Duel of the Century

The Judicial Combat of Jarnac and Châtaigneraye - France, 1547

By J. Clements and Belinda Hertz

One of the most celebrated, frequently cited, and best known duels of the Renaissance is that of de Jarnac and La Châtaigneraie of 1547.  From the encounter a new phrase entered the popular lexicon and fencing terminology, le Coup de Jarnac.  It referred to a crippling blow to the back of the opponent’s exposed knee or calve, but came to mean any tricky mode of attack. It was not a new strike at all, but did become well known and thus somewhat notorious as we shall learn. The combat itself was also not any rapier duel, but actually a judicial combat fought with military sword and buckler, and with considerable armor.  The case also well reflects several of the challenges and difficulties facing historical fencing studies today, namely, the mix of sources and conflicting historical accounts, the lack of modern English language materials available to the uni-lingual, and the problem of dealing with 19th century perceptions of earlier events.

The affair is regularly included in many histories of duelling and was featured in Alfred Hutton’s famous 1901 compilation, The Sword and the Centuries, wherein he relied heavily on the account offered in 1648 by the chronicler Vulson de la Colombière.  The modern French historian of the duel, Francois Billacois, called the combat between the nobles Guy Chabot, Baron de Jarnac, and François de Vivonne, sieur de La Châtaigneraie, “the most famous duel of the whole sixteenth-century in France.” (Billacois, p. 49). But the duel has never before been examined from a purely historical fencing perspective or been presented in English in its entirety along with its various versions. Billacois acknowledges the combat lead to “varied accounts by contemporaries and their successors.” This had led to some confusion concerning the actual facts of the combat but a broad picture can be acquired by comparing them to one another.

The great compiler of dueling gossip in the 1500s, Pierre de Bourdeille, known more familiarly as Brantôme, writing several decades after the event, is the primary source for information on the affair. Brantôme was a fighting man of adventure and intrigue who had traveled from Morocco to Scotland. (Billacois, p. 113). Being a relative of one of the parties involved (Châtaigneraie was his uncle), it may be that a young Brantôme was present at the event and his chronicle is to be among the more trusted sources for details. Throughout his writings, Brantôme reflected upon the affair but never offered a complete description of the event.

As will be seen, the incident was not so much a “duel”, in the 16th century sense of a single-combat, as much as a traditional Medieval judicial combat in the classical chivalric manner. Besides the obvious distinction of one being a legal contest conducted before authorities and held at the order of a king or lord, and the other being a private matter only between the immediate parties concerned, there was another significant difference between the traditional judicial duel and the latter duel of honor.  In the former, the person accused of lying or treachery was treated as the defendant in any ensuing combat where he would prove his innocence of the charges; whereas in the later, the person accused denied the accusation by calling his accuser a liar, thus forcing them to issue challenge to now defend their honor and reputation.  The Baron de Jarnac–Sieur la Châtaigneraie combat was decidedly in the first category.  To lose such a combat was not only to die (either from wounds or being hanged afterward), which was surely a serious circumstance in itself, but often to have also one’s heirs lose their own inherited status as nobles.  So, such occasions of court-ordered combats were generally approached more gravely than were later private duels of honor to save face or protect reputation. This kind of trial was seen as a direct descendant of the customary knightly combat of the ordeal of arms by which the victor would be judged by God based on his innocence. Yet, such duels might often result in each party making only half-hearted attempts to fight with neither seriously trying do cause injury or death to the other but only put on a display long enough to satisfy appearances in the hope the sovereign would throw in the baton and end things without serious consequences. (Powell, p. 50).

Background of the Affair

The young and little known Guy Chabot, the Baron de Jarnac, was brother-in law of Duchesse d’Etampes, the young mistress of King François I.  François de Vivonne, seigneur de La Châtaigneraye (variously spelled as Chastaigneraie/Chastaigneraye and pronounced more or less “shasta-juhnar-ray”), was in contrast a well-known courtier and veteran soldier associated with the Dauphin Henri and his older mistress, Diane d’Potiers.  Seigneur de La Châtaigneraye (the title "Sieur" or "seigneur" was one applied to the eldest son of a noble house), was also known as something of a bully and once source states him as some ten years older than Jarnac. His age is given by one source at 28, which would have made Jarnac a mere 18, if he were in fact a decade younger.  However, Vulson de la Colombière writing in the 17th century stated the two were about the same age.

The origin of this duel, typically enough, resulted from an accusation that damaged a gentleman’s standing and repute among his peers.  In a bit of court gossip, the Dauphin Henri one day claimed that Jarnac was “a kept man” by his father’s second wife (Jarnac’s own stepmother), who more or less funded Jarnac’s lifestyle.  Jarnac was irate at the allegation of such an indiscretion and called this scandalous implication (taken by everyone as an incestuous relationship) a blatant lie.  But in response to this outrage to his honour he could accuse neither of his social superiors, the Dauphin Henri and his mistress.  So, Châtaigneraye as a leading courtier essentially took on the role of unofficial champion of Henri and publicly maintained that Jarnac himself had told him of a liaison with his stepmother. (Although, two other sources identify the woman as being Jarnac’s “mother-in-law” rather than step-mother).  Naturally, Jarnac ‘gave him the lie’ and was called out for satisfaction by Châtaigneraye for this affront to his integrity.  Another version states that the King related the story only half-seriously to Jarnac who, considering it far from frivolous, publicly called the source of the rumor (i.e., Châtaigneraie) a liar –thereby ensuring Châtaigneraie would respond with a challenge to being so accused of untruthfulness.

The confrontation took on larger proportions with the whole court and leading families ending up choosing sides in the affair. But, King François (presumably out of concern for having some responsibility in the matter) tried to stay neutral in the affair and for over a year refused to grant a field of combat for the men. Châtaigneraye however, pressed the matter with the newly crowned King Henri II, and with the advice of council, Henri did grant the duel –a mere three weeks after François’s death and two weeks before he himself was to actually be crowned.  The combat was thus ordered to take place within 30 days.

The Preparations

Brantôme wrote that Châtaigneraye was “big, brave and valiant…one of the strongest and most skillful men…with all weapons and techniques…and as a fighter, because besides his strength he had great skill.”  He described Châtaigneraie as being of middle height, well-built, muscular, and wiry, and that Jarnac was two inches taller. (Powell, p. 61). In contrast, he described Jarnac as being “in no way his equal in strength or prowess” and even afraid of the coming fight. (Billacois, p. 50). One source maintains Châtaigneraye was the most expert swordsman in France at the time and an expert wrestler. Supposedly not a wrestler in all of Brittany could stand against him.  This should come as no surprise as a traditional man at arms of the time was skilled not just in the use of weapons on foot or horse, but generally also in unarmed techniques. Châtaigneraye had in fact won several previous duels precisely by rushing his opponents and wrestling them to the ground where he killed them with his dagger. In the 1520s, Chastaigneraye had fought a judicial duel with one Lautrec, the former using a sword and buckler and the latter a sword and pike. (Powell, p. 169).

Each of the parties had a month to prepare for the duel. While the confident Châtaigneraye for the most part relaxed and partied, the less experienced Jarnac sought out lessons from an Italian fencing master named either Caise or Captain Caizo, said to be a man of great skill and renown.  The pious Jarnac also spent considerable time attending church, visiting monasteries and convents and urging the people to pray for him (although, after the duel there is no record of his continued piety). Whereas Châtaigneraye was so confident of his pending victory in contrast, that at great personal expense he arranged to have an extravagant feast prepared which would take place just outside the duel’s enclosure immediately following the combat!  Perhaps the arrogant move was also an attempt to psych-out his opponent.

As the challenged party Jarnac had choice of weapons and was in no hurry to decide.  In the month before the fight, Jarnac and his allies made attempts to delay the affair, including efforts at procuring numerous expensive and uncommon weapons that presumably would take awhile to obtain. One historian of this duel states that Jarnac proposed no less than 30 different weapons for foot or horseback as well as the type of horses and saddles to be used.  The great expense of having to prepare so many sets of possible weapons for the combat led Châtaigneraye to supposedly say, “This man wants to fight both my valour and my purse.” Perhaps Jarnac was buying time to absorb his fencing lessons –which reportedly included learning from Caizo the technique he was to use, a low strike to the back of the knee designed to put an opponent out of action.  Reputedly Chastaigneraye had spent a month practicing the move. On the other hand, seeing as how the combatants closely knew one another (for the two were actually neighbors and kinsmen and had grown up together), Jarnac might very well have been employing a deception of his own against his confidant adversary.  Perhaps even Caizo considered something of the man's method or physique when contemplating how to instruct the less experienced Jarnac? We might also wonder if, having known one another for sometime, Jarnac was familiar with Châtaigneraie's personal style of fighting? We know the two combatants had indeed tested one another at arms many times and, as the chronicler Monluc later added, they well-knew the other's mettle (Powell, p. 60).

The Weapons and Armor

The combat itself was not fought with rapiers, as has sometimes been assumed, but with military blades, that is, ‘cut-and-thrust’ swords. The newer slender and tapering single-hand swords being used for civilian encounters were not popular in France and certainly not among knights such as Guy Chabot, the Baron de Jarnac, and his accuser François de Vivonne, seigneur de La Châtaigneraie.  Indeed, the French at this time called such “murderous” blades by derogatory terms such as verdun.  The tool of choice was therefore a more traditional weapon combination, an armyng sword with buckler.

On the morning of the duel Jarnac, as defender, had first pick of the weapons and finally selected a sword and steel buckler as well as a gauntlet for his right hand.  Both men also wore a morion helm and corselet armor with a coat of fine maile.  Additionally, Jarnac had been so concerned at Châtaigneraie’s well-known skill as a wrestler (not to mention fencing) that to avoid any chance of a close struggle, he insisted both parties each wear two daggers.  This would give him at least a better chance should he be disarmed, thrown down, or jumped on. Most interestingly, is that on advice of the fencing master Caizo, Jarnac selected a unique piece of duelling armor for the left arm called a brassard –a rigid arm-piece that kept the arm straight and prevented the elbow from bending.  This ensured the buckler had to be held straight out and that “no seizing of the opponent and throwing him” could be attempted. Brantôme believed the device (supposedly an invention of Caizo) unprecedented and inappropriate. (In the late 16th century, the Comte Mortinengo fought a duel on a narrow bridge in the city of Pau in Piedmont. Both combatants wielded two daggers, one in each hand, and wore the same kind of special stiff arm brace armor.) Châtaigneraie’s own retainers objected to the use of such an unusual item but he himself confidently accepted it freely. Allegedly, when one of Jarnac’s squires fixed the item to Châtaigneraie’s arm the man slightly injured him in the process. Châtaigneraie was said to exclaim, “I’ll make you pay for this when the affair is over!” to which the squire responded, “Oh, there will not be much left of you when my master has done with you.” (Hutton, Centuries, p. 49 & 50). Interestingly, Brantôme wrote that Châtaigneraie was himself already a bit lame in the right arm or at least only partly recovered from a wound there that he had received at a recent siege of Piedmont. (Powell, p. 61).

