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Jean de Carrouges and the last French duel

Château de Carrouges match!

Château de Carrouges match!

Not long into a visit to Château de Carrouges in the Orne, Normandy, the more designy among you will be planning a complete home makeover.

Curvy ankled, firmly padded Louis XV fauteuil (chairs, but you knew that) covered in petit point tapestry against a backdrop of hand printed wallpaper with arabesque motifs will seem a perfectly sensible interior solution. No more Ikea Ribba frames for us, only gold leaf Louis XVI will do.  And why didn’t we think of a Portrait Salon before? Just a smidge of photoshop to Grandma Winifred and we too could be declaring a radiant heritage from our walls.

Interior Château de Carrouges
Château de Carrouges interior

 

 

Château de Carrouges opened our eyes to a lifestyle few of us will ever reach.  Home theatre usually means a bit of surround sound.  Here it means a theatre.  In the house.

It’s not all twiddly bits at Carrouges.  Ancient carved beams show strength as well as wealth.  This Château’s past includes many years as a defensive stronghold.

How to own a Château like Carrouges

So how do you get to own a Château like Carrouges? First go back over 500 years through layers of history deep into the middle ages …

A minor noble with major ambitions, Jean de Carrouges IV came from a respected family of warriors, vassals to the Counts of Alencon.  The Château he inherited in the middle of the hundred years war, at Carrouges, was high on a hill strategically placed overlooking the old border of Normandy with France.  It was a modest defensive building and not the grand Château estate we see today.

Château de Carrouges entrance
Château de Carrouges entrance

For the love of land

Jean eyed the countryside around him and mentally expanded his borders far into the misty distance.  Battling had only brought him so much, he needed a plan.  Shortly afterward he married Jeanne de Tilly, daughter of the Lord of Chambois.  Jeanne’s attractions included a dowry of land and some very useful rents.  A son was soon born and Jean’s friend and neighbour Jacques le Gris became his godfather.  Even for a man described by chroniclers highly temperamental, life was going well for Jean.

Then the old Count of Alencon died childless and his brother Pierre inherited all his properties, land and titles.  The new court circle centred around Argentan; Jean and Jacques swiftly went to pay their respects.  Jacques’s natural charm soon won him Pierre’s favour with the new Count relying increasingly on the tall handsome charmer.  Moody Jean he simply overlooked.

Pierre II, Count of Alençon
Pierre II, Count of Alençon

Jealousy and tragedy

As Jacques reaped the rewards of Countly friendship; a lordship and a rather good estate at Arnou-le-Faucon… Jean struggled with jealousy.  Then tragedy.  His young wife and son both died.  Filled with grief and injustice he had to get away and joined the service of the Knight Jean de Vienne under overall command of King Charles V of France.

During the next five month campaign against the English in the north of Normandy he lost half his men to battle and disease, but Jean’s reputation as a fearsome and brave fighter was assured and crucially he won the respect of his King.

Marriage and Marguerite

Rejuvenated, on his return in 1880 he paid court to the beautiful Marguerite de Thibouville. She was a surprising choice for an ambitious man, but the impetuous Jean was no fool. It was an alliance as well as a marriage.  Marguerite’s father Robert had twice sided in territorial conflicts against the King and lost a fortune in doing so.  He hoped the union would help restore his status and his coffers. For Jean, he hoped his young, modest wife would be blessed with children. But that was not all.

As soon as they were married ambitious Jean started a rather questionable law suit, claiming the Arnou-le-Faucon estate sold to Count Pierre by Marguerites’ father, and given to Jacques le Gris in 1377, was really his.  He said the old man had no right to sell land that should have been part of a dowry.  The case dragged on for months losing Jean even more friends at the Argentan court.  Jean lost.

No legal lessons learnt

Considerably poorer for the experience Jean seethed.  Count Pierre’s decision two years later to give captaincy of Bellême Château to one of his favourites brought the reckless Jean straight back to court for a case against his overlord.  The captaincy had previously been held by Jean’s father. Jean had proved himself a fine warrior, it should be passed to him.  Unsurprisingly Jean lost the case.  He was not welcome back at the Argentan court again.

In 1383 it was made clear to Jean just how unpopular he was with Count Pierre.  Jean purchased some land from his neighbour Sir Jean de Vauloger. The sale required approval from the Count, usually a formality.  Permission was not given.  Humiliated, Jean had to hand over the estates to the Count although he was financially reimbursed.  He blamed the influential Jacques le Gris for this latest misfortune.

Making up with an old friend, le Gris

It was just a year later at a local christening, a slightly chastened Jean and an always smooth Jacques le Gris met and agreed to end their quarrel. Jean introduced Marguerite to his old friend. Jacques knew about her family’s fall from grace and was pleasantly surprised by what he saw.

Back to battling

Hard up, by March 1385 Jean was back battling.   An expedition with Jean de Vienne to Edinburgh and the north of England was long, messy and ultimately not a success.

Hundreds of French soldiers died of disease and starvation during the campaign but Jean had distinguished himself.  He had spent most of the rest of his fortune but was knighted on the field of battle and would receive a generous payment from the King for his months of combat.

He returned to Normandy unwell but with considerable more status than he had left it. In January 1386 he was well enough to leave his wife with his mother at her small Château in Capomesnil, travel to Argentan to meet Count Pierre the on to Paris to collect his reward.

Jean de Carrouges battling in Scotland, Miniature from Jean Froissart, Chroniques
Jean de Carrouges battling in Scotland, Miniature from Jean Froissart, Chroniques

A fall out

In Argentan the poverty stricken war hero encountered Jacques le Gris who was even more prosperous for staying at home and entertaining Count Pierre.  No-one is entirely sure what was said between the two old friends but by the end of Jean’s visit, they were friends no more.

Unwanted visitors

While Jean was in Paris, on 18 January 1386, Marguerite de Carrouges had two visitors.  Her mother-in-law had taken their servants with her to Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives where she had business.  Marguerite opened the door herself to Adam Louvel.  He muttered about a debt owed her husband and then announced Jacques le Gris was outside and insisted he speak with her.

She demurred, it was not convenient. Already cautious his next sentence made her freeze ‘he loves you passionately, he will do anything for you and he greatly desires to see you’.

14th century French illumination
14th century French illumination

Assault

The two men pushed their way inside and le Gris started with the old charm that worked so well on bored ladies of Argentan’s court.  Marguerite asked them again to leave. Any veneer of respect now fell away as le Gris offered her money to sleep with him.  A way for her to help her husband out of his financial difficulties he said.

There is no way to gloss over what happened next.  When she refused him le Gris forced himself on her.  When she fought back Adam Louvel helped tie her down. Afterwards he threatened Marguerite and her family with death if she said a word.

Not a heroes return

On Jean’s return from Paris on 21 or 22 January he did not receive the welcome he had expected; his wife was pale, quiet and his mother clearly irritated.  Marguerite had kept silent about her attack but unknowing, Jean suspected a disagreement between the two women. When they were alone she finally told Jean exactly what had happened.

Now Jean de Carrouges IV is often described as rash and difficult but he was also brave and loyal.

Not doubting his wife for a moment he called his family and advisors to him.  Then gently, he asked Marguerite to tell them what had happened.

A kangaroo court?

Jean’s instinct may have been to find le Gris and murder him but that would also be the end for his family.  He started legal proceedings against le Gris helplessly aware Count Pierre would probably side with le Gris, the famous ‘ladies man’.   The Carrouges did not even bother to attend the trial.  There was no witness to support Marguerite’s story and unsurprisingly Count Pierre acquitted le Gris, saying Marguerite had invented or dreamed the attack.

