‘Une piteuse bataille’: A trial by combat between commoners in Valenciennes, 1455

When Jacotin gouged out both of his opponent’s eyes, the broken man cried out for mercy from the Duke of Burgundy. Philippe le Bon could not fulfil this request and he let justice be done by the town, according to its franchise.[1] After Mahiot confessed his crimes to the priests, the executioner put an end to the misery of the murderer. This awful spectacle was watched by a large audience in the market of Valenciennes. The Duke of Burgundy was ashamed by that terrible spectacle according to his chronicler Olivier de la Marche. He promised that he would show the citizen of Valenciennes how chivalry was properly done that following year, by organising a tournament. Two knights fulfilled that promise by  performing an emprise d’armes in 1456, ‘properly armed for fighting on foot, with one throw of the lance and twenty-five blows with the axe’.[2]

The Plot

In Valenciennes (Hainault, Burgundian Low Countries), Jacotin Plouvier, a burgher of the town, accused Mahiot (Mahiénot) Coquel, a tailor from Tournai, of murdering one of his parents. A trial by combat that followed the town’s charters was agreed upon by the magistrate. Preparations lasted more than a year, and the combat finally took place in May 1455

Three chronicles relate the event, mostly depicting it as terrible, awful, and out of place.[3] The combatants, whose hair and nails were cut, wore a tightly fitted garment made of leather, covered in grease ‘so that they could not grapple each other’, their hands covered with ashes ‘so that they could handle their shield and mace’.[4] The maces are described as being made of hardwood (medlar for d’Escouchy – mellier bien nouteilleux and de la Marche – mesplier). After a few exchanges of bloody mace blows and throwing sand in the eyes, both men wrestled on the ground; one gouged out both his opponent’s eyes, and broke his limbs and back.

The ‘famous’ master-at-arms Hans, hired by the town

The town provided both the grounds and security for the combat, and took all necessary measures to ensure a fair fight. Both men were held in custody before their trial. The town supplied the weapons (wooden shield and mace) and installed barriers around the designated duel space. Each combatant was permitted to paint holy symbols on their shields at their own cost. Two masters at arms were hired to offer training to the combatants. The duration of this training for trials-by-combat (usually six weeks) is given by other contemporary sources.[5] The master attributed to Mahienot Coquel is named ‘Hans’ in the Chronique of Chastellain.[6] The other master was Jean de Bourges, apparently less experienced. We do not have any other information regarding these masters. With a little bit of imagination, one could argue that ‘Hans’ may have been Hans Talhoffer.[7] He was a contemporary fencing master active in Southern Germany who specialised in trial by combat and authored several fight books (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Detail of a trial by combat with mace and shield, Hans Talhoffer, Fight Book, 1448. Gotha, Forschungsbibliothek, Hs Chart A558, fol. 42r.

Trial by combat in towns at the end of the Middle Ages

Trial by combat is seen as an anachronistic procedure, gradually fading in oblivion at the end of the Middle Ages. The old-fashioned tradition of defending one’s honour by right of arms is cared for by the aristocracy, and mostly reserved for them in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. However, it rivalled new judicial procedures at the end of the Middle Ages as the state developed more administration for its judicial apparatus, such as requiring combatants to present proofs. This is the picture painted by chronicles and the study of judicial and normative documents in places such as France, but neighbouring kingdoms and states also followed the same practices.[8] This representation is not always quite accurate, but it certainly followed the official position of the authorities, religious and secular alike. Several regions preserved this practice throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth century. trial by combat was still regulated by customary laws, especially in franchised towns. It can involve commoners, clergy men, and even women.

In Swiss towns there are also traces of judicial combat procedures. For example, the custom of Moudon ruled trial by combat in the towns of the Pays de Vaud (western part of Switzerland). By 1468, one noble and seventeen commoners (including one monk and one woman) had been implicated in the custom.[9] Apparently, most of these serious ventures were not seen through to the end. The authorities usually tried to force compromise upon the parties before trial by combat could take place. It was also a costly endeavour, and took a long time to plan. For the case of Valenciennes, it was a franchised town under the realm of the Duke of Burgundy. The Duke tried to avoid the practice for two years (a first schedule for the trial was August 1454), but was forced to allow it by law when the parties did not come to any agreement, despite concerted efforts to do so. After this episode, the Duke gradually revoked the privileges for the trial by combat in the towns of his duchy. We find contemporary descriptions of similar events in England as well, where chroniclers also showed disgust when relating any trial by combat involving commoners.[10] Duels were about to disappear, or at least undergo a profound transformation into ‘duels of honour’, which decimated both nobles and commoners alike across the next century.