Of their weapons, which were accepted as those “in general use among gentlemen”, they were each allowed a “regular sword” (and one spare in case it broke), as well as a single long dagger in a heath tied to the right thigh by cords, with another second short dagger in the left boot –thus, three weapons plus their buckler.  The sword was a very sharp, one-handed, double-edged blade.  No details are known as to its type of hilt, but swords of this era typically had some kind of side rings or finger rings.

The Day of Combat Arrives

On the sunny morning of the 10th of July 1547, a large crowd of both commoners and nobles assembled as spectators at an enclosed field set up in the park adjacent to the great château of Saint-Germainen-en-Laye. The combat took place en champ clos-within a traditional double barricade enclosure of sand covered ground, in this case of 72 by 120 feet. The King’s court attended, along with the constable, admiral, and marshals of France, and even the Turkish ambassador. Supposedly, before the combat took place the fencing master Caizo was even working the crowd taking bets that there would be a “calve sliced before sunset”!

While Châtaigneraie arrived with pomp and self-assurance Jarnac in turn, was modest and humble. He was also reportedly recovering from a recent illness and if not for his honor would not have participated the day of the event.  They entered the field of the champ clos, the challenger first, and the weapons were presented with the defender choosing his set. Four swords were brought out, two for the combat and two spares in reserve should any break. Then they presumably exited to arm.  As they prepared, each of the combatants had a friendly party present in their other’s tent to observe the fair arming of their opponent.  It is somewhat ironic to note how often honor and fairness was stressed in these kinds of duels and single combats, and yet how many steps were commonly taken at every opportunity to verify it was actually being followed.  A consistent careful realism underpinned appearances.

Historian of the Renaissance W. Wiley offered one of the most thorough reports in English of the combat describing the herald’s own account as unfolding thusly: 

La Châtaigneraie attended with his second, monseigneur le Comte d’Aumalle. Jarnac, in turn came with his second, monseigneur le grand écuyer.  A herald proclaimed the combat with the rising of the sun saying, “No one is to prevent the completion of the present combat, nor aid or interfere with the combatants, on penalty of death.” To the sound of trumpets and tambourines Châtaigneraie came out of his pavilion led by his second and a company of three hundred friends and confidants dressed in colors of white and incarnadine. He waited to the right of the field’s entrance gate until the duel was signaled. Jarnac arrived at the field led by his second and one hundred twenty of his company of retainers, dressed in black and white. He entered into his own pavilion to the left of the gate.  The examination and approval of weapons by the seconds took hours, causing Châtaigneraie’s second, and the Comte d’Aumalle, to several times protest the excessively long delay. [Presumably the spectators and guests entertained themselves in some way during this time.]

They entered and swore before the king on the Holy Scriptures, placed on a “square of velvet and cloth of gold reaching to the ground,” that their cause was just and their enemy’s unjust, and that they had on their persons no secret weapons, charms, magic words, or incantations that would give unfair advantage. The herald then announced the traditional admonishment for such combats: “By order of the King,” that the spectators were to neither speak, cough, nor spit, during the combat nor to make any movement with the foot, hand, or eye that would aid or interfere with either of the contestants. Armed and awaiting the herald’s signal, the fighters both sat in chairs opposite one another. The herald then came forward to cry, “Let the noble combatants proceed.”

Descriptions of the Fight

The result was not immediate.  One source described that while Châtaigneraye was aggressive and Jarnac defensive, a few attacks were made by both in the first moments so that each received small cuts on their arms –presumably below their maile armor and above their gauntlets. (Truman, p. 180).  Following right after a pause in the action is when Jarnac made his fateful attack which so effectively decided the outcome.

The herald of the combat later described that, “there were several great thrusting as well as cutting attacks, one of which on the part of the said Jarnac struck the calf of the left leg of the said La Châtaigneraie as he made a thrust at Jarnac; and Jarnac struck another blow on the same calf of the leg.”  At this La Châtaigneraie fell to the ground, unable to rise with the tendons in the calf of his leg evidently severed. Another source however stated both of Châtaigneraie’s legs were cut, one after the other, while still another said the blows were independent and not consecutive, with Jarnac struggling to rise between them.  One source also claimed Jarnac hesitated after the blow, as if he himself was surprised by his success. Brantôme recorded that Châtaigneraie evidently made two frail attempts to spring at Jarnac -who refused to come near his wounded foe. (Powell, p. 48).

