While medieval dramas like Game of Thrones may have raised the profile of the idea of trial by combat in more recent times, the legal process for the procedure still holds some weight in the United Kingdom’s justice system. As recently as 2002, a British citizen tried to opt for this kind of trial in the face of a 25 quid motoring offense.
Trial by combat is perhaps the simplest and oldest way to settle a dispute. In the case of a disagreement or spat over honor, the plaintiff and defendant would fight using simple weapons—often to the death. As legal systems became more sophisticated and fair, they became increasingly reserved for when witnesses were unavailable, or a consensus could be gathered no other way.
First becoming an accepted legal practice in Germany, judicial duels became the subject of many different sets of rules. The sorts of weapons and armor used, time of the confrontation, and even footing could all be decided by the letter of the law. The Dresden codex had rules that kept either combatant from starting the fight with the sun in their eyes, and another set of rules from a fencing school dictated that a combatant needed to slash at the air a few times in the case of a no-show.
Combat trials weren’t just reserved for disputes between men either; marital duels were commonplace as well. Used to settle arguments, the husband was buried to his waist and had his arm tied behind his back. He was given a club or mace while his wife was allowed to use a lengthened and weighted sleeve.
While laws in Germany incentivized fairness, knights in England were able to bring their full arsenals to bear on commoners who would only have access to the most basic equipment. Though judicial duels eventually fell out of favor with British courts, Queen Elizabeth II still retains a royal champion to defend the throne should someone challenge her to a trial by combat for the throne. The man who holds the office of “Queen’s Champion and Standard Bearer of England” today is named Francis John Fane Marmion Dymoke. He’s 64 years old and works mostly as an accountant.