[1] The Duke was forced to let this be carried out, according to Georges Chastelain in the manuscript additional fragments of his chronicle (London, British Library, MS 54156), edited by Jean-Claude Delclos, Chronique de Georges Chastellain. Les fragments du Livre IV (Geneva: Droz, 1991), p. 325.

[2] Olivier de la Marche, Mémoires, ed. by Henry Beaune and J. d’Arbaumont (Paris: Renouard, 1884), t. II, p. 406-7.

[3] Elodie Lecuppre-Desjardin, La villes des cérémonies. Essai sur la communication politique dans les anciens Pays-Bas bourguignon (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 311-7. For a review of the historiography regarding the Valencienne case, see also Elodie Lecuppre-Desjardins, ‘Le Duel Judiciaire dans les villes des anciens Pays-Bas bourguignons: Privilège urbain ou acte de rébellion?’, in Agon Und Distinktion. Soziale Räume Des Zweikampfs Zwischen Mittelalter Und Neuzeit, ed. by Uwe Israel and Christian Jaser (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2015),pp. 187-88, note 28.

[4] Ilz avoient les testes raises, les piedz nuz, et les ongles coppez des mains et des piedz; et au regard du corps, des jambes et des bras, ilz estoient vestuz de cuyr bouilly, cousu estroictement sur leurs personnes. Olivier de la Marche, ed. by Claude-Bernard Petitot (Paris: Foucault, 1825), vol. 9, p. 404. […] deux bassins plains de gresse, dont les habillemensfurent oingtz et engressez, affin que l’ung d’eulx ne peust prendre prinse sur l’autre. […] deux bassins de cendres, pour oster la gresse de leurs mains, afin qu’ilz puissent mieulx tenir leurs escuz et leurs bastons. Olivier de la Marche, p. 405.

[5] Daniel Jaquet, ‘Six Weeks to Prepare for Combat. Instruction and Practices from the Fight Books at the End of the Middle Ages, a Note on Ritualised Single Combats’, in Killing and Being Killed: Bodies in Battle Perspectives on Fighters in the Middle Ages, ed. by Jörg Rogge (Biefeld: Transcript, 2017), pp. 131–64.

   [6] Or ont eu ces deux gens-icy par longue espace leurs maistres emprès eux, qui leur ont appris leurs envayes et deffenses, et tout ce en quoy il les espèrerent à sauver, et avoit Mahienot empès lui un nommé Hans, le meilleur qu’on savoit en nul pays, […] Chastelain, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove (Bruxelles: Heussner, 1863), pp. 44-5.

  [7] Eric Burkart, ‘Die Aufzeichnung Des Nicht-Sagbaren. Annäherung an Die Kommunikative Funktion Der Bilder in Den Fechtbüchern Des Hans Talhofer’, Das Mittelalter, 19.2 (2014), 253–301.

[8] Claude Gauvard, ‘De Grace Especial’: Crime, État et Société En France à La Fin Du Moyen Age (Paris: Publ. de la Sorbonne, 1991)

[9] Claude Berguerand, ‘Le Duel Judiciaire au Moyen Âge dans le Pays de Vaud au travers du duel d’Othon de Grandson’, in Duel et Combat Singulier en Suisse Romande: De l’Antiquité au XXe Siècle: Actes du colloque des 7 et 8 Mai 2010, ed. by Olivier Meuwly, Nicolas Gex, and Georges Andrey (Bière: Cabédita, 2012), pp. 59–67.

[10] Ariella Elema, ‘Trial by Battle in France and England’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Toronto, 2015). See also Jacob Deacon, ‘‘Falsely Accused by the Villain’?: A Fishy Trial by Combat in Fifteenth-Century London’, Martial Culture in Medieval Towns, 2019 <https://martcult.hypotheses.org/404> [accessed 20.08.2021].

‘Falsely Accused by the Villain’?: A Fishy Trial by Combat in Fifteenth-Century London

Image of two men in fifteenth-century armour fighting on foot with pollaxes. Leeds, Royal Armouries, MS PHIL 1, fol. 1r.


