One bitterly cold morning in December 1386, a crowd of thousands including the young French king Charles VI and his court gathered behind a monastery in Paris to watch two knights duel to the death.
On the feast day of St Thomas Becket, they enthusiastically lined a walled field ringed by guards within which the two men in full plate armour would fight with lance, axe, sword and dagger to defend their honour.
Jean de Carrouges, a Norman knight, accused his former bosom friend, Jacques Le Gris, of raping his wife and had been granted the right to a trial by combat, a legally-sanctioned death match in which God, it was assumed, would favour the righteous party with victory.
However, if this brutal form of case resolution — also known as a judicial duel — wasn’t barbaric enough, there was an added twist.
Overlooking the field, a black-draped scaffold had been set up where a beautiful woman, Marguerite de Carrouges, sat surrounded by guards.
The Last Duel, which was released in the UK last Friday, stars Matt Damon and Adam Driver as Carrouges and Le Gris, Ben Affleck as their liege lord the Count of Alencon, and British actress Jodie Comer — who came to fame as the psychopathic Villanelle in Killing Eve — as Marguerite
If her husband lost the duel, that would mean she had unjustly accused Le Gris of rape and would be summarily burnt alive.
The epic battle between Carrouges and Le Gris is well-known in France where it became so infamous that it pretty much put an end to judicial duels.
And it is now famous around the world because it is the subject of Sir Ridley Scott’s latest blockbuster feature film.
The Last Duel, which was released in the UK last Friday, stars Matt Damon and Adam Driver as Carrouges and Le Gris, Ben Affleck as their liege lord the Count of Alencon, and British actress Jodie Comer — who came to fame as the psychopathic Villanelle in Killing Eve — as Marguerite.
The film is based on a 2004 book of the same name by a U.S. academic, Eric Jager, who conceded it was impossible to know for certain if Marguerite had rightly accused Le Gris. Her husband’s former friend vehemently denied the rape charge and, citing witnesses, said he had been many miles away at the time.
However, Hollywood has never had much time for historical uncertainty and, with its stirring tagline — ‘One woman defied a nation and made history’ — the film leaves little doubt who it believes.
Adam Driver as Jacques LeGris and Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges
And, intriguingly, it was co-written by Damon and Affleck, old friends and collaborators who were both mauled by #MeToo activists for being too supportive of the disgraced film director Harvey Weinstein and for making tone-deaf comments about sexual harassment in their industry.
In what seems like a Tinseltown version of medieval knights doing penance for their sins, the pair have been sounding off about the terrible subjugation of women in medieval times. As further penance, they also subjected themselves to some of the most dreadful haircuts ever seen on screen. But at least they and Sir Ridley don’t need to do much to spice up the story in terms of drama.
As Jager’s research uncovered, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris were not particularly fine fellows. The former, a hardened warrior, was irascible, suspicious and jealous.
The latter was vain and cunning, a squire whose relatively low-born family had muscled its way up the social ladder and become rich. He was also a notorious womaniser.
The men had once been close friends but while Le Gris’s fortunes had risen as he became a favourite of their lord, Count Pierre of Alencon, Carrouges’s star had waned — and he blamed Le Gris.
In 1381, Carrouges married Marguerite de Thibouville, a noblewoman whose beauty and family money helped to compensate for the fact her father had once committed an act of high treason that had left her family under a cloud.
Three years later, it seemed the two men had settled their differences when they met at a mutual friend’s christening party. Jean told his wife, who was meeting Le Gris for the first time, to kiss him as a sign of peace — which, according to custom, she did on the lips.
Eric Jager has little doubt Le Gris was very struck, like everyone, by Marguerite’s beauty.
The encounter which led to the duel occurred in 1385 when Carrouges left Marguerite under the watchful eye of his mother, Nicole, while in Paris. But one day Nicole — with most of the household in tow — had to leave her to give evidence in a court case. It was then, say Le Gris’s accusers, that he arrived at the nearly deserted castle and, together with Adam Louvel, an underling who had fought under Carrouges and would have been trusted by his wife, gained access.
The wealthy squire is said to have employed his usual tactic of offering money in a bid to get Marguerite to sleep with him. When she refused, he and Louvel allegedly resorted to force, dragging her to a bed chamber where she was bound and gagged before Le Gris raped her.
Afterwards, he told her that if she breathed a word she would be dishonoured and only add to her woes. He had a point. Le Gris was a favourite of Count Pierre, in whose court the case would be tried, while Carrouges had long since become an irritant.
Many rape victims kept quiet but not Marguerite. Her decision to speak out may have been influenced by her pregnancy. Given she and Carrouges had remained childless during five years of marriage, there was a strong possibility that Le Gris was the father.
Matters were complicated by the fact it was widely accepted at the time that a woman could only become pregnant if she’d had an orgasm during conception — in other words, she couldn’t have conceived from a rape.
Could Jean have suspected that Marguerite (who would later give birth to a son) gave herself willingly to his worst enemy? If he did, he kept it to himself, furiously taking his wife’s part and demanding justice which the count was duty-bound to provide. However, the Carrouges’ failure to appear at a hearing for reasons unknown gave Count Pierre the perfect excuse to exonerate Le Gris.
Carrouges then went to Paris and appealed directly to the king. The king’s parliament proved unable to rule on the case after hearing evidence in which Carrouges cast Le Gris as a ruthless philanderer who’d lusted after his wife since that first chaste kiss, while Le Gris countered that Carrouges had forced Marguerite to lie.
Successive monarchs had discouraged judicial duels as a distortion of justice but Charles VI, who adored jousting, may have had few reservations about granting Carrouges’s demand for trial by combat. And in front of the king and court, the knight followed protocol, hurling a glove at Le Gris’s feet which his rival picked up.
Both were aged around 50, not young by medieval standards, but on the appointed day the two men set about each other with a will — after Le Gris was quickly knighted to abide by duel rules that they be the same social rank.
First they rode at each other with lances. When they were broken on the knights’ respective shields, they resorted to pulling out battle axes. The two men circled each other on horseback before Le Gris managed to cut down his opponent’s horse and send him crashing to the ground.
When Carrouges managed to dispatch the other warhorse, the pair drew their swords and attacked each other on foot. I won’t ruin the film by revealing who prevailed.
Suffice to say, both men were wounded, one fatally, before the victor rode off the field in triumph, later finding fame and fortune. The loser’s body was stripped and dragged through Paris before being hanged from a gibbet.
French chroniclers over the centuries have not always been convinced by Marguerite’s fateful accusation, some suggesting it might even have been mistaken identity. The case’s notoriety did, however, ensure neither a French king nor the Paris ‘Parlement’ ever again allowed a trial by combat.
Astonishingly, trial by combat is still on the statute books in the U.S. but sporadic requests — some more serious than others — have got nowhere as duelling remains illegal. No judicial system is perfect, but hinging it on the swing of a battle axe has thankfully not stood the test of time.