The writer John Cockburn’s often cited version described that as Châtaigneraie made an attack, Jarnac delivered a slicing cut behind one of his legs (to the ham or knee, sources are not in agreement). This move, later to be called the “coup de Jarnac”, was likely just a traversing movement with a well-aimed and well-timed cut. However, the various accounts are largely specific that from this first slicing blow, Chastaigneraye instantly fell down to the ground.

W. L. Wiley presents the climax as having occurred in this way:

"Jarnac leaned over him and said, ‘give me back my honor.’ There was no reply; so Jarnac advanced to the King with the statement: ‘Sire, I give you La Châtaigneraie; take him, Sire, and may my honor be given back to me. It was our youth that caused all this.” The King made no response; so Jarnac knelt down to say a prayer and then returned to La Châtaigneraie, still stretched out on the ground. Jarnac asked La Châtaigneraie again to make acknowledgments, but La Châtaigneraie raised himself on one knee and tried to lift his sword and shield, whereupon Jarnac said, ‘don’t move or I’ll kill you.’ La Châtaigneraie made an effort to rise, saying ‘then kill me,’ and fell back. Jarnac returned to the King and asked again to be considered a man of honor, since there was no gentleman at Court more ready in any capacity to serve his King. The King still answered nothing. Jarnac went back once more to La Châtaigneraie, still stretched out on his side with his sword lying on the ground, and said: ‘Châtaigneraie, my old comrade, recognize your Creator, and let us be friends.’ Then Jarnac assumed an attitude of caution: ‘While charity was advising him to forget his feeling of enmity, caution counseled him to take no chances; so he reached out with his sword for the sword and the dagger, which had slipped out of its scabbard, of La Châtaigneraie.’ Jarnac handed the weapons over to a herald and asked the King, ‘for the love of God,’ to recognize the defeat of La Châtaigneraie; Monseigneur de Vendôme and the Connétable de Montmorency made the same request, since it was necessary now for La Châtaigneraie in all mercy to be removed from the field. Jarnac next addressed himself to ‘a certain great lady’ –probably Diane de Poitiers –in the stands, and the King, ‘moved to pity,’ finally listened to Jarnac and said to him: ‘You have done your duty, and your honor is hereby restored.’ The bleeding La Châtaigneraie was borne from the field by the heralds and four gentlemen, and put into his tent on the outside." (Wiley, p. 186-188).

At the end Jarnac threw himself on his knees before the King, who embraced him saying, “You have fought like Caesar and you have talked like Aristotle” –which Wily noted as a somewhat ambiguous remark tinged with irony given his own involvement in the affair. Despite the King’s attitude, Jarnac was honored throughout France for having beaten the esteemed and skillful La Châtaigneraie.

B. Truman in 1883 gave the account with Jarnac as reportedly having said to his fallen adversary, “Confess yourself a liar, and restore me to my honor, and live.”  To this Châtaigneraye made no reply so Jarnac turned to the king sitting in his covered stand, knelt down and said, “I beseech your majesty to accept the life of this man for God’s sake and for love’s. I do not wish to have his blood on my soul. I fought for the restoration of that honor of which he has robbed me.”  The declined king at first saying nothing then relented to the request.  Meanwhile, Châtaigneraye “moved around on his knees, and cut wildly and impotently” [possible if he were cut in the calves, but unlikely if he were cut behind the knees].  He “in a short time fell over and bled to death.” Jarnac then said, “I have triumphed over my false accuser; I gained all I fought for –the vindication of my honor and reputation; I am satisfied.”  (Truman, p. 181).

Another source has Jarnac turning to his opponent who had raised himself to his good knee, and saying, “Lord, I am not worthy, not to me, but unto thy name be thanks!”  Jarnac told Châtaigneraye if he resisted any longer he would kill him and Châtaigneraye urged him to do so.  Jarnac then implored the king a second time to declare the combat ended.  He even implored Châtaigneraye to recall their old friendship. He asked him to submit and end their conflict. Just in case, the practical Jarnac approached his recumbent adversary and wisely put his weapons out of reach. He took from Châtaigneraye his sword and his dagger and laid them before the king. After his second request to the king, Henri, under the advice of his counselors, finally relented.  He then ordered his officers and surgeons to attend to Châtaigneraye. 

Alfred Hutton’s account from Colombière states the following: “They advance to meet each other, Chastaigneraie with furious mien and disordered steps, Jarnac cool and confident in the sound instruction he has received from Caizo.  Several fierce thrusts and blows are given and parried on both sides, when Jarnac shifts his ground, feints a swashing blow at his enemy’s head, and so drawn up his shield to defend it, and as it rises dexterously passes his point behind the unfortunate man’s left knee, holding his hand in pronation [palm down, knuckles up], and with a quick movement snatches it back, bringing the sharp false edge into contact with the lower part of the ham. This slight cut startles Chastaigneraie, but before he has time to move Jarnac repeats it in a much more serious fashion, severing sinews, veins, muscles, and everything down to the very bone.  Chastaigneraie falls to the ground, and Jarnac approaches him…” (Hutton, Centruies, p. 51).

