It was a cold morning on December 29, 1386 in Paris. Lady Marguerite de Carrouges sat on the sidelines of the dueling field dressed in all black. It was a somber occasion as she waited for the duel between her husband and his old friend Jacques le Gris to begin. Not only was her husbands life on the line, but her own as well. If he lost the duel, she would be burned at the stake.
Her husband, Sir Jean de Carrouges, was a knight serving under Count Pierre d’Alençon, along with his childhood friend squire Jacques le Gris. Jacques and Jean used to be very close, but in prior years had become strained over land disputes and Jacques receiving more favor from their lord. Despite this, they tried to put these disagreements behind them and move on.
In January of 1386, Jean left for business, leaving his wife Marguerite at home in his castle. On January 18th, Jacques set out to visit Marguerite. As always, the servants welcomed him, and despite the tension between him and Jean, Marguerite still trusted him as a familiar family friend. He requested a tour of the house and while in the basement, he locked the door. Jacques confessed his love to Marguerite, which she did not return as she was faithful to her husband. With the door locked she had no way to escape. He quickly overpowered her, threw her to the ground and raped her before taking his leave.
This is what Marguerite claimed, at least. As criminal forensics was not so developed in the 1300s, and there were no witnesses, this unfortunately became a “he said, she said” situation.
Marguerite tried to stay quiet and keep the matter to herself rather than shame her honor by bringing the details to light, but upon Jean’s return home, she broke down sobbing and confessed what happened. At first he could not believe that his friend Jacques could do such a thing, but she testified with such conviction that he believed her.
The next morning, Jean sent special messengers to his friends and family asking them to come immediately. Once everyone gathered, Jean broke the news of the incident to them. Marguerite recounted the details and provided her side of the story. Jean asked for their advice on how to handle such a serious matter. They encouraged him to tell his lord what happened.
Unsurprisingly, Count d’Alençon did not believe him as he had always favored Jacques, but allowed all parties to come and give their testimony and evidence. Jacques denied the charge, asking what he could have done to Marguerite to make her hate him so much to accuse him of so serious a crime.
There was little evidence that could be provided except for friends of Jacques accounting for his whereabouts at certain times. Marguerite’s testimony carried weight however as a Lady would never shame herself by bringing something like this public.
Ultimately, Count d’Alençon sided with Jacques. He claimed that Marguerite must have dreamt this, and he wanted nothing else to be said or done on the matter.
Jean, believing his wife and wanting justice, immediately went to Paris to seek counsel with parliament. The summoned Jacques who provided his defense, but pledged to obey any judgement that parliament decreed. For nearly a year testimony and “evidence” were collected, but with no compromises and the fact that this was now public, it would be pursued until it was settled. Even Jacques’ lawyer claimed that no one but Jacque and Marguerite knew the truth. This infuriated Count d’Alençon who claimed he would have Jean executed for this if it weren’t for parliament’s involvement.
After reviewing all available evidence, Parliament could not determine the truth in the matter. The only way to settle the dispute would be by a trial by combat. The men would duel to the death to settle this matter.
In this time period, duels were not uncommon, but it was rare for two noblemen to pursue this route. Their logic was that only God knows the truth, and during a duel he would choose the righteous party as the victor, and the lying party would be punished by death.
In this scenario, if Jacques were killed, it was because he had committed the crime. If he was victorious it was because he was telling the truth and Jean would be punished for lying by being killed in the duel. Further, if Jean lost, Marguerite would be sentenced to death by burning at the stake for perjury.
Once parliament declared the duel, all parties involved were put under arrest until the day of combat. As the case had become public, King Charles VI and other royalty were planning to attend, in addition to many commoners interested in the story. Scaffolds were built at the dueling site to support the crowds.
On December 29th 1386, the crowd packed in to witness the duel. Marguerite sat on the sidelines all in black, solemnly praying as she waited to learn her fate.
Jacques and Jean entered the field, and Jean went straight to his wife.
He said to her:
“Lady, from your accusation, and in your quarrel, am I thus adventuring my life to combat Jacques le Gris: you knew whether my cause be loyal and true.”
“My lord, it is so; and you may fight securely, for your cause is good.”
