The Combat of the Thirty: A Contest of the Finest
The Combat of the Thirty is an episode in the War of the Breton Succession, which in turn was part of the Hundred Years’ War. This combat, which took place on March 26/27, 1351, was fought between 30 combatants from each side, hence its name. The aim of the Combat of the Thirty is a subject of debate amongst historians, and it certainly did not bring an end to the War of the Breton Succession, which, incidentally, lasted for another 14 years, concluding only in 1365. Still, the Combat of the Thirty has been regarded to be one of the last examples of medieval chivalric combat, and therefore has been often celebrated in both art and literature.
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What Led to the Combat of the Thirty?
The War of the Breton Succession was a conflict that lasted from 1341 to 1365. This war broke out following the death of Duke John III of Brittany, who died without leaving an heir. As a consequence, there were two claimants to the Duchy of Brittany. The first was the duke’s half-brother, John de Montfort, whilst the second was Charles de Blois, the husband of the Jeanne de Penthièvre, a niece of the duke. The former was supported by the King of England, whilst the latter by the King of France.
By 1351, the war had reached a stalemate, as neither party had a clear advantage over the other, and both de Montfort and de Blois were both in control of various strongholds throughout the duchy. It was around the beginning of that year that Jean de Beaumanoir, a supporter of de Blois who served as captain of Josselin, challenged Robert Bemborough (an English knight of de Montfort who controlled Ploërmel) to a duel.
View of Josselyn Castle, France. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A Personal Challenge?
The reason for de Beaumanoir’s challenge has been a matter of debate. Some sources, for example, have claimed that de Beaumoir’s challenge was purely personal, and therefore was a reflection of the chivalric values of the time. On the other hand, it has been asserted by some that Bemborough was a tyrannical lord, and that de Beaumanoir intended to aid those under the oppressive rule of the English. It has been pointed out that this assertion was made by a local supporter of de Blois, and hence ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.
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A 15 th century depiction of the Combat of the Thirty, in the Compillation des cronicques et ystoires des Bretons by de Pierre le Baud, 1480. (Public Domain)
In any event, Bemborough not only accepted the challenge, as was expected of a knight, but even suggested that they expand this personal duel to a combat of a larger scale. de Beaumanoir was in favor of this suggestion, and both parties agreed to select 30 men each for the combat, hence turning the single duel into a tournament (which would have included refreshments and spectators).
Regarding the combatants, all those fighting on de Beaumanoir’s side were Bretons, whilst Bemborough’s force consisted of 20 Englishmen, six German mercenaries, and four Breton supporters of de Montfort. It may be interesting to note that although the names of the combatants on each side have been recorded, not all of them have been identified by historians. It may be said that those on de Beaumanoir’s side, nine knights and 21 squires, were easily recognized as they were mostly from well-known families. Little is known, however, about those on Bemborough’s side, as their names are mostly insignificant. Bemborough himself is a bit of a mystery, as some have claimed that he was German, and not English.
The Combat of the Thirty took place on either the 26 th or 27 th of March 1351, at a place called Chêne de Mi-Voie, meaning ‘the Halfway Oak’, which is situated between Josselin and Ploërmel. The men fought either mounted, or on foot, and used a variety of weapons, including swords, daggers, lances, axes, and maces. The battle was fought for several hours, with occasional breaks in between. In the end, the Bretons emerged victorious, with an estimated loss of four men. The English, on the other hand, are believed to have lost 10 men, including Bemborough.
19th century illustration of the death of Robert Bemborough during the combat of the thirty, 1351; Breton of Succession by Paul Philippoteaux (Public Domain)
It is likely that the Combat of the Thirty would have been an insignificant footnote in the history of the War of the Breton Succession, were it not romanticized by artists and writers as a great display of medieval chivalry. Indeed, the Combat of the Thirty had no actual impact on the war whatsoever, except that it may have boosted French morale considerably, especially when one considers the major defeat suffered by them at Crécy five years earlier.
Top image: The Combat of the Thirty (26-27 March 1351) (French: Combat des Trente) by Octave Penguilly L'Haridon - Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper. Source: Public Domain
By: Wu Mingren
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