Lower Decks: In "Temporal Edict", the away team accidentally offends the Gelrakian officials and is imprisoned. Under Gelrakian law, the accused must fight the Gelrakian champion. If Commander Jack Ransom wins, he and his away team will be freed. If he loses, he'll die in the arena and the away team will be crushed to death by the adjudication geode.

    Real Life 
  • Pre-Christian Norse and Germanic societies commonly used duels as a means of settling matters to avoid the injured parties from turning a personal spat into a clan feud. In Norse society the variant explicitly used for arbitration was known as the hólmganga (so called because it usually took place on a 'holm', a small island to prevent the combatants from running away), and was fought until first blood or surrender.
  • The practice continued after Christianization in the Middle Ages as a way to determine "God's Judgement", because (the thinking went) the winner would obviously have been chosen by God to win. Generally, it was easier than the one where you got thrown in the river to see if God wants you to survive. The medieval Church repeatedly condemned both trial by combat and trial by ordeal as barbaric and un-Christian, notably at the Lateran Council of 1215. Both procedures continued nonetheless, though the bans contributed to the development of more familiar systems like trial by jury.
    • In Germany it was seen as an ancient right when justice couldn't be brought about by regular methods. This is because back in the day chieftains, and, later, judges, had a very hard time determining people's guilt or innocence without eyewitnesses, so the result would often be Off on a Technicality. Generally it never went as far as trial by combat, but it often would in cases of rape. Because it helped prevent blood feuds, most places in central Europe tolerated it, although by the 15th century people were pushing heavily to replace it with trial by jury.
  • El Cid (the real one) is said to have fought and killed the Navarrese champion Jimeno Garcés in a 1066 duel for the Castle and village of Pazuengos. Some historians doubt this and believe the tale spun from an actual battle between the two. Nevertheless, battles could also be given treatment of trial by combat, as when El Cid's lord King Sancho II of Castile and his brother King Alfonso VI of Leon agreed to fight to decide if their father had been right in dividing the kingdom between the two, per the Navarrese custom, or should have given all to his eldest son per the Gothic custom. Alfonso was defeated at the Battle of Llantada in 1069, but fled instead of surrendering. After agreeing to another battle in Golpejera in 1072, Sancho captured Alfonso and put him in chains to make sure he didn't escape again.
  • In a French legend, Aubry de Montdidier, a knight of King Charles V, was murdered by Robert Macaire. The only witness was Montdidier's dog. In court the dog reacted violently to Macaire, leading the king to order a duel between Macaire and the dog. The dog won, and Macaire confessed to the murder and was hanged. The murder was said to take place in 1371.
  • In The Last Duel by Eric Jager, the author describes the last legally sanctioned (Duels to the Death of course continued to the eighteenth century and beyond, but they were more an aristocratic version of a Bar Brawl done with lethal weapons, then a legal practice) judicial duel in France during The Hundred Years War, in 1386. A French noblewoman who became pregnant in her husband's absence claimed that it was rape by her husband's enemy and her husband, believing her, stood in the lists as plaintiff. The accused stood as defendant. In something of a Zig Zag no one really believed it was an ideal means, the Church condemned it as Tempting Fate and there hadn't been such an event in ages. It was only permitted by the French king because the law was still technically on the books because no one had bothered to take it off. And because there was no way to solve a rape case there being no DNA testing at the time. In other words it was permitted not because it was actually believed that God would automatically intervene for the right party but because no one could think of anything better to do and it was technically legal. In any case, as the title of the book indicates it was the last one in France. Ridley Scott adapted it on film.
  • In 1475, Castile was divided between Henry IV's daughter Joanna and his sister Isabella. Joanna claimed that Isabella had poisoned her father and usurped her inheritance, and Isabella that Joanna was not the daughter of Henry IV but of an affair of her mother with other man and not the legitimate heir. Joanna was married to Afonso V of Portugal and Isabella to Ferdinand II of Aragon, both of which invaded Castile. Ferdinand then challenged Afonso to end the war with a duel between the two, but Afonso, who was twice as old as Ferdinand, knew he wasn't up to the task and declined.
  • In 1817, Abraham Thornton, out of fear of facing a biased jury when charged with the rape and murder of Mary Ashford, challenged her brother (who was pressing charges) into that kind of trial. William Ashford knew he'd lose regardless of Thornton being guilty or not and it was officially ruled that, if he accepted and Thronton killed him, that death wouldn't be considered a murder. Ashford refused and Thornton was acquitted. However, Thornton was so Convicted by Public Opinion he moved from England to America.
  • In 2015, a motion was made in the case of Luthmann v. Chusid requesting that the court order trial by combat to resolve the controversy, arguing that since such means were part of the English common law at the time of the American Revolution, and never banned by the New York state nor Federal legislatures, it remained within the purview of the New York Supreme Court to order such a trial. The Judge in the case issued a ruling in March of 2016 noting "this Court does not deny that such power resides within the Supreme Court", but nonetheless denying the request.
  • Notch, creator of Minecraft, challenged Bethesda to a 3 vs 3 game of Quake III: Arena to settle a legal dispute (referencing the above mentioned A Song of Ice and Fire series). Sadly, Bethesda chose to ignore this challenge.