The injustice was like a dagger in his heart.  Jean could only watch as his young wife lost her own battle against despair.

He knew of only one option to restore their pride and honour.  One chance for a fairer trial.  Jean de Carrouges IV rode to Paris to speak with the King, now Charles VI.

Charles VI of France
Charles VI of France

Paris justice

Jean knew another court case would be risky with only his young wife’s word against a renowned courtier so rather than asking for a criminal trial, he made the brave and perhaps foolish decision to ask for the right to challenge le Gris to a judicial duel.  Very rare by the 1380’s judicial duels proclaimed the survivor right in his claims in the eyes of God and therefore the court.

A well known war hero, Jean only had to wait a few days to be presented to his King.  He spoke passionately and entranced the court.  Jean de Carrouges IV was given permission for a trial that could end with a duel to the death with Jacques le Gris.

14th century Paris
14th century Paris

The gauntlet is thrown

On 9 July 1386 at the Palais de Justice in Paris the formal challenge was made.  Jean shouted his accusations in front of the King, Parlement, le Gris and a huge crowd.  He threw down a gauntlet. Initially the Parlement of Paris (court of justice)  decided to hear the case as a criminal one. Pressure was put on le Gris to demand a church trial but he was keen to defend himself and demand 40,000 livres damages from his rival.

The case took over Paris for the entire summer.  An obviously pregnant Marguerite had to repeat her story in front of gossiping crowds.  Although if she was believed there was no question about the babies parentage as medieval medical knowledge decreed that it was impossible to become pregnant from rape.

Marguerite’s maid and Adam Louvel were questioned and because they were commoners, tortured, just to double check the accuracy of their testimonies.  le Gris claimed Jean beat his wife into making the allegations and painted a picture of Jean as a dangerous jealous man desperate to restore his families fortune. Jean countered by quietly emphasising the shame the trial had brought on his family.

When le Gris said he had an alibi that placed him 25 miles away Jean offered to ride the distance to prove it was possible for him to have been in both places in one day.  It did not help le Gris when his albi Jean Beloteau was arrested for rape in Paris later that week.

A judicial duel

On 15 September Parlement came to a decision.  They could not reach a verdict, a judicial duel would determine the correct outcome.  Jean de Carrouges IV and Jacques le Gris would fight to the death on 27 November 1386.

If Jean lost, Marguerite would be burnt at the stake for her sins.

The arena at the Abbe Saint Martin des Champs was chosen for the duel. During the weeks of preparation word was received from the king who was delayed returning from Flanders because of the dreadful winter roads.   The duel was pushed back to 29 December 1386.

It was still dark early on the morning of the duel when thousands of spectators made their way to the old jousting field.  Around midday the crowd cheered at the arrival of King Charles VI and his entourage.  When the two combatants appeared the crowd went wild.

Pledge of honour

Jean and le Gris were both in plate armour and on horseback carrying a lance, longsword, a ‘Holy Trinity’ battle axe and a ‘misericordia’ long dagger.  After each stated their charges le Gris was knighted, so the men would be of equal standing during the fight.

Both men then dismounted and gave oaths to God, the Virgin Mary and St George.  Jean walked over to his wife, pledged his honour, kissed her and promised to return.

The field was cleared and the two knights mounted their charges.  King Charles VI decreed that if anyone interfered with the duel or shouted a distraction they would lose a hand.  The crowd was silent.

Jousting, a hundred years or so later, but you get the idea
Jousting, a hundred years or so later, but you get the idea

Let battle commence

At a signal from the marshal Jean and le Gris charged. They both struck shields and rode on.  Turning sharply a second charge and both struck the other’s helm.  A third charge and their lances were destroyed against shields.

Both unsteady they dropped the shattered lances and taking up their axes slashed wildly at each other.  le Gris, taller and stronger, drove his axe into the neck of Jean’s steed. As it crashed to the ground Jean leapt clear and swung his axe at le Gris’ mount, disembowelling it.