Hutton’s reading of the fight by Colombière differs fundamentally from others in that he does not describes one man as chaotically aggressive and the other as calmly cool-headed.  He does not mention any arm wounds but does say there were blows parried. He does not include Jarnac pausing after, nor Châtaigneraye recovering from, any first blow that makes Châtaigneraye collapse.  Instead, he says the first blow is made after a high feint and the ensuing wound only distracts him. Further, his description makes it appear that Jarnac’s first strike was something of a short simple flick of the wrist rather than a sweeping blow coordinated with proper footwork.  He then says on the second effort a repetition of the same attack causes a major wound that ends the fight.  He does not include any attempt by Châtaigneraye to strike again between the two attacks where he is wounded. Additionally, rather than Jarnac striking by countering in the middle of Châtaigneraye’s own attack, he has Jarnac first making a feint high before cutting low.  He does however note Jarnac shifted his ground, which would be consistent with traversing diagonally to the side so as to be able to cut behind the leg.  Hutton also seems to imply that the blow was to the same leg rather than to both legs.  Hutton also claims that his wounds were dressed by the surgeon, but is so incensed by the humility of losing after so much boasting that he tears off his bandages and dies. The inconsistencies with other accounts might suggest more credibility could be given to those versions of the fight.  Additionally, it could be argued that Hutton, despite a serious student of historical swordplay, was perhaps too conditioned by the 19th century Salle forms of fencing to interpret the combat in terms of anything other than his understanding of the subject as one of what could be performed with his contemporary sabers and epees. As Hutton's understanding wasn't based on extensive test-cutting (or on actual combat experience with swords), but upon lighter practice weapons that were increasingly deemphasizing large powerful blows in favor of lighter contact, so we might consider this in evaluating his analysis. Modern test cutting with slender blades shows that upward wrist flicks with the back of the blade are simply not very strong attacks. But those committed with great motion of the full arm with passing attacks can be.

Charles Mackay in his 1841, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, offered a strikingly different version of the famed Jarnac-Chastaigneraye judicial duel: “De Jarnac, overpowered by the heavy blows of his opponent, covered his head with his shield, and, stooping down, endeavoured to make amends by his agility for his deficiency of strength. In this crouching posture he aimed two blows at the left thigh of La Chataigneraie, who had left it uncovered, that the motion of his leg might not be impeded. Each blow was successful, and…La Chataigneraie rolled over upon the sand. He seized his dagger, and made a last effort to strike De Jarnac; but he was unable to support himself, and fell powerless.”  The many distinctions in this version are obvious.  Modern French fencing master and Pierre Lacaze in his own description wrote that the first blow was on the left leg behind the knee with a second one in the same place that caused him to fall. (Lacaze, p. 34).

In the mid 19th century Captain Sir Richard Burton writing in his, The Sentiment of the Sword (chapter 7, part 5), considering the matter in modern fencing terms claimed Châtaigneraie "made an imbroccata, or binding of the sword, with thrust from high to low line. Jarnac, a man of humble birth…got within measure and delivered two hamstringing cuts (fendente al poplite) right and left, and his opponent died of rage within two hours." Fencing authority Egerton Castle writing in 1894 described the fight by saying: "La Chasteineraye came out of his tent as though I a furry, with unequal step and disordered mien. Jarnac, on the contrary, came up more coolly to the fight. It was then that one of the spectators (who proved to be Jarnac's master of fence) was heard to say that shortly would be seen some hamstringing; as indeed came to be the case, for after a few thrusts and strokes dealt on either side, Jarnac making feint of striking his adversary on the outside of the advanced leg drew a reverse cut at the inside of the knee with the false edge so effectively that la Chasteineraye fell down forthwith." (Castle, "Some Historic Duels," p. 183-184). Chastaigneraye walked aggressively and quickly toward Jarnac with his sword held high at the ready while Jarnac came forward cautiously with his weapon held behind his buckler.

As Dr. Sydney Anglo has pointed out in his, Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, one problem in knowing just what happened in fights like this is that narrative accounts are often not contemporary and, even when by "eye-witnesses", tend to be ambiguous or contradictory. One other source which has material that may shed some light on the Jarnac affair is Scipion Dupleix's, Les loix militaires touchant le duel (Paris, 1602 and 1611).

In all the accounts here however, they agree on one important point, that being the blow to the leg that caused him to collapse and be unable to fight on. The death of François de Vivonne, seigneur de La Châtaigneraie, occurred within a few hours.  Thus ended the duel of the century in 1547.

The “Coup de Jarnac”

The most controversial part of the duel (though not at the time) came to be the attack used to win it.  The view that the coup de jarret, "hit of Jarnac", was anything unexpected because it was somehow customary in the age to attack the face or the chest, is unsupported by evidence. Jarnac was in no way reprimanded for it nor did he receive any infamy as a result. Brantôme himself neither disputed the legitimacy of the technique nor spent much time at all discussing it. To him it was nothing abnormal. Indeed, similar techniques are illustrated throughout 15th and 16th century fencing literature. Eyewitnesses to the duel even judged the fight to be honorable and courteous.  The resulting controversy had nothing to do with his technique, but with Henri’s behavior.

