REAL story behind ‘The Last Duel’: How knights fought to the death in 1386
They had once been good friends, but on a cold winter’s day in December 1386, French knights Jacques Le Gris and Jean de Carrouges fought bitterly in front of their king.
The two men were engaging in what was the last judicial duel sanctioned by the French monarch, who at that time was King Charles VI.
The captivating saga is the subject of new film The Last Duel, which is released in the UK tomorrow and is based on historian Eric Jager’s 2004 book of the same name.
Directed by Ridley Scott, it stars Matt Damon as Carrouges and Adam Driver as his nemesis Le Gris, whilst Killing Eve star Jodie Comer plays Marguerite and Ben Affleck portrays other leading character Pierre D’Alencon, a count and knight.
The reason for the duel? Carrouges had accused Le Gris of raping his wife, Marguerite, while she was alone at his mother’s chateau.
When an ordinary court failed to determine Le Gris’s guilt, Carrouges demanded a trial by combat and the king agreed to let it take place.
Horrendously, if Carrouges were to lose the fight, Marguerite – who was forced to watch while flanked by guards – would be burnt alive at the stake for lying about her ordeal.
Ultimately though, it was Carrouges who triumphed, by gruesomely thrusting his sword through Le Gris’s throat after the accused man insisted for the final time that he was innocent.
They had once been good friends, but on a cold winter’s day in December 1386, French knights Jacques Le Gris and Jean de Carrouges fought bitterly in front of their king. The conflict is the subject of new film The Last Duel, which stars Matt Damon as Carrouges and Adam Driver as Le Gris. They are pictured in character above (Damon right)
The two men were engaging in what was the last judicial duel sanctioned by the French monarch, who at that time was King Charles VI. The reason for their fight? Carrouges had accused Le Gris of raping his wife, Marguerite, while she was alone at his mother’s chateau. When he went to the king for justice, the monarch ordered the duel to resolve the dispute after an ordinary court trial failed to reach a conclusion. Above: An illustration of the aftermath of the battle shows Carrouges holding Le Gris’s head before the king
Le Gris and Carrouges started off as close friends and both served as chamberlains in the court of the powerful Pierre D’Alencon, a cousin of the king, whose seat was the Palace of Argentan, in northwest France, which remains standing today.
‘When Jean’s wife Jeanne gave birth to their son, Jean asked Jacques to serve as godfather,’ notes Jager.
‘This was a great honor in the Middle Ages, especially among the nobility, for whom a godparent was virtually a family member.’
The Last Duel: a Medieval epic with more to it than you think
On its mud-and-blood surface, ‘The Last Duel’ seems like a familiar slog.
The film, directed by Ridley Scott, begins with all the expected medieval trappings: gory battlefields, imposing stone castles, the clop of horses.
The skies are gray, the terrain muddy and, considering this film is by the director of ‘Robin Hood,’ ‘Gladiator’ and other brawny. masculine historical epics, you think you know exactly what’s in store.
But ‘The Last Duel’ may be one of the only films where the director, himself, is kind of a MacGuffin.
The movie, written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, is not the tale of manly valor that it first appears. ‘
The Last Duel is more like a medieval tale deconstructed, piece by piece, until its heavily armored male characters and the genre’s mythologized nobility are unmasked.
However while Carrouges’s family was much older and far more distinguished than Le Gris’s, Le Gris’s star rose much faster in D’Alencon’s court.
This favouritism was demonstrated in D’Alencon’s decision to gift Le Gris a large and valuable estate, Aunou-le-Faucon, sparking jealousy in Carrouges.
The estate had belonged to the infamous Robert de Thibouville, a Normandy traitor who had twice betrayed the kings of France.
But D’Alencon bought it from de Thibouville in 1977, gaining a prized portion of land.
In 1381, Carrouges married de Thibouville’s daughter, Marguerite, who was famed for her beauty and modesty.
He then embarked on a campaign to gain control of the estate of Aunou-le-Faucon, arguing it should have rightfully been part of the dowry.
However, the knight’s lawsuit made him unpopular and made him further estranged from D’Alencon’s circle.
There were to be two more quarrels in the space of as many years. Firstly, when Carrouge’s father died, his post as the captaincy of Bellême was not passed down to his son. Instead it was returned to the control of D’Alencon, who gave it to another man.
The following year, Carrouges tried to sue D’Alencon over his repossession of two fiefdom’s that Carrouges had procured at great expense. None of his attempts were successful.
Although these two latter quarrels did not directly involve Le Gris, his proximity to the Count meant he sided against Carrouges by association. Relations between the two men had turned icy and Carrouges became convinced Le Gris was plotting behind his back.
‘To the bitter and suspicious Carrouges, his string of losses pointed to one conclusion: his old friend, in whom he had once trusted and confided, had treacherously betrayed him in order to advance himself,’ writes Jager. ‘Le Gris had risen in the court by stepping on Carrouges.’
A public feud with the Count’s favourite made Carrouges an outcast at court. For more than a year he stayed away, all the while Le Gris’s standing grew ever more certain.
An apparent turning point came at a festive party in 1384. Accounts from the time report the two men walked straight up to each other and shook hands, in a gesture of reconciliation that was met with cheers from the crowd.
Carrouges instructed his young wife Marguerite to kiss Le Gris as a sign of friendship.
Horrendously, if Carrouges were to lose the fight, Marguerite – who was forced to watch while flanked by guards – would be burnt alive at the stake for lying about her ordeal. Above: Marguerite is played by Jodie Comer in the new film
Ultimately though, it was Carrouges who triumphed, by gruesomely thrusting his sword through Le Gris’s throat, after the accused man insisted for the final time that he was innocent
Carrouges and Marguerite married in 1381, three years before his encounter with Le Gris in Paris. Above: Damon and Comer portraying the pair in The Last Duel
The final and ultimately fatal accusation came from Carrouges in January 1386.
The knight claimed that, a year earlier, Marguerite had been raped while he was in Paris and she was staying with his mother.
A history of judicial duels: From a settling disputes to a divine occurrence
Trial by combat was an ancient custom in France, especially Normandy. In the earlier Middle Ages people of all social classes could resort to judicial combat.
By 1200 the duel began disappearing from civil proceedings, while in criminal cases it was limited to males of the nobility.