The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat
The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat

The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat

Larry Holzwarth - February 25, 2022

The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat
At a celebratory feast like this one Carrouges and Le Gris had announced a rapprochement, though it was shortlived. Wikimedia

12. Jacques Le Gris became Carrouges enemy over their positions in Count Pierre’s court

To Carrouges, despite little evidence to support his assertion, Jacques Le Gris became, in Carrouges’ mind, the source of his troubles with his patron, Count Pierre. Le Gris was a fellow squire and veteran of several of the same campaigns as Carrouges. As a member of Count Pierre’s court, he gained favor quickly, arousing jealousy in Carrouges, who felt his influence at court slipping. In 1380, following the death of Carrouges’ first wife, he largely withdrew from society. Both Carrouges and Le Gris were liegemen, retained by Count Pierre, but in Carrouges absence Le Gris’ gained further influence in Pierre’s court. He also gained ruling authority over vast tracts of Pierre’s land, issuing orders in the Count’s name. Le Gris gained control over lands which exceeded the holdings of Carrouges, which greatly nettled the former.

Le Gris’s position with Count Pierre necessarily brought him into legal conflicts with Carrouges in the disputes over land. As Le Gris’s personal holdings expanded, frequently at the expense of Carrouges, the two developed animosity towards each other. In 1384 both men attended a celebration over the birth of a neighbor’s son. The event marked the first time Carrouges appeared in a social setting accompanied by his wife, Marguerite. At the event, Le Gris and Carrouges expressed a mutual friendship before their neighbors and other members of Count Pierre’s court. Shortly after, in yet another attempt to add to his holdings, Carrouges departed on another military campaign in Scotland. It was during this campaign that Carrouges obtained his knighthood, though the campaign itself was militarily unsuccessful. By January, 1386, Carrouges was bankrupt.

The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat
After Count Pierre ruled Le Gris was innocent, Charles VI agreed to have the case heard before the Parlement of Paris. Wikimedia

13. Carrouges claimed his former friend raped Marguerite while he was absent in Paris

In early 1386, Jean de Carrouges traveled to Paris, hoping to obtain funds owed to him from his most recent military campaign. Marguerite did not travel to Paris with him. In January, Le Gris first heard that Carrouges had accused him of raping Marguerite. According to Marguerite, a servant of Le Gris’s, Adam Louvel, entered the home of Carrouges’ mother, where she had been staying and announced Le Gris was outside. When she declined to receive him, Le Gris and Louvel forcibly entered the home, where Marguerite was alone, and the former raped her with Louvel’s assistance. There were no servants in the house, they were attending Carrouges’ mother as she attended to business in another town. Carrouges demanded a trial in the Court of Count Pierre, though Marguerite refused to appear.

She argued that Count Pierre’s decision would be foreordained, with Le Gris being exonerated. She was correct. Count Pierre found Marguerite’s tale implausible and cleared Le Gris. Carrouges then took his complaint to the Court of King Charles VI, demanding his right of trial by combat. The King ordered the case to be heard before the Parlement of Paris, a body of nobles and churchmen. There, the visibly pregnant Marguerite related her story. The learned men of the medical profession announced to the court that pregnancy was immaterial to the case, as it was impossible for a woman to become pregnant as a result of a rape. Although there is evidence that Le Gris’s own lawyer, Jean le Coq, considered his client guilty of the charge, Le Gris insisted he was innocent. When Carrouges demanded his right of trial by combat before the court, Le Gris accepted.

The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat
The Parlement of Paris heard the case in the Palais de Justice before agreeing to order a trial by combat. Library of Congress

14. The Parlement of Paris heard witnesses before arriving at their decision

Adam Louvel, as well as several servants, gave testimony before the Parlement and were subject to trial by ordeal to ensure their veracity. According to the priests responsible for the interrogation, none of the witnesses provided evidence indicating Le Gris’s guilt. The trial ran throughout the summer of 1386. Le Gris provided, in addition to the witnesses, information indicating he had been nowhere near the site of the accused rape during the period it was alleged to have taken place. Other squires in the service of Count Pierre supported his alibi. By September it was evident that the Parlement could not reach a verdict in the case. The Parlement decided the issue would be settled by judicial combat. It also announced that Marguerite would appear at the combat, and if Le Gris prevailed, indicating his innocence, she would suffer death.