As Dr. Anglo noted in his article on 15th century axe-play, Le Jeu de la Hache, with regard to specific strokes, a coup usually indicated cuts delivered sideways with an edged weapon and sometimes coup was "the generic term for a particular kind of stroke such as the coup de genoul; or, when suitably qualified, it shows the mode of delivery as, for example, the back-hander, coup darriere main." The historian Wiley maintained that the term "Coup de Jarnac" eventually “came to mean a clever and unexpected thrust, destined to bring death in the morning or maybe late in the afternoon.”  Billacois tells us that Le coup de Jarnac, “Jarnac’s stroke”, is proverbial to the present day as meaning a “stab in the back” (Billacois, p. 49).  However, in his history of the duel, the modern fencing master Pierre Lacaze noted that the expression “coup de Jarnac” originally did not even have any negative connotation at all but merely implied an unanticipated move.  Lacaze noted how it was a Jesuit dictionary of 1771 that later misrepresented its meaning. Considering that Jarnac was supposedly taught the technique by the Italian master Caize, it must reasonably have also been something of a typical move in Italy.(Lacaze, p.34). Captain Burton expressed that the Jarnac blow was simply "a surprise, something that does not sound 'nice,' a 'dodge,' neither quite fair nor absolutely unfair." According to Burton, the Bolognese fencing master Achille Marozzo in his 1537 treatise (Chapter LXXXV) even described the technique as, un reviscio segato per le gambe, or a reverse saw cut to the legs.

As Hutton pointed out, Achille Marozzo was “emphatic in his advocacy of the use of it” arguing that, logically, against an armored opponent the rear of the leg was often the only uncovered vulnerable area that could be cut. The French Master Sainct Didier in 1573 advised several times slashes to the calf of the opponent –but not the front of the leg or the thigh. The reason being obviously that a good solid hit to the lower leg muscle is of greater effect than a whack with a slender blade across the hard shin bone (which lacks vulnerable muscle) or the thick tissues of the upper leg (which can withstand more damage). Later, in his 1610 rapier treatise, using the middle of his slender blade the great Capo Ferro also depicted a wide (and non-lethal) slashing cut made to the hamstring. The 1639 fencing text, the Pallas Armata, instructed in Chapter I of the Second Part of the First Booke, that in, “passing make a back blow with a Secunde at the Hamstrings of both his legs, and in striking catch hold at thine adversary's Hilt with thy left hand, that he may not strike thee, at thy passing behind him with a back blow.” Certainly Jarnac’s blow, like the outcome itself, was unexpected, but it was hardly novel.

Alfred Hutton clearly understood this as he wrote on the technique how, “In later times an idea got abroad that there was something unfair about this hamstring cut, and the term coup de Jarnac came to be applied practically to any sort of cut made at the leg with the sword, and metaphorically, to any underhand attack of what kind soever. This is a libel on the fair name of Guy Chabot [Baron de Jarnac] who certainly did not invent the trick, as it was regularly taught by the fencing-masters of the day, most of whom, like Caizo, were Italians, and the chief of them all, Captain General Achille Marozzo.”  He then concludes, “In good truth, Jarnac was not in any way to be blamed, but rather to be complimented on the masterly manner in which he profited by the teaching he had received.” (Hutton, Centuries, p. 52-53). Hutton even pointed out that there are other duels where the identical technique was employed, including another in the very same year 1547 between two Englishmen, Newton and Hamilton, which was very similar in outcome to the Jarnac-Châtaigneraie combat. Yet, many later fencers who no longer practiced cuts below the waist or the hips saw it differently.  Men such as famed writer Arthur Conan Doyle once even descried it as a “horrid ruse.” Whereas during the 16th century in contrast, where no such agreements were made except under certain limited circumstances, the view toward leg strikes was demonstrably different.

The French writer M. Joverin de Rochefort commenting on an English prize-fighting contest in 1672 said of two fighters competing with swords, that the shorter had an advantage over the taller “in being able to give him the jarman stroke [i.e., coup de Jarnac], by cutting him on his right ham, which he left in a manner quite unguarded”. No judgment was made by de Rochefort as to this action being in any way inappropriate.

A Medical View

A retired podiatric surgeon, Dr. Michael M. Rosenblatt, DPM, comments on the injuries sustained by Châtaigneraye as well as his cause of death. Having researched the duel, Dr. Rosenblatt’s medical belief is that it is actually highly unlikely Châtaigneraye bleed to death. As he explains, the wound to the distal transection of the posterior tibial artery of the lower leg is an artery with small blood passages. Dr. Rosenblatt continues that even if an actual “hamstringing” had occurred more proximally; simple pressure against the wound site would have stopped the bleeding. He adds that it would have been quite likely to have stopped on its own because there is a natural tendency for the Achilles tendon to retract upon transection, taking the posterior tibial artery with it proximally, thereby additionally protecting it from extravasation. Dr. Rosenblatt is of the opinion that Châtaigneraie essentially committed suicide. By alternatively extending the dorsum of his feet rhythmically during his time on the ground (he was unable to flex the foot, only dorsi-flex it) he very intentionally and with effort on his part knowingly encouraged the bleeding.  Dr. Rosenblatt suggests that the witnesses (especially those viewing from a distance) they would not have been aware of this action. He conjectures that as an experienced swordsman, Châtaigneraie was probably aware that bleeding wounds from such small blood vessel could easily be treated. But from an Achilles tendon wound Châtaigneraie would never have walked again without a limp and certainly never would have fought well again. Out of shame from his loss and crippling condition from this relatively weak cut, Châtaigneraie might very well have, as Rosenblatt suggests, deliberately dorsiflexed his feet rhythmically until he went into shock and died. Dr. Rosenblatt states that even then, as Châtaigneraie went into shock, his life could have been saved (probably almost until the last minutes) by stopping the bleeding, elevating his legs and giving him fluids.

Fallout and Implications

Within two months all of France knew of the outcome. Jarnac’s victory came at a surprise to everyone.  It was not the manner of how he had fought but just the fact he had won. Billacois notes the reaction to his victory as being for the most part surprise at how quickly and easily it came without a climatic battle. Perhaps the crowd had expected a longer and more traditional knightly duel with the combatants clashing and struggling one against the other for a while before a dramatic end. The unexpected outcome caused the crowd to explode in confusion.  Châtaigneraye’s party was stunned; the courtiers and spectators bewildered. The common folk rushed barriers and swarmed the field.  In a mad frenzy they even invaded Châtaigneraye’s pavilion devouring his costly victory banquet, and stealing the luxurious decorations and furnishings (which were all on loan)! Châtaigneraie's supporters and men were so incensed at the loss of their benefactor and favored champion that there was good reason to fear they might riot and overwhelm both Jarnac's party and the kings' men, slaughtering all of them. (Powell, p. 68). Despite the social and legal formality of such affairs, such was human nature.

Afterwards, Châtaigneraye was accused of having lost because of his own insolent arrogance (the night before he had even held a huge banquet to celebrate his impending victory!). Yet, public opinion later was even sympathetic for the loss of the popular Châtaigneraye.  Following the fight however, Jarnac refused any glory and did not bother to even take advantage of the traditional prerogatives of a winner in such combats, as refusing to parade around the champ clos with trumpets and drums as offered by the Judge of the Field. He did so out of concern that the young gentlemen of Châtaigneraye’s side might come down from the bleachers and start a brawl! (Billacois, p. 52).

Billacois noted the duel’s consequences reached far beyond the individuals involved or even its indirect protagonists. (Billacois, p. 49).  As Châtaigneraye lay prostrate, the king, despite ostensibly being impartial was far from happy with the outcome, finally threw down the baton thus ending the combat. He then proclaimed the winner. The defeat of his favorite Châtaigneraye and his involvement in the affair was afterwards to hurt him politically (ironically, Henri himself was to later die in a jousting accident). The publicity surrounding the event and the intrigues leading up to it put the young monarch in a bad light. He had created the spectacle of siding against one of his subjects in a judicial combat but then failed to use his sovereign authority to interrupt the fight when it turned sour. In the end, the affects of the duel was to forever diminish the role of royalty and sovereign as dispenser of justice in such combats. It did so in favor of the value of personal honor and courage, victory in the eyes of God, and hence encouraged the rise of private duelling.  The 16th century proliferation of personal dueling for honor was partially a result of this ending of judicial combat as an institution authorized by kings as judges and controllers of affairs of honor.

Interestingly, in 1587 François de La Noue stated that the fashion of private fighting was actually something new and that such quarrels between gentlemen were not known 40 years earlier. He might very well have been referring to the ending of judicial combats that occurred after this infamous combat in 1547.  Billacois also pointed out that while many sources have claimed Henri II forbade formal duels after this event, this is untrue.  While he himself never again allowed another such affair under his reign there is actually no evidence that he ever banned any form of dueling. A later edict of his against murders and assassinations made no mention of the word duel or of honorable quarrels and applied to all violent deaths committed by either commoners or nobles. Another edict applied specifically to the outlawing of quarrels and challenges (dueling) only within the army. In fact, he later permitted a Duke the right to grant permissions for certain duels. (Billacois, p. 55).  

Whether he was ever innocent of the charge or not (and we really don’t know) Jarnac acted throughout the affair as a consummate Renaissance gentleman, even offering reconciliation with his foe once his reputation had been restored through the courage he showed in facing death and shedding of blood.  Jarnac had nobly offered his wounded and beaten opponent the opportunity to yield.  Interestingly, Brantôme also informs us there was an earlier duel between Chastaigneraye and one Gouard wherein Chastaigneraye would not kill his man while he lay fallen but waited for him to get up again.  La Châtaigneraie, also acting out of nobility, if not a stubborn pride, as was his privilege preferred to die rather than concede.  Ironically, despite what we may see as haughty overconfidence, Châtaigneraie’s own behavior was, arguably, in every way equally in keeping with the values and behaviors of the noble 16th century courtier.

It’s clear from this case, and many others, that the lines between a judicial duel, chivalric combat, and a duel of honor were somewhat blurry in the early 16th century. Duelling saw its most fundamental re-conception in the early 16th century. During this time period some formal duels, which were actually about personal honor or patriotism, were still being conducted in the manner of earlier judicial combats that were intended to determine guilt or innocence in legal disputes and criminal offenses.

One perplexing aspect to ponder is why Jarnac would expect a man as proud as Châtaigneraie to yield in a duel to the death wherein the defeated party would lose all reputation and status and presumably his head?  We must assume that there was some mechanism by which the king at this time would be expected to pardon the loser.

Reflections and Considerations

Among those doing forms of mock duels or historical sword combat today it is not uncommon to encounter the idea that the Jarnac-Châtaigneraye duel can be used to justify or rationalize sparring rules that permit (and even encourage) combatants “wounded” upon the legs to continue fighting from a sitting or kneeling position.  This line of reasoning appears to stem from the mistaken belief that Châtaigneraye continued to fight after a serious leg wound.  The facts of the duel as described however do not support this view at all.  Indeed, they confirm the very opposite understanding. Châtaigneraye did not sit or kneel after the first blow, instead he went right down and his opponent knew he was defeated. Châtaigneraye had to struggle back to his feet where upon his waiting opponent only reluctantly reengaged him and then easily struck him again in the very same way (done as a humane move this second time since, he could have just as easily slain him outright). After this, Châtaigneraye could do nothing but lay there and bleed to death and Jarnac rightly ignored him.  To interpret things here otherwise in order to justify imaginary sparring rules for leg wounds makes little sense.

In the fight Jarnac delivered a slicing cut behind Châtaigneraie’s leg incapacitating his movement and ability to stand.  Knowing from this that the fight was over, Jarnac then backed off, allowing Chastaigneraye to recover somewhat, but from the injury he could barely stand.  He did not concede so Jarnac reluctantly then made the same attack (on one or the other leg) and from this second wound his valiant and stubborn opponent could not recover his foot at all.  There is no question that from the first blow, Jarnac well knew the fight was over and his opponent could not defend himself. He did not finish him off and Chastaigneraye certainly did not sit up or continue the combat from his knees or rump nor could he threaten to bite Jarnac’s legs off.

There are a few technical considerations worth looking at in the duel.  Before Jarnac’s strike, Brantôme described only a forward attack as being made by Châtaigneraye, which later writers interpreted as a “lunge” (that is, extending the arm while usually stepping forward with the lead foot and stretching the rear leg).  But given the type of weapons used it is much more likely that the attack was made with a passing step (where the rear foot comes forward in timing with the striking arm). Whether either of these strikes were actually falso manco cuts (using the back edge) as Hutton assumed is not known.

Generally (but not always), with a buckler held in the left hand the left leg would lead. If we accept that Jarnac made his attack as a counter to his opponent’s attack then the fact that the first blow was made against Châtaigneraye’s left leg would seem to indicate that he may have made his attacking move not with a passing step of the right foot coming forward from behind, but with a forward step of the leading left foot. Or, if he had his right leg leading, then his movement would have to have been made with a forward pass of the left foot from behind.   Since the left leg is indicated as having been struck, if Châtaigneraye did indeed recover to a standing position before the second cut, we can reasonably surmise (regardless of whatever foot was leading) he would have placed his body weight upon his uninjured right leg –making any second attempt to attack Jarnac a feeble one that relied on a very short forward step of the right foot.  From this position, either leg should have been vulnerable to Jarnac for a second blow.  It is not difficult to understand how authorities on this duel could have gotten the details confused.

In another matter to consider, we might also wonder if, as we are told they had daggers in their “boots”, what kind of footwear these were that permitted the lower leg below the knee to be exposed to such slicing cuts?  Likely they were not heavy riding boots of any thick leather, but flat soled ones of soft leather only high enough just to cover the ankles (such as those illustrated in fencing manuals of the time).  If they were high footwear of thicker leather, then Hutton’s description of the cut being a quick snap from the back of the blade would seem even less likely.  If anything, it would have been a much wider swipe that incorporated a drawing action in combination with the blow’s impact all delivered by a traverse move of the feet, a lowering of the body and a turn of the hips –much as the master Giacomo Di Grassi in his 1570 treatise was to later advise when cutting.

It's easy to speculate on and to try to draw lessons from the 1547 duel between de Jarnac and La Châtaigneraie. But we must be careful of assigning too much martial significance or uniqueness to it. Brantôme noted Châtaigneraie's contempt for his former friend as well as his confidence in his own valour as factors in his defeat. (Powell, p. 57). One moral of the account might be to never agree out of pride or ego to do away with advantages or dismiss opportunities to employ your known strengths in the expectation that your experience alone will win the day. The other lesson we might take here may be one of a haughty sure-minded veteran being overcome by a less experienced but more serious-minded and focused opponent who aptly prepared himself both physically and mentally.

Franklin Alfred, Le Duel Jarnac et de la Châtaigneraye, 1909.
Sydney Anglo, 'Le Jeu de la Hache', Archaeologia, 1991.
Sydney Anglo, Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, 2001.
François Billacois, Le Duel, 1986.
Sir Richard Burton, The Sentiment of the Sword, 1911.
Egerton Castle, "Some Historic Duels", 1894.
Alfred Hutton, The Sword and the Centuries, 1901.
Lacaze, Pierre. En garde Du duel à l'escrime, 1991.
Charles Mackay. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1841.
J. G. Millingen, The History of Dueling, 1841.
George H. Powell. Dueling Stories of the Sixteenth Century from the French of Brantôme, 1940.
Major Ben C. Truman. The Field of Honor, 1883.
W. L. Wiley, The Gentleman of Renaissance France, 1954.


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