- "A 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. Tells you something about the gods."
- ―Tyrion Lannister
A trial by combat is a means by which a party can prove their innocence when accused of a crime in the Seven Kingdoms. In lieu of a standard trial where a lord - or a council of them - hears testimony from the involved parties and makes a ruling, one or all parties may choose the option of a trial by combat.
Only highborn noblemen have the right to request a trial by combat: smallfolk do not possess this right. Noblewomen apparently also have the right to request a trial by combat but are not expected to fight themselves.
If a highborn is accused of a crime, at any point during the trial held by the local lord he can demand his right to a trial by combat. This right is held to be so inviolable that even a lord that is fully convinced that the accused should die would be hesitant to simply deny such a request (if it is made in public, at least). Even members of the royal family or high officials such as the Hand of the King would feel incapable of denying the request if it was made publicly.
In a trial by combat the accused may represent themselves in combat or, if unable (such as if they are female, injured, crippled, a dwarf, or otherwise incapacitated), may ask for a champion to represent them. The presiding lord may, at least, demand that they pick a champion from currently available warriors, i.e. instead of allowing them to name a champion currently located on the far side of Westeros, attempting to try to delay the trial by weeks.
A trial by combat does not, necessarily, need to be fought to the death. It is fought until one man yields - though if the accused is representing himself he would fight to the death to avoid a certain execution, and even the champion of an accused man will often fight to the death due to potential reward from the accused if he wins. The fight can also end if the accuser withdraws the accusation, or the accused confesses.
The victorious party is held to have had his or her case judged fairly by the gods (be it the Seven, the Old Gods of the Forest, or whatever they worship) and has proven their innocence in the eyes of the gods. Hence, if the accused party is victorious, they are cleared of all charges. If the accused or their champion is defeated, however, then they are considered guilty and condemned to death. While in theory the gods will favor the righteous party, most often the winner tends to simply be the strongest, the quickest, or just the luckiest.
Trial of seven
Very rarely, after the accused has demanded a trial by combat, he may also demand a "trial by seven": instead of one man versus one man, two teams of seven men each will fight. As with a normal trial by combat, the accused and accuser each have to pick six other champions - though each also has the option to not fight in person but to name a seventh man as their personal champion. A trial by seven ends only when all seven men on one side have been defeated (either by yielding or dying).
Notable trials by combat
In the Game of Thrones TV series:
- First Trial by Combat of Tyrion Lannister
- Trial by Combat of Sandor Clegane
- Second Trial by Combat of Tyrion Lannister
Historical trials by combat:
After Tyrion Lannister is arrested by Catelyn Stark and imprisoned in The Vale of Arryn for the (false) accusation of attempting to murder Bran Stark, he demands a trial by combat, knowing that Lord Robin Arryn will have him thrown through the Moon Door for his own amusement, whether or not he is guilty. As neither Robin nor Lysa Arryn can fight, they name Ser Vardis Egen, the Captain of the Guards of the Eyrie, as their champion. Tyrion names his brother Jaime as his champion, but Lysa refuses to wait for him. The sellsword Bronn volunteers to fight for Tyrion instead. Vardis dons full armor and a shield to fight Bronn, who maintains his speed and tires Vardis out quickly, ultimately fatally stabbing Vardis and pushing his body through the Moon Door, thus proving Tyrion's innocence in the eyes of the Gods.
Following the Battle of the Whispering Wood, Jaime is captured by the forces of House Stark. He offers Robb Stark a de facto trial by combat to resolve the conflict there and then before it evolves into a civil war, clearly claiming that he will fight for the Lannisters while Robb will fight for the Starks. Knowing that Jaime will likely defeat him in personal combat, Robb refuses and orders Jaime locked up.
During her captivity with the Brotherhood Without Banners, Arya Stark accuses Sandor Clegane for the death of her friend Mycah. As the Hound argues he was following the orders of Prince Joffrey Baratheon and there are no other witnesses, Lord Beric Dondarrion sentences the deserter Kingsguard to trial by combat.
The trial takes place within the caves of Hollow Hill. Lord Beric uses his own blood to ignite his sword for his duel with the Hound. Clegane is initially at a disadvantage due to his fear of fire, disturbed by the flaming sword and the torches in the chamber. Dondarrion manages to set the Hound's shield on fire, but Clegane eventually overpowers the outlaw lord and kills him, bringing his blade down through Beric's shoulder. Even though Thoros resurrects his fallen comrade, the Hound is found innocent before the eyes of the Lord of Light and allowed to go.
Considering his trial for the murder of Joffrey Baratheon to be a farce, and refusing to go along with his father's plans, Tyrion Lannister demands a trial by combat to defend his innocence. Queen Cersei chooses Ser Gregor Clegane as her champion. Tyrion has difficulty finding a champion; his brother Jaime cannot fight well enough with his left hand, while Bronn is unwilling to face Clegane. However, Oberyn Martell then volunteers to stand as champion for Tyrion to get a chance to kill the Mountain as revenge for the rape and murder of his sister Elia and her children during the Sack of King's Landing.