One of the more iconic images of the Middle Ages, common in numerous aspects of popular culture, is that of two knightly champions engaged in the judicial combat of a trial by battle.[1] There is a particular example, however, from the middle of the fifteenth century, that can offer some insights into various aspects of martial culture and preparation for judicial combats in late medieval English urban centres.[2] In London, during the autumn of 1446, a dispute arose not between two men at arms or knights, but rather an armourer’s apprentice, John Davy, and his master, William Catour. Davy had accused his master of ‘treson ymagined and doon ayenste’ King Henry VI, and as the truth of the matter could not be determined by conventional legal means, it was decided that it would be resolved in a trial by combat.[3] What would go on to happen in the fight was so unusual that it would even be recounted in William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2.

Preparations for the Combat

A particular aspect which separates this instance of trial by combat from others is in the details surrounding the preparations for the fight, such as those relating to some of the individuals appointed to train the appellant and defendant. Privy council records indicate that Philip Treher, Master Hugh Payne, and John Latimer were hired for the purpose of ‘teching certain pointes of armis’ to Davy and Catour (Treher was appointed to Davy, whilst the other two taught Catour). Whilst the names mean little by themselves, a particularly striking detail is that Treher – appointed by the crown to prepare a man to defend his own life – is described not as a professional master of arms, but as ‘Philip Treher fyshmonger’.[4] The answers as to where, when, and how Philip Treher acquired his skill at arms remain unknowable, but there is plenty of evidence demonstrating a widespread practice of martial arts amongst the lower classes in late medieval and Renaissance London from coroners’ rolls, legal statutes, and even the records of the sixteenth-century fencing organisation the Company of Masters of Defence.[5] Whilst no account of how Davy was trained by Treher, the 1448 Fechtbuch of a German fencing master, Hans Talhoffer, prescribes that combatants involved in a judicial duel should train by means of physical activities (he mentions stone and javelin throwing), ritualised processes (regular shaving, praying, and anointing), and engaging in pleasant pursuits (for example listening to music, bathing, and hunting). Talhoffer further states that the combatant should train, in secret, for two hours in the morning and two after noon.[6]

Trial by Battle

On the morning of the combat, both men donned their armour, made their peace with God, and prepared to fight for their lives. There was, however, one crucial difference in their final preparations which would have a dramatic impact on the outcome. In order to calm Catour’s (understandably) nervous disposition, his friends had plied him with ‘so moch wyne and good ale, that he was therwith distemperyd’.[7] Having imbibed too much alcohol he was soon in no condition to produce a competent defence. Whilst there is no detailed narrative of the fight, there are other examples of judicial duels fought in the same location, Smithfield, for which descriptions survive that can show what such combats were like.[8] For example, one fight between John Annesley and Thomas Catteron in 1380 finished with Catterton unable to continue the fight (and summarily executed) as a result of the heat, weight of his harness, and energy he had expended whilst wrestling on the ground.[9] An even more gruesome end punctuated the resolution of a desperate encounter between Thomas Whytehorne and James Fyscher. This fight, which happened almost a decade after the one between Davy and Catour, witnessed how Whytehorne ‘caste that meke innocent (Fyscher) downe to the grownde and bote hym by the membrys’, that is to say his genitalia. Fyscher responded by biting his opponent’s nose and gouging out his eyes.[10] Given the bloody nature of these fights, it is not difficult to envision how horribly Catour must have been ‘ouercomyn and slayne’ by his former apprentice.[11] His loss in the combat proved the truth of the case, and it was thus determined that he was the traitor that he had been accused of being. The chronicler William Gregory relates that ‘the mayster was slayne and dyspoylde owte of hys harnys, and lay stylle in the fylde alle that day and that nyght next folowynge. And thenne afty[r]ward, by the kyngys commaundement, he was d[r]awyn, hanggyde, and be-heddyde, and hys hedde sette on London Brygge, and the body hynggyng a-bove erthe be-syde the towre’.[12]