Their decision required the approval of the King, who was then campaigning in Flanders. When the King was informed the duel would take place in late November he issued a postponement. Not wanting to miss such a historic event, he scheduled the duel for December 29. The Abbey of Saint Martin des Champs, outside Paris, was selected as the site for the combat. Stands for spectators and a Royal Box for the King and his retinue were erected at the Abbey. Nobles from throughout the King’s realm prepared to attend, and seating for the lowborn was provided. For the latter, warnings were issued that the combat was to be viewed in silence, at the pain of losing one’s hand should they make noise. The weapons were selected, with both men jousting with lances, attempting to unhorse their enemy. They were also to carry a broadsword, battleaxe, and a dagger.

The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat
Charles VI, with his mistress Odette, ordered the combat delayed to ensure they would be able to attend. Wikimedia

15. Le Gris was knighted before the battle

Technically, Jean de Carrouges, having been knighted during his most recent military campaign, outranked his foe, who remained a mere squire. In order to ensure both men were on the same strata of society, Jacques Le Gris was elevated to the knighthood after entering the arena in which the battle took place. Before the ceremony making him a knight, both Le Gris and Carrouges repeated their charges against one another; Carrouges accusing Le Gris of rape, and the latter accusing Carrouges and Marguerite of making false charges. To this, they swore an oath before the Parlement, the King, and God. The oath was a necessary step to ensure the Almighty would intervene to establish the truth and resolve the proceedings. They then mounted their horses, with lance and shield deployed, and charged each other.

The first two charges were uneventful, on the third, both men’s lances were broken. Remaining horsed, the two men fought with battleaxes until Carrouges’ horse was wounded, throwing him. He successfully regained his feet, wounding Le Gris’s horse in the process, and the two men faced each other on foot. Then armed with their broadswords the two men continued to fight. Le Gris drew first blood, wounding his opponent in the thigh. As he moved in for the kill, Carrouges grappled with Le Gris, forcing him to the ground. Both men wore heavy armor, and Le Gris could not regain his feet as Carrouges lay upon him. Le Gris then called out, once more proclaiming his innocence, before Carrouges killed him using his dagger, stabbing him through the throat. The crowd received the divine judgment with cheers of approval, and Carrouges received several awards from the King.

The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat
A somewhat fanciful depiction of the judicial combat between Le Gris and Carrouges. HROARR

16. Jean de Carrouges received financial rewards from his King following his victory

Jean de Carrouges received an immediate financial reward from the King, along with a promise of an annual stipend for the remainder of his life. The victorious knight, accompanied by Marguerite, then led a procession to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Le Gris’s body was dragged through the streets, stripped of his armor and clothes, to be hung to rot with those of other criminals. Eventually, the remains were disposed of in a common grave, without benefit of clergy, since he had obviously sworn a false oath before God. The Parlement of Paris added an additional sum to Carrouges’ remuneration, giving him sufficient wealth to purchase the lands he coveted. In this, he failed. Count Pierre held title to the lands and had supported Le Gris. He refused to sell them to his favorite’s killer, despite the ramifications of divine judgment implied by trial by combat.

By 1390, Jean de Carrouges had been elevated to a position as a Chevalier D’honneur, placing him in the bodyguard of the King. Despite his favorable position in the King’s court, and his financial rewards, he could not persuade Count Pierre to part with the lands he believed were his by right of dowry. He participated in several more campaigns against the English and their allies and maintained residences in Paris and Normandy. The story of his accusations and trial by combat became a near legend across France, and he enjoyed the notoriety which it brought him. Marguerite bore him an additional two sons. In 1392, Carrouges was one of several royal bodyguards forced to subdue the King when he went mad during a campaign in Brittany. It was the first of several periods of madness suffered by King Charles VI in the later years of his reign.

