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France’s last trial by combat - a historic tale of honour and revenge

Art historian Dr Julia Faiers recounts the real history of the deathly duel between two Norman nobles in medieval Paris

(Clockwise from left) Jodie Comer played Marguerite in The Last Duel; Miniature by Jean of Wavrin, 1480, depicting the deadly dual; Château d’Alençon, the seat of Pierre Alençon Pic: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock/ Wikimedia Commons Public Domain / Marie-Anaïs Thierry, OT Normandie

The Last Duel, a film by Ridley Scott released last year, starring Jodie Comer, Matt Damon and Adam Driver, is named after an infamous event that took place in Paris in 1386. 

The film tells the story of Norman nobles Jean de Carrouges IV and Jacques le Gris, friends turned rivals, who fight to the death for love and honour. 

The Last Duel’s main characters appear to have been stars in their own right back in fourteenth-century France. 

Chronicler recounts story

At the end of the fourteenth century, the chronicler Jean Froissart wrote: “About this period there was much conversation in France respecting a duel which was to be fought, for life or death, at Paris. 

“It had been ordered thus by the Parliament of Paris, where the cause, which had lasted a year, had been tried between a squire called Jacques le Gris and Jean de Carrouges… As this duel made so great a noise, many from distant parts, on hearing of it, came to Paris to be spectators.” 

Read more: Visit one of France’s medieval festivals and reenactments this summer

Froissart goes on to explain why the two nobles came to be lethal sparring partners. 

It seems the tale of their rivalry – and the treachery that ensued – had reached far beyond the boundaries of Normandy. But why? 

Vying to be favourite 

Jean de Carrouges, a vassal of the count of Alençon, inherited a château built for its strategic position on a hill overlooking the border of Normandy with France. 

His ambitions for land stretched further than his eyes could see from the château de Carrouges. 

He married Jeanne de Tilly for the land and rents she brought to the marriage. 

Jeanne soon bore him a son, whereupon Jean named his friend, Jacques le Gris, the boy’s godfather. 

Their lord, the Count of Alençon, died without an heir, leaving his brother Pierre d’Alençon free to claim his vast lands, properties and titles. 

The friends now vied for the count’s respect and affection, and the favours that entailed. 

Jacques le Gris won the charm offensive, coming away with the estate of Arnou-le-Faucon, while Jean was overlooked. 

Strategic marriage for Jean de Carrouges

When Jean’s young wife and son died, he sought distraction by joining the King’s forces to fight the English in the north of Normandy. 

The battlefield clearly rejuvenated the bereaved Carrouges, who courted and then married Marguerite de Thibouville who, according to Froissart, was quite the catch. 

As well as being beautiful, Marguerite also had a spurious claim to the estate that Pierre d’Alençon had gifted to Jean’s old friend Jacques le Gris. 

Jean took Jacques to court, arguing that the property should have formed part of Marguerite’s dowry. Jean lost the case, as well as a good deal of money and respect.

de Carrouges leaves to collect reward from King

In 1385, another spell fighting in Scotland for King Charles VI earned Jean a knighthood, bestowed on the battlefield itself. He returned to Normandy with his honour restored. 

In January 1386 he bade farewell to Marguerite at her mother’s château in Capomesnil and headed to Paris to collect a monetary reward from the King. 

According to Froissart, what followed Jean’s departure set the ball rolling for the deathly duel. 

Jacques le Gris forces himself on Marguerite

And while both Jean Froissart and Ridley Scott may have embellished the truth for the sake of a good story, there is every reason to believe that a felony occurred while Jean was away on business. 

Froissart recounts how Jacques le Gris inveigled his way into the château de Capomesnil and past Marguerite’s servants, asking the Lady for a guided tour of the castle dungeon, which he wished to inspect. 

The pair entered a cell, le Gris locked the door, blaming its closure on a draught, and then proceeded to force himself on Marguerite. 

Chronicler imagined Marguerite’s threat

After describing the attack, Froissart puts words in Marguerite’s mouth, as if he were a fly on the dungeon wall, stating that the Lady, in tears, told her attacker as he left; 

“Jacques, you have not done well in thus deflowering me: the blame, however, shall not be mine, but the whole be laid on you, if it please God my husband ever return.”

Return he did, and in a desperate bid to reveal his old rival’s treachery and defend his wife’s honour, he pleaded with the King for a trial by combat. 

Survival proved innocence in the eyes of God

Trial by combat, or the judicial duel, was rare by the late fourteenth century, reserved only for heinous crimes of treason or honour, the survivor deemed the innocent party in the eyes of God. 

And so it was that on the morning of 29 December 1386, Jean de Carrouges IV found himself fighting Jacques le Gris not only for justice but for his very life. 

No spoiler here 

Thousands of spectators made their way to the arena at the Abbé Saint-Martin-des-Champs in Paris for the final showdown in what would be the last judicial combat authorised by a king of France. 

But if you want to know who escaped with their life and who was dispatched to the fiery pits of Hell… well, you’ll just have to choose between reading Froissart and watching The Last Duel on Amazon Prime.

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