Both men put on their heavy armor, picked up their lances and mounted their horses. They rode up to the line, ready for battle.
To the Death
At the signal both galloped full speed towards each other, lances raised. Each struck the other’s shield, but both remained atop their horses and neither was injured. Lining up and galloping again, they missed each other. A final time, they lined up, raised their lances and sprinted towards each other. Both hit their opponent’s shield perfectly, shattering their lances.
Still on their horses, the men drew their axes and began circling each other. Swinging their axes and blocking with their shields, the sounds of their weapons clashing must have been thunderous. Jacques struck Jean’s horse with an axe, causing it to collapse immediately. Jean rolled from his fallen horse, grabbing his axe and preparing for Jacques next attack. As Jacques’ horse galloped up to him, Jean took the pointed end of his axe and stabbed it through Jacques’ horse.
Both men now on their feet drew their swords and circled each other again. Swinging their swords furiously, they blocked with their shields and dodged, trying to get the upper hand. Jacques lunged forward stabbing Jean through the thigh. Jacques pulled the sword out and stepped backwards, away from Jean.
Jean took his chance and leapt forward, grabbing Jacques by the helmet and pulling him to the ground. Due to the weight of his heavy armor, Jacques was unable to get up. Knocking Jacques sword out of his hand, Jean threw himself atop him and began stabbing with his sword anywhere he could reach. Shouting at Jacques, he demanded that he confess his guilt. As Jacques struggled, Jean managed to open his opponent’s visor. Jacques cried out, swearing to God that he was innocent of the crime.
Using his dagger, Jean stabbed Jacques straight through the throat, killing him.
Jean approached the king and bowed. He shouted to the crowd, asking if he had done his duty. The crowd shouted back yes. The duel was over.
He fell to his knees before the king. The king ordered him to rise and awarded him 1,000 francs and promised a pension of 200 livres a year for the rest of his life. He thanked the king and immediately went to Marguerite. Embracing and kissing, the two left together to visit the Cathedral of Notre-Dame to make offerings and went home.
Jacques’ body was stripped of his armor and given to Paris’ executioner. The executioner tied his body to a cart and dragged it through the streets of Paris, out of the city and to the Gibbet of Montfaucon, the massive gallows used to execute criminals and display the bodies of those executed. Hung by chains, Jacques’ body was left to rot.
Was Jacques le Gris really guilty of the rape of Marguerite de Carrouges?
We just don’t know. There wasn’t enough evidence for the courts at the time to decide, so there’s certainly not enough for us to make a determination over 600 years later. This has not stopped historians from speculating, and over time, there are opinion for and against his innocence.
Despite our inability to know the truth, or maybe because of, the duel of Jacques le Gris and Jean de Carrouges has become legendary as one of the last judicial duels ever allowed in France.
- Stevem@nipissingu.ca. (n.d.). Tales from Froissart. Froissart: The Life-and-Death Duel Between James le Gris and John de Carogne. Retrieved September 13, 2022, from https://web.archive.org/web/20151013075248/http://faculty.nipissingu.ca/muhlberger/FROISSART/TRIAL.HTM
- Stevem. (n.d.). An account of the duel between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris in the chronicle of the monk of st. denis. An Account of a Duel in the Chronicle of the Monk of St. Denis. Retrieved September 13, 2022, from https://uts.nipissingu.ca/muhlberger/FROISSART/RELIG3E.HTM
- Heil, J.-P. (2021, October 15). The True Story Behind The Last Duel. Time. Retrieved September 13, 2022, from https://time.com/6106868/the-last-duel-true-story/
- Magazine, S. (2021, October 14). The True History Behind ‘The Last Duel.’ Smithsonian.com. Retrieved September 13, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-true-history-behind-the-last-duel-180978860/
- Rennix, A., & Abraham, S. (2020). Trial by Combat and the Myths of Our Modern Legal System. Current Affairs. Retrieved September 13, 2022, from https://www.currentaffairs.org/2021/02/trial-by-combat-and-the-myths-of-our-modern-legal-system
- Jager, E. (2005). In The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal and Trial by Combat in Medieval France (pp. 164–182).