The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat
Chevalier Jean de Carrouges met his fate at the Battle of Nicopolos in 1396. Wikimedia

17. Jean de Carrouges returned to the wars despite achieving considerable wealth

In 1396 Jean de Carrouges joined in the Crusade of Nicopolis, serving under Jean de Vienne. The army swept through Central Europe, fighting the forces of the Ottoman Empire. They captured the now Bulgarian fortress city of Vidin, and in the honored tradition of the time massacred the Ottoman residents of the town. They then proceeded to Nicopolis, which they found too strongly defended and fortified to take by assault. The crusaders established a siege, and when they learned of a large relieving force nearby, attempted to force the city in an attack in late September. Both Carrouges and his commander, Jean de Vienne, perished in the battle. By then, Carrouges and his battle with Jacques Le Gris had already attained near-legendary status throughout France. Several versions of the story, embellished by the tellers, appeared in French literature. Yet even before his death, there were those who questioned Carrouges’ version of the story.

Both Voltaire and Denis Diderot wrote of the judicial combat, though neither claimed it to be the last example of approved judicial combat in French history. Over the centuries it gained that reputation, though judicial combats continued in France well into the 16th century. They fell out of favor with the Roman Church, and thus pressure from the bishops and cardinals led to the nobles’ disapproval of the “right” cited by Le Gris and Carrouges. Charles I of Great Britain interceded to prevent judicial combat in England in 1631, though Parliament did not abolish judicial combat until 1819. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Laertes and Hamlet engage in judicial combat. Both characters die as a result of the combat. Technically, judicial combat was still legal in the British North American colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and the ensuing United States has never legally abolished the practice.

The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat
Then Vice-President Aaron Burr fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton following the strict rules of the Code Duello. Library of Congress

18. The practice of fighting duels evolved from trial by combat

Fighting a duel to resolve private differences was widely practiced among the nobility concurrent with the sanctioned trials by combat. Laws against the practice of duels existed while trial by combat was still widely asserted to be a right among the nobility. In the early years of the 13th-century dueling was officially outlawed by the Church, via the 4th Council of Lateran. Trial by combat was officially authorized by a court. Duels were arranged by the individuals involved, who negotiated the conditions of combat and the weapons to be used through representatives called seconds. Between the issuing of a challenge and the conduct of the duel itself, neither involved party could officially recognize the other. They were controlled through the Code Duello, which first appeared in Renaissance Italy. France had a similar code, which was formally published.

Duels were not necessarily fought to the death, though those arrangements could be made by the seconds. The emergence of firearms made the practice of dueling yet more dangerous since the practice of medicine lagged far behind the development of weapons. Even the slightest wound could fester, and eventually kill. By the late 18th century the practice of dueling was frowned upon by the authorities in most European countries, though in the more independently minded American colonies, and later states, the practice continued well into the 19th century. One of the most famous duels in history, that between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, took place in New Jersey, though both men resided in New York. The site was selected because New Jersey did not aggressively enforce its laws against dueling, while New York did. New Jersey did indict the victorious Burr, though the charges were dropped.

The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat
To date, no laws in the United States have been enacted to make trial by combat illegal. Wikimedia

19. An American requested trial by combat in 2020

In 2020, a Kansas man requested a court in Iowa sanction trial by combat to resolve a child custody dispute. He called for his ex-wife to engage in combat, to be fought with Samurai swords, though he suggested that his former spouse’s lawyer could stand-in for her, in the role of a champion. He made clear in his petition to the court that he intended to kill whomever of the two appeared against him in battle. In March 2020, in response to the man’s request, the court ordered him to undergo a psychological evaluation to determine whether or not he was sane. After the evaluation gave the petitioner a clean bill of mental health the court found him sane, and the petitioner demanded his ex-wife and her attorney undergo similar evaluations.

