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Trial by Combat:
The life-and-death duel between James le Gris and Jean de Carrouges

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 thus ordered by the parliament of Paris, where the cause, which had lasted a year, had been tried, between a squire called James le Gris and Jean de Carrouges, both of them of the household of Peter, count d'Alençon, and esteemed by him; but more particularly James le Gris, whom he loved above all others, and placed his whole confidence in him. As this duel made so great a noise, many from distant parts, on hearing of it, came to Paris to be spectators. I will relate the cause, as I was then informed.

- Jean Froissart,Chronicles, Book III

In 1386, a few days after Christmas, two old friends met before the watchful eyes of King Charles VI of France, his court and a rowdy mob. Dressed in full armour, and mounted upon their destriers, they were sealed within an enclosed list. Their objective was simple - each sought to kill the other. Not only their lives now relied upon force of arms to prove God's Judgment, but so did that of the heavily pregnant noblewoman who silently looked on. The crowd grew anxious with anticipation as the knight and squire mounted their horses….

If the above seems the climactic scene of either a Ridley Scott film or a juicy, bodice-ripping romance novel, the events leading to this tragic event - the last trial-by-combat approved by the French Parliament - are equally melodramatic. We would wonder if the famed chronicler Froissart weren't playing the novelist, were not the events corroborated and recorded in numerous other sources. So how did we get here?

Jean de Carrouges was a Norman knight of a very old house, whose life had seen a series of declining fortunes. While bold, even brash, in war, these traits had served him poorly in politics and in his personal affairs. With the death of his overlord, the Count d' Alençon, the new count Pierre was a rather vain man, given to both flattery and fine gifts.

Enter the squire, Jacques le Gris, who was a very different sort of man. Born barely within the rungs of the gentry, he was a clever and charming fellow, with all the skills of the social climber. Oddly, he formed an early, strong bond with Carrouges, and the two undertook a number of adventures together in their youth. Count Pierre also grew interested in this young knight-from-nowhere, and he became a favorite at court. Yet the more that Le Gris drew the Count's praise, the more Carrouges drew his scorn.

Little by little, Sir Jean saw many of his family's traditional holding and rights slipping to others, and he increasingly forced to ply his military skills in foreign expeditions in order to hold what remained. Tragedy struck when his wife died suddenly, leaving Carrouges without an heir. More years of hardship and battle, however, brought the embittered knight consolation in a new bride, Marguerite. The daughter of a traitor, the lady was nevertheless young, beautiful and of an old, wealthy house, and it seemed as if God had thrown them together to repair their broken reputations.

Meanwhile, as Carrouges was out burning villages for booty, Le Gris continued to prove his loyalty and usefulness to Count Pierre (not least by providing several health loans), and the Count naturally rewarded him - by granting Le Gris certain plots of land that Carrouges family had previously held. Carrouges was mortified, not only by the loss of the land, but by his &quote;friend's&quote; contentment to hold it, and he demanded the matter be taken to court. Of course, the court was that of Count Pierre, who naturally concluded that his earlier decision had been within his rights. His famous temper getting the better of him, Carrouges rode for Paris to bring charges against both LeGris and the Count. A minor knight's suit against a great lord was quickly dismissed. Ill-favored before, Carrouges now returned home disgraced, and was soon again seeking his fortunes in foreign wars.

Such were the lives of minor manorial knights in the Middle Ages, and the decline of the Carrouges family (as Marguerite had yet to become pregnant) was little different from many other families. But all of that changed in the most unlikely of ways - an effort by another of Count Pierre's knights, and a friend to both men, who sought to reconcile them during a holiday feast in his own hall. At first it seemed as if this play would bear fruit, Carrouges introduced his young bride and Le Gris complimented her and exchanged pleasant words with his old friend. But something, and the histories are not certain what, made the meeting turn foul and the reconciliation did not go as planned. Whether or not it was another long litany of insults that Le Gris usually had to bear as Carrouges temper and pride again got the better of him, the usually calm, controlled Le Gris seems to have quietly snapped. Carrouges was soon off for Scotland, and Marguerite was left alone with her mother. It is here, as Le Gris enacted his revenge, that Froissart picks up the tale:

