Martin Daguerre was born around 1524 in the Basque town of Hendaye. In 1527, his family left Hendaye and settled in the Pyrenean village Artigat in south-western France, where they changed their name to Guerre. When he was about fourteen years old, he was married to Bertrande, daughter of a well-off family. For eight years, the marriage remained childless, then a son was born. After having been accused of stealing grain from his father, he abruptly left his family in 1548 without leaving a trace. The law did not allow his abandoned wife to remarry (unlike the law of the Protestants, who were slowly gaining ground).
In the summer of 1556, a man appeared in Artigat, claiming to be Martin Guerre. He looked similar and knew many details of Martin Guerre's life and so managed to convince most villagers, his uncle, Martin Guerre's four sisters and Bertrande that he was indeed the true Martin Guerre, though doubts about his appearance remained. The "new" Martin lived for three years with Bertrande and her son, and the two had two daughters together, with one surviving. He claimed the inheritance of Guerre's father, who had since died, and he even sued Guerre's uncle, Pierre Guerre, for part of the inheritance.
Pierre Guerre, who had earlier married Bertrande's widowed mother during Martin Guerre's absence, then became suspicious again. He and his wife tried to convince Bertrande that the new Martin was an impostor. A soldier who passed through Artigat claimed that the new Martin Guerre was a fraud: the real one had lost a leg in the war. Pierre even tried to kill the new Martin, but Bertrande intervened.
In 1559, the new Martin was accused of arson and also of impersonating Martin Guerre; Bertrande remained on his side and he was acquitted in 1560. In the meantime, Pierre Guerre had asked around and believed to have found the true identity of the impostor: Arnaud du Tilh, a man with a poor reputation from the nearby village Sajas. Pierre then initiated a new case against the man by falsely claiming to act in Bertrande's name. He and his wife, Bertrande's mother, then pressured Bertrande to support the charge, and eventually she obliged.
In 1560, the case was tried in Rieux. Bertrande testified that at first she had honestly believed the man to be her husband, but that she had since realized that he was a fraud. Both Bertrande and the accused independently related an identical story about their intimate life. The new Martin then challenged her: if she would swear that he was not her husband, he would gladly agree to be executed--Bertrande remained silent. After hearing more than 150 witnesses, with many recognizing Martin Guerre (including his four sisters), many recognizing Arnaud du Tilh and many refusing to take a side, the accused impostor was sentenced to death.
He immediately appealed to the parliament in Toulouse. Bertrande and Pierre were arrested: Bertrande for possible adultery, Pierre for possible false accusation and soliciting perjury. The new Martin eloquently argued his case, and the judges in Toulouse tended to believe his version of the story: that Bertrande was pressured to perjury by the greedy Pierre Guerre. The accused had to undergo detailed questioning about his past; his statements were double checked and no contradictions were found. But then dramatically the true Martin Guerre appeared during the very trial, with a wooden leg. When asked about their past, the new Martin was able to answer some question better than the "old" one, who had forgotten several details. But when the two were presented to the Guerre family, the case was closed: Pierre, Bertrande, and Martin's four sisters all agreed that the old one was the true one. The impostor was convicted and sentenced to death for adultery and fraud; the public sentencing on September 12, 1560, during which the accused maintained his innocence, was attended by the young Montaigne. Afterwards, Arnaud du Tilh confessed: he had learned about Guerre's life after two men confused him with Guerre, and he had then decided to take Guerre's place, with two conspirators helping him with the details. He begged for forgiveness and was hanged in front of Martin Guerre's house in Artigat four days later.
Pierre Guerre and Bertrande were set free; the judges believed that Bertrande was indeed honestly defrauded by Arnaud du Tilh. Today, most commentators believe that she silently or explicitly agreed to the fraud because she needed a husband and was treated well by Arnaud. The improbability of mistaking a stranger for her husband, her support for him until the very trial, and the shared intimate story which was likely prepared in advance are cited as evidence.
During the absence from his family, the real Martin Guerre had moved to Spain, served for a cardinal, and then later in the army of Pedro de Mendoza. As part of the Spanish army, he was eventually sent to Flanders and participated in the Spanish attack against Saint-Quentin on August 10, 1557. There he was wounded and his leg had to be amputated. He then lived in a monastery before returning to his wife. The reason for his returning at the very time of the trial remains unknown. Initially, he rejected her apologies, maintaining that she should have known better than to take another man.
Two contemporary accounts of the case were written: one by Guillaume Le Sueur and the other by Jean de Coras, one of the trial judges in Toulouse. Alexandre Dumas, Pere wrote a version of the story for his multi-volume "Celebrated Crimes."
Throughout the ages, this bizarre story has fascinated many writers. A detailed account of the case was provided in 1983 by Princeton history professor Natalie Zemon Davis.
The 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre (directed by Daniel Vigne and starring Gérard Depardieu and Natalie Baye) remains mostly true to the historic account, except for the fictional explanