Trial by combat, also known as a wager of battle, was a method of settling disputes between two people in the absence of a confession or witnesses that could attest to the matter. It was a popular alternative to judicial trial in the European Middle Ages, but fell out of favor in the 16th century. The trial purported to establish who was right by might of arms.
Unlike dueling and other forms of dispute resolution that were illegal at certain times throughout history, trial by combat was legally sanctioned during the Middle Ages in various European countries. Commoners needed judicial permission to settle a dispute by combat, but the nobility could challenge another person without first presenting themselves to the court. Although the particulars of the use of this method to settle issues depended on the jurisdiction, the typical causes of action that were resolvable through combat were allegations of murder, treason, heresy, perjury, fraud, rape, abduction, and desertion.
During a trial by combat, parties to a dispute fought in single combat. Each jurisdiction had stipulations regarding what the combatants could use and wear. If one of the parties failed to show, the other would be deemed the winner by default. Provided both parties appeared as ordered, the law would establish the procedure for determining the winner and loser.
In Britain, for example, the wager of battle began at sun up and continued to sunset or until one of the parties was dead or disabled. If the defendant in the case was defeated but was still alive in serious cases, such as with murder, he would be hanged on the spot. Either party could give up, but would then suffer penalties themselves for bringing the case and not seeing it through. Whomever won the battle would be deemed the winner of the underlying suit.
The elderly or infirm were usually allowed to decline a trial by combat or to appoint a champion. In some countries, certain other classes of citizens were considered exempt from combat and could decline, such as priests and “peers of the realm.” If a champion conceded the fight, he would be subject to the same punishment for infamy as his patron.
While trial by combat was a more direct way of solving disputes, it rewarded a party for being skilled and strong as opposed to being right. This type of trial began to fall out of favor when legal scholars became concerned that the weak were being punished simply for being weak. Trial by jury eventually replaced combat as the more equitable way to provide justice for all.