He took leave of his lord, the count d'Alençon, and of his wife, who was then a young and handsome lady, and left her in his castle, called Argenteil, on the borders of Perche, and began his journey towards the sea-side. The lady remained, with her household, in this castle, living in the most decent manner. Now it happened (this is the matter of quarrel) that the devil, by divers and perverse temptations, entered the body of James le Gris, and induced him to commit a crime, for which he afterwards paid. He cast his thoughts on the lady of sir Jean de Carrouges, whom he knew to be residing with her attendants, at the castle of Argenteil. One day, therefore, he set out, mounted on the finest horse of the count, and arrived, full gallop, at Argenteil, where he dismounted. The servants made a handsome entertainment for him, because they knew he was a particular friend, and attached to the same lord as their master; and the lady, thinking him no ill, received him with pleasure, led him to her apartment, and shewed him many of her works. James, fully intent to accomplish his wickedness, begged of her to conduct him to the dungeon, for that his visit was partly to examine it. The lady instantly complied, and led him thither; for, as she had the utmost confidence in his honour, she was not accompanied by valet or chambermaid. As soon as they had entered the dungeon, James le Gris fastened the door unnoticed by the lady, who was before him, thinking it might have been the work of the wind, as he gave her to understand.

When they were thus alone, James embraced her, and discovered what his intentions were: the lady was much astonished, and would willingly have escaped had she been able, but the door was fastened; and James, who was a strong man, held her tight in his arms, and flung her down on the floor, and had his will of her. Immediately afterward, he opened the door of the dungeon, and made himself ready to depart. The lady, exasperated with rage at what had passed, remained silent, in tears; but, on his departure, she said to him, -- &quote;James, James, 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.&quote; James mounted his horse, and, quitting the castle, hastened back to his lord, the count d'Alençon, in time to attend his rising at nine o'clock: he had been seen in the hôtel of the count at four o'clock that morning.

Lady Marguerite said nothing of this to anyone, and the days passed. When her husband returned, she told him of Le Gris assault:

When night came, sir Jean went to bed, but his lady excused herself; and, on his kindly pressing her to come to him, she walked very pensively up and down the chamber. At last, when the household were in bed, she flung herself on her knees at his bedside, and bitterly bewailed the insult she had suffered. The knight would not believe it could have happened; but at length, she urged it so strongly, he did believe her, and said, &quote; Certainly, lady, if the matter has passed as you say, I forgive you, but the squire shall die; and I shall consult your and my relations on the subject: should you have told me a falsehood, never more shall you live with me.&quote; The lady again and again assured him, that what she had said was the pure truth.

Sir Jean de Carrouges immediately went to Count Pierre demanding justice - either in the form of Le Gris' confession and punishment or through trial by combat. The Count granted an inquest was held and the lady delivered her charges against Le Gris. The squire denied the charges, insisting that a witness could place him at home that evening. The Count concluded that, as it were impossible to ride seventy miles one day, the charges were impossible. He advised the Lady de Carrouges that she must have dreamt the entire episode, and declared the matter settled. Enraged, Carrouges stormed out, and determined that for the second time, he would go to Paris and appeal to Crown and Parliament to have his overlord's ruling overturned.

The parliament heard the case, and summoned Le Gris, who again claimed his innocence. But now the matter had grown even more complicated, for Marguerite de Carrouges was pregnant, and could not be certain which man was the father. The scandal spread throughout France, and the investigation dragged on.

The cause lasted upwards of a year, and they could not any way compromise it, for the knight was positive, from his wife's information, of the fact, and declared, that since it was now so public, he would pursue it until death. The count d'Alençon, for this, conceived a great hatred against the knight, and would have had him put to death, had he not placed himself under the safeguard of the parliament. It was long pleaded, and the parliament at last, because they could not produce other evidence than herself against James le Gris, judged it should be decided in the tilt-yard, by a duel for life or death. The knight, the squire, and the lady, were instantly put under arrest until the day of this mortal combat, which, by order of parliament, was fixed for the ensuing Monday, in the year 1387; at which time the king of France and his barons were at Sluys, intending to invade England.

The king, on hearing of this duel, declared he would be present at it. The dukes of Berry, Burgundy, Bourbon, and the constable of France, being also desirous of seeing it, agreed it was proper he should be there. The king, in consequence, sent orders to Paris to prolong the day of the duel, for that he would be present. This order was punctually obeyed, and the king and his lords departed for France. … When the king of France was returned to Paris, lists were made for the champions in the place of St. Catherine, behind the Temple; and the lords had erected on one side scaffolds, the better to see the sight. The crowd of people was wonderful. The two champions entered the lists armed at all points, and each was seated in a chair opposite the other; the count de St. Pol directed sir Jean de Carrouges, and the retainers of the count d'Alençon James le Gris.