Unsteady and on foot the knights drew their swords.  le Gris appeared stronger forcing his opponent back until Jean slipped on the wet winter earth.  As he staggered le Gris was able to stab him in an unprotected thigh.  Jean’s supporters gasped.  Quietly.

Pride before a fall

As le Gris arrogantly stepped back to admire his ugly handiwork Jean lunged low and hard, toppling le Gris.  The larger man’s protective armour turned against him, holding him vulnerable to the ground. Jean took his chance and angrily rained stabbing blows down on armour that merely dented.  He threw his useless sword aside and stradling le Gris used his dagger handle to smash the lock on le Gris faceplate.

As his opponents petrified face appeared Jean demanded he admit his guilt. Le Gris refused screeching “In the name of God and on the peril and damnation of my soul, I am innocent”.  But nothing could save him now as Jean de Carrouges IV plunged his dagger into the neck of the man who had defiled his beloved wife.

Jean Carrouges IV wins the last duel in France
Sir Jean de Carrouges IV wins the last duel in France

Love conquers all

The crowd erupted. God had decreed Jean the winner, his wife innocent and le Gris a toasty place in hell.

Jean knelt before his King.  Charles VI said a few suitable words that are lost in time but also presented a memorable prize of one thousand francs and a royal income of 200 francs a year.

Then to everyone’s delight Jean strode over to his proud, weeping wife, bowed and clasped her to him as the crowd roared its approval.  Jean and Marguerite de Carrouges rode, accompanied by hordes of cheering fans to Notre Dame de Paris to give thanks for victory. Their future was assured.

And to the loser..

The body of Jacques le Gris was dragged back to Paris to be strung up with murderers and thieves on the Gibbet of Montfaucon. Here he was left to rot before being thrown into a common grave.

The last judicial duel

In a few weeks Parlement would award Jean six thousand livres in gold and a position in the Royal Household. Parlement, unsettled by the furore and controversy that swirled around the duel decided it would be the last.

Of course Jean used some of this money to launch another legal action to claim Arnou-le Foucon.  Bereft at the loss of his favourite Count Pierre fought back and again Jean lost.

The couple continued to benefit richly from their celebrity; in 1390 Jean was promoted to chevalier d’honneur as a bodyguard of the king, a role that came with a generous stipend and huge social standing.  Jean and Marguerite celebrated the birth of two more children.

Call of the crusades

Then the battlefields called.  The Ottoman empire was forcing its way west and Jean joined his old commander Admiral Jean de Vienne in a crusade to push them back.

After weeks of combat the crusaders laid siege to Nicopolis but as Sultan Bayezid and his huge army arrived mistakes were made by the crusaders and on 25 September 1396 thousands were captured and executed.

Somewhere in that terrible battle Sir Jean de Carrouges IV died, brave soldier to the end.

Battle of Nicopolis
Battle of Nicopolis

Building Château de Carrouges

Jean and Marguerite’s son Robert inherited land, wealth and reputation.  He did not waste it. By the next generation the family Carrouges were among the wealthiest in France.

Jean Blossett, grandchild of the medieval knight who won the last duel, owned land as far as his grandfather’s eyes had seen.  He set about building Château de Carrouges.

Château Carrouges iron gates

 

 

2 thoughts on “Jean de Carrouges and the last French duel

  1. Dear “Normandy then and now”:

    I enjoyed your account of the 1386 Carrouges-Le Gris case. Are you familiar with my book, “The Last Duel” (Broadway, 2004), now available in French as well as “Le dernier duel” (Flammarion, 2010)?

    A movie version is now being developed, to be directed by Francis Lawrence (“The Hunger Games.” More information at this link:

    http://deadline.com/2015/07/the-last-duel-shaun-grant-francis-lawrence-studio-8-1201473556/

    Best wishes.

    Sincerely yours,
    Eric Jager
    Los Angeles

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