During the trial, Oberyn Martell fights with a spear and little armor while Gregor Clegane is covered in heavy plate armor and wields a greatsword. Oberyn uses his speed and the long reach of his spear to gain the upper hand against Gregor. He wounds Clegane and knocks him on his back. However, Oberyn is obsessed with extracting a confession from Gregor and he lets his guard down, and is tripped by Gregor. Gregor roars for all to hear that he raped and killed Elia as he smashes out Oberyn's teeth and gouges his eyes out, before crushing Oberyn's skull between his fists and collapsing next to his dead opponent. Thus, Tyrion is found guilty and sentenced to death. Before his sentence can be carried out, however, Tyrion murders his father and manages to escape King's Landing for Essos.
Under the influence of the High Sparrow, King Tommen Baratheon discontinues trials by combat, deciding that they are barbaric and an easy way for people of influence and power to evade justice. In doing so, he robs his mother, Cersei Lannister, of her best chance to escape any sort of punishment from the courts as she can no longer play her trump card by using Gregor Clegane as her champion. This decision is likely overturned after the High Sparrow is overthrown and Tommen commits suicide, allowing Cersei to assume the throne.
In the North, Jon Snow offers Ramsay Bolton a de facto trial by combat between the two of them to settle their dispute over Winterfell. Ramsay initially refuses, knowing that Jon could probably beat him, as he had heard that he's the greatest swordsman in the North, but later agrees after Jon and his allies breach Winterfell, choosing a bow and arrow as his weapon. Jon blocks all of Ramsay's arrows with a shield until he gets close enough to subdue Ramsay.
- Tyrion Lannister: "No need to bother Lord Robyn. I demand a trial by combat."
- Lysa Arryn: "That is your right."
- — Tyrion Lannister and Lysa Arryn.[src]
- Lysa Arryn: "You demanded a trial by combat."
- Tyrion Lannister: "And I demand a champion. I have that right, the same as you."
- — Tyrion Lannister and Lysa Arryn.[src]
- Tyrion Lannister: "I name my brother, Jaime Lannister."
- Lysa Arryn: "The Kingslayer is hundreds of miles from here."
- Tyrion Lannister: "Send a raven. I'm happy to wait."
- Lysa Arryn: "The trial will be today."
- — Lysa Arryn denies Tyrion the chance to name Jaime as his champion.[src]
- Jaime Lannister: "We could end this war right now, boy. Save thousands of lives. You fight for the Starks, I fight for the Lannisters. Swords, lances, teeth, nails, choose your weapons and let's end this here and now."
- Robb Stark: "If we did it your way, Kingslayer, you'd win. We're not doing it your way."
- — Robb Stark and Jaime Lannister.[src]
- Beric Dondarrion: "You stand accused of murder, but no one here knows the truth of the charge, so it is not for us to judge you. Only the Lord of Light may do that now. I sentence you to trial by combat."
- Sandor Clegane: "So who will it be? (To Thoros) Shall we find out if your Fire God really loves you, priest? (To Anguy) Or you, archer? What are you worth with a sword in your hand? (About Arya) Or is the little girl the bravest one here?"
- Beric Dondarrion: "Aye, she might be, but it's me you'll fight."
- — Beric Dondarrion sentences Sandor Clegane to trial by combat for murdering Mycah.[src]
- Beric Dondarrion: "The Lord of Light gave you the power to defeat me. Why?"
- Sandor Clegane: "I beat you because I'm better than you, Beric. I was better than you before you started yammering about the Lord, and I'm better than you now."
- — Beric Dondarrion and Sandor Clegane over their trial by combat.[src]
- "You suggested one-on-one combat, didn't you? I've reconsidered. I think that sounds like a wonderful idea."
- ―Ramsay to Jon Snow.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, trials by combat are risky gambits only invoked when there is little other choice. In historical times there were more variations of the trial, such as a trial of seven when the two sides would pick seven champions who would fight until one side yielded or the plaintiff withdrew their charge. This was held to be a more holy contest, but the practical difficulties have made such trials rare. Ser Duncan the Tall first came to the attention of legend by holding a trial of seven against his accuser, Prince Aerion Targaryen, and defeating him and his other six.
For trials by combat involving the royal family, they must be defended by a knight of the Kingsguard. After her arrest, Cersei is left despondent, as the Kettlebacks have also been arrested and Meryn Trant is not a particularly good swordsman, though her hopes are lifted when Qyburn presents her with Ser Robert Strong, a new Kingsguard.
A trial by seven is exceedingly rare, particularly in recent generations, when they only seem to have happened every century or so. Such trials are rare because they are very dangerous. The trial by seven of Ser Duncan the Tall (90 years before the events of Game of Thrones) was said to be the first held in a century - and there may not have been another trial by seven held in the nearly a century that passed afterwards. King Maegor the Cruel also engaged in a trial of seven against the champions of the Faith Militant, about a century and a half before Ser Duncan's trial.
- Trial by combat on A Wiki of Ice and Fire
- Trial of seven on A Wiki of Ice and Fire
- Law and justice on A Wiki of Ice and Fire
- Trial by combat on Wikipedia