On the knight entering the field, he went to his lady, who was covered with black and seated on a chair, and said, &quote;Lady, from your accusation, and in your quarrel, am I thus adventuring my life to combat James le Gris: you knew whether my cause be loyal and true.&quote; &quote;My lord,&quote; she replied &quote;it is so; and you may fight securely, for your cause is good.&quote;

The lady remained seated, making fervent prayers to God and the Virgin, entreating humbly, that through her grace and intercession, she might gain the victory according to her right. Her affliction was great, for her life depended on the event; and, should her husband lose the victory, she would have been burnt, and he would have been hanged. I am ignorant, for I never had any conversation with her or the knight, whether she had not frequently repented of having pushed matters so far as to place herself and husband in such peril; but it was now too late, and she must abide the event.

The two champions were then advanced, and placed opposite to each other; when they mounted their horses, and made a handsome appearance, for they were both expert men at arms. They ran their first course without hurt to either. After the tilting, they dismounted, and made ready to continue the fight. They behaved with courage; but sir Jean de Carrouges was, at the first onset, wounded in the thigh, which alarmed all his friends: notwithstanding this, he fought so desperately that he struck down his adversary, and, thrusting his sword through the body, caused instant death; when he demanded of the spectators if he had done his duty: they replied that he had.

The body of James le Gris was delivered to the hangman, who dragged it to Montfaucon, and there hanged it. Sir Jean de Carrouges approached the king and fell on his knees: the king made him rise, and ordered one thousand francs to be paid him that very day: he also retained him of his household, with a pension of two hundred livres a-year, which he received as long as he lived. Sir Jean, after thanking the king and his lords, went to his lady and kissed her: they went together to make their offering in the church of Nôtre Dame, and then returned to their home.

Sir Jean de Carrouges did not remain long after in France, but set off, in company with the lord Boucicaut, sir Jean des Bordes, and Sir Lewis Grat, to visit the Holy Sepulchre, and the sultan of the Turks, whose fame was much talked of in France. Sir Robinet de Boulogne was also with him: he was squire of honour to the king of France, and had travelled much over the world.

This was the last judicial duel to be sanctioned by the French parliament. While many other judicial combat did occur in the 15th and early 16th centuries, they occurred in the realms of great lords who could defy the parliament if they chose, such as Brittany and Burgundy, and in the 16th century, under the direct authority of the King himself. This practice would end in 1547, with another bloody combat fought over a woman's honor - the famed Jarnac-Chastaineraye duel. From this time forward, the formal judicial combat was replaced by illicit, private duels.

As for the Lord and Lady de Carrouges, their survival of the bloody affair brought them a great deal of fame, and not a little infamy. Whispers of what really happened that night continued to circulate around Marguerite, especially after she bore her son, who became Jean de Carrouges' heir. Carrouges himself became a favorite of the king and was entered as one of his own knights, at last gaining a measure of the wealth and fame he had long sought. Ironically, this fame may have worked against him. Jean de Carrouges was chosen by Boucicault, the Marshal of France, to attend upon him in a crusade upon the Turks, a crusade which claimed his life at the disastrous battle of Nicopolis in 1396.

As for Le Gris, his guilt or innocence continue to be debated, not only throughout the life of his accusers, but down the centuries, giving rise to several alternate versions of the tale, and even launching a formal inquest and investigation of the case in the 18th century (in which Le Gris was convicted). Yet still the old myths persist and the knight, the squire and the lady, or at least their places in history, remain locked in battle.

 

Bibliography

Froissart,Chronicles, Book Three. (from the Thomas Johnes, translation, v. 2, pp. 203-06 .)
Nielson, George,Trial by Combat. Ediburgh, 1890 (2000 reprint).
For the latest, and perhaps most thorough, treatment of the Carrouges-LeGris duel, a new work,The Last Duelby Eric Jager, is highly recommended (www.thelastduel.com).

To see how a knight of this time might be armed for such an encounter in the lists, see our articleHow a Man Shall Be Armed.

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