Other legal disputes have led to similar motions in courts in the United States, which has never outlawed trial by combat specifically, at least not at the federal level. All states outlawed dueling, most of them before the Civil War. Dueling fell out of favor among the general public, though it lasted longer in the Old South than in the rest of the country, and by 1860 was all but gone. In 1983 a Delaware court rejected an appeal for trial by combat submitted by a defendant, citing the illegality of dueling in the state. Such requests are not limited to the United States. In 2002 a British court denied a request for trial by combat. The request was made over a dispute between the plaintiff and the Driver and Vehicle License Agency. Great Britain officially abolished trial by combat (called wager of battle in Britain) in 1819, through an Act of Parliament.

The True Story of The Last Duel and Judicial Combat
Trial by jury has long since supplanted trial by combat in judicial systems around the world. Flickr

20. The emergence of the jury system brought an end to trial by combat

By the beginning of the 14th century, the legal profession and the practice of trial by jury gradually brought about an end to the practice of trial by combat, though several occurred into the 16th century. The opposition of the Church to the practice rendered it unpopular with courts and magistrates. Nonetheless, many nobles and minor nobles, such as Jean de Carrouges, demanded it as their birthright. The last known legally sanctioned judicial combat in France took place in in the mid-16th century. In Britain, the last likely occurred in 1597. Other proposed wagers of battle in Britain were circumvented by the intervention of the monarch, including Elizabeth I and Charles I during their reigns. Certainly, the most well-remembered of all trials by combat remains the affair of Jean de Carrouges and his slaying of Jacque Le Gris.

In the centuries since, some scholars have argued that Le Gris was unjustly maligned by Carrouges, whose motives seemed to be the removal of a rival from court, rather than outrage over his wife’s rape. Others have stated Marguerite put her own life at risk by refusing to recant her charge against Jacques Le Gris. Had her husband lost the battle, she faced burning at the stake. Thus, three lives were at stake when Le Gris and Carrouges took the field. Had Le Gris confessed to the crime of rape once combat had begun, he would have been executed, though not for rape, a property crime. He would have been executed for giving a false oath before God. Following his death, the absurdity of relying on the Almighty to render judgment on those accused of a crime through trial by combat gradually led to its fading into history.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Trial by Battle”. Article, Peter T. Leeson. Yale Law School. Online

“The History behind demands for ‘Trial by Combat'”. Eric Jager, History News Network. March 7, 2021

“The Medieval Revival of Roman Law: Implications for Contemporary Legal Education”. Henry Mather, The Catholic Lawyer. Spring, 2002

“Ordeal: Trial Method”. Article, Britannica Online.

“Trial by Ordeal: When fire and water determined guilt”. Duncan Leatherdale, BBC News. February 9, 2019

“Trial by Ordeal”. Robert C. Palmer, Michigan Law Review. 1989

“King Henry III”. Jessica Brain, Historic UK. Online

“The Last Duel”. Article, History vs. Hollywood. Online

“A Brief History of Trial by Combat”. Alex Mayyasi, Priceonomics. Online

“Under law, rape was at first a crime only against a father’s property”. Susan Brownmiller, The New York Times. October 1, 1975

“Trial by Combat: Medieval and Modern”. Ken Mondschein, Online

“Trial battle in France and England”. Ariella Elema, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto. 2012. Online

“Medieval trial by combat: the real history behind The Last Duel”. Hannah Skoda, History Extra. October 15, 2021. Online

“The True History Behind ‘The Last Duel'”. Meilan Solly, Smithsonian Magazine. October 14, 2021

“The True Story Behind ‘The Last Duel’ – and History’s Attempt to Erase It”. John-Paul Heil, TIME Magazine. October 15, 2021

“Who is Marguerite de Carrouges?” Olivia Olphin, The Focus. 2021. Online

“The Last Duel”. Eric Jager. 2004

“The True Story Behind ‘The Last Duel’ Is Still Being Debated”. Arya Roshanian, Bustle. October 15, 2021