The Real History That Inspired Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel Feels Particularly Timely
Yesterday, the trailer for Ridley Scott’s latest movie, The Last Duel, was released. The film features Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges, a 14th-century French knight who challenges his squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), to a duel after his wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), accuses Le Gris of raping her. It is an engrossing trailer, but it left me curious about the real events that inspired this movie—especially since it very much feels like a post-MeToo movement film.
Historical Facts Spoiler Alert & content warning for rape.
Credit up top to Eric Jager’s The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France. I will be quoting from his book quite a bit.
Firstly, Marguerite de Thibouville. Sadly, prior to the assault, there is very little known or recorded about her own life.
Marguerite had the deep misfortune of being the daughter of a known traitor, Robert de Thibouville. He had sided against the French King in territorial disputes—twice, both times barely making it out with his head. As a result, his family’s wealth and name were in the chamber pot. By marrying his daughter to Jean de Carrouges, Robert was looking to level up.
What did Carrouges get out of it? Petty revenge.
Aunou-le-Faucon was a very valuable estate that was given to his rival Jacques Le Gris two years earlier. It used to belong to his new father-in-law, and so Carrouges engaged in a pointless lawsuit to get it back into his claim. It failed and by even laying claim to it, his own standing in the court of Charles VI of France wasn’t doing too hot.
Now let’s go to our hubby and knight, Jean de Carrouges. Carrouges was a known warrior having fought in the Hundred Years’ War, campaigns in Normandy and Scotland, Crusade of Nicopolis, etc. He was reported to be a rash and temperamental man, something that would serve him well at times, but also lead to this dueling thing. He was previously married to a woman named Jeanne de Tilly, who died of natural causes years later, along with their son. He suffered some severe losses that also served to harden him leading up to the events of the duel.
The accused: Jacques Le Gris. Le Gris was a large man with a reputation for loving the ladies. He has become a favorite in the court and at one point, was a close friend of Carrouges. Carrouges made Le Gris godfather to his eldest son. But then a man came between them: Count Pierre d’Alençon. The Count made Le Gris his new bestie and slowly Carrouges was iced out. This separation would be one of the motivators of the above-mentioned lawsuit.
When the two men met before the events of the alleged rape, they parted on bad terms.
January 18th, 1386, Marguerite was left alone at her home, and a man named Adam Louvel arrived claiming that Le Gris was outside and wanted to see her. Marguerite said no. Louvel then, according to her, proclaimed that Le Gris was in love with and would do anything for her. Le Gris then forced his way inside and attempted to bribe Marguerite for sex. When she refused again, he violently raped her with the help of Louvel.
Le Gris then threatened to kill her if she said anything. When Carrouges returned from Scotland, she told him what happened.
Charges were brought against Le Gris, but there was a problem. He was the favorite of Count Pierre, who would be overseeing any trial about the accusation. As a result, Carrouges and Marguerite did not even go to the hearing because they thought it would be biased. They were not wrong:
Annulling the criminal charge against the squire, the count struck it from the record, ordering that “no further questions ever be raised about it.” Count Pierre also cast suspicion on Marguerite for having accused the squire in the first place. Insinuating that the lady had lied, he said of the alleged rape that “she must have dreamt it.”
Where have we heard that before?
Jager notes that “medieval law codes and actual trial records show that rape was considered a felony and a capital offense,” so this was an accusation where death would be the penalty.
Carrouges decided to go to the king himself and demand trial by judicial duel—that same thing we saw in Game of Thrones. The King referred the case to the Parliament of Paris. After a long trial and testimony, Carrouges thew down his gauntlet, and Le Gris picked it up. The duel was on.
If Carrouges lost, then Marguerite would be burnt at the stake for perjury.
The Last Duel (Spoilers for Duel Outcome)
To say that this event was a spectacle would be selling it short. Judicial combat trials were so rare that people were treating this like the NBA finals. Marguerite had given birth to a son during the months leading up to the duel, and it was as stressful as you could imagine.
In the early afternoon, both men arrived with the “Holy Trinity” of weapons: a lance, longsword, and a heavy battle-ax, and one long dagger. The two men dismounted and gave oaths to God, the Virgin Mary, and St. George. Whoever won would be proven innocent in the eyes of God. No appeals. No take-backs.
I am gonna skip all the gritty details of horse disembowelment and beheadings—something to look forward to in the film, I guess. After a bunch of manly wrestling and smashing of weapons, Carrouges got the upper hand. He tore off Le Gris’s armor plate and demanded that the man admit his guilt. Le Gris refused and cried out that he was innocent. Carrouges drove his dagger through Le Gris’s neck. In an instant, his rival and former friend died.
Carrouges drew his dagger, again shouting: “Confess!” Le Gris, pinned down by the relentless knight, shouted back, trying to make himself heard by all at the field: “In the name of God, and on the peril and damnation of my soul, I am innocent of the crime!” “Then be you damned!” cried the knight. With that, Carrouges put the point of his dagger to the squire’s underjaw, while bracing the helmet with his free hand, and with all of his remaining strength drove the sharp thin blade into the exposed white flesh, sinking the weapon into his enemy’s throat up to the hilt.
Following the duel, Carrouges was awarded a cash prize for legal murder, although the Count was forever mad about the death of his bestie. Marguerite and Carrouges would go on to have more children, and eventually, he would die in the Battle of Nicopolis at around 66 years old.
Was Le Gris a rapist?
Most likely, yes.
Eric Jager wrote in The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France that Marguerite had a lot to lose and risk from coming forward as the daughter of someone so infamous, especially against someone as popular as Le Gris:
If Marguerite did publicly accuse Le Gris, her charge would be very difficult, if not impossible, to prove. Besides the knotty problem of proof, Le Gris was Count Pierre’s favorite, and he could expect a friendly hearing in the court at Argentan, while Marguerite, as a traitor’s daughter and the wife of one of the count’s most troublesome vassals, would be instantly suspect. Le Gris was also well known and liked at the royal court in Paris as one of the king’s personal squires. And if the knight and his wife pursued the case in the secular courts, Le Gris, as a cleric in minor orders, could always claim benefit of clergy and obtain a change of venue to a church court. Le Gris had also warned Marguerite that if she told her husband of the rape, Carrouges might kill her.
Le Gris claimed that he was not present on the day that the alleged rape took place. However, his defense fell apart when one of his alibi witnesses was accused of rape. Marguerite also, at eight months pregnant, provided moving testimony, including the fact that the shame she was enduring due to this whole trial was motivation enough not to lie. Plus, the whole burned at the stake part of it all.
Even Le Gris’s lawyer, Jean Le Coq, was not really sold on his client’s innocence, which can be found in his notes.
As I read about this case, I got enthralled in it. I can see why, especially now, this would be such a compelling story to turn to film. I have my concerns, but I do appreciate the promotion at least putting Marguerite and her voice at the forefront of this adaptation.
(image: 20th Century Studios)
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