As for Philip Treher, the fishmonger and part-time fencing master who had educated the victorious Davy, he was clearly considered to be an instructor of some ability: he had already been employed in 1446 on the same grounds to teach Thomas fitz-Thomas, the Hospitaller prior of Kilmainham Abbey, pertaining to a suit he had brought against the Earl of Ormonde, and was hired again in 1453 for a case involving John Lyalton and Robert Norreys.[13] These other cases allow us to build a more complete image of Treher as a fencer: Lyalton and Norreys, for example, were to fight with glaives, short swords, daggers, and axes (instead of longswords), indicating some of the weapons with which Treher was likely proficient.[14] Nor was Treher paid poorly for this work: he was compensated with £20 for teaching Davy and the prior, approximately the equivalent value of either fifty cows, six hundred and sixty six days of wages for a skilled labourer, or £12,488.10 in today’s terms.[15]


Ultimately, the story of Davy and Catour offers a small but valuable insight into late medieval urban martial culture in England. It is a valuable reminder that judicial combats (and martial prowess), despite their modern chivalric depictions, were not solely within the purview of knighthood and the nobility. Given the limited details available for fencing masters known to have existed in fifteenth-century England, it also serves as an important insight as to what their careers could look like and how they could expect to be paid, although a contact with the crown was likely much more financially rewarding than a fencing master could expect from clients.

A final word, however, should be given to events which took place some time after the execution of William Catour. Although found guilty in the trial, two later sources – Fabyan’s chronicle, and the later retelling of the narrative by Shakespeare – both imply that Catour was innocent, and had been accused maliciously. In Henry VI. Part 2 his character (renamed to Thomas Horner), exclaims that he is ‘falsely accused by the villain’ as revenge for striking him.[16] Given the fate of Davy, this may have been true. This judicial combat was not to be John Davy’s final run in with the law: he himself was eventually sentenced to death by hanging for committing an unnamed felony, raising all sorts of questions about the veracity of the claims that he had brought against the man who had one been his own master and teacher.[17]

Acknowledgements: Thank you to Dr Karen Watts and Messrs Samuel Bradley and Iain Dyson for their thoughts.

[1] For an overview of single combat in modern media and its link to historical sources, see Jacob Henry Deacon, ‘La Posta di Falcone and La Porta di Ferro: Depictions of Combat in Medieval and Modern Media’, in The Middle Ages in Modern Culture: History and Authenticity in Contemporary Medievalism, ed. by Robert Houghton and Karl Alvestad (London: I. B Taurus, forthcoming).

[2] For trial by combat in late medieval England see Ariella Elema, ‘Trial by Battle in France and England’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Toronto, 2012).

[3] Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, Volume 6, ed. by Harris Nicolas (London: G. Eyre and A. Spottiswoode, 1837), p. 56.

[4] Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, Volume 6, p. 59.

[5] For the records of the Company of Masters, see London, British Library, MS Sloane 2530. A transcription of the manuscript has been published, see Herbert Berry, The Noble Science: A Study and Transcription of Sloane Ms. 2530, Papers of the Masters of Defence of London, Temp. Henry VIII to 1590 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991).

[6] For an analysis of Talhoffer’s approach to trial by combat, see Daniel Jaquet, ‘Six Weeks to Prepare for Combat: Instruction and Practices from the Fight Books at the End of the Middle Ages, a Note on Ritualised Single Combats’, in Killing and Being Killed: Bodies in Battle. Perspectives on Fighters in the Middle Ages, ed. by Jörg Rogge (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2017), pp. 131-64.

[7] Robert Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France, ed. by Henry Ellis (London: F. C. & J. Rivington, 1811) p. 618.

[8] Smithfield was one of the most important centres of martial activity in medieval England. It was used not only for staging judicial combats, but also jousts and other tournament activity. For a summary of such formal combats see Rachel Whitbread, ‘Tournaments, Jousts and Duels: Formal Combats in England and France, circa 1380-1440’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of York, 2013).

[9] Thomas Walsingham, The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham, 1376-1422, trans. by David Preest (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005), pp. 105-06.

[10] The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century, ed. by James Gairdner (London: Camden Society, 1876) pp. 199-202.

[11] Fabyan, The New Chronicles, p. 618.

[12] The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London, p. 187.

[13] Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, Volume 6, pp. 57-59 and p. 129.

[14] Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, Volume 6, p. 129.

[15] Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, Volume 6; Figures calculated with The National Archives’ currency converter, online: <http: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter> (accessed 03/09/2019).

[16] William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, 1.3.192-94.

[17] Fabyan, The New Chronicles of England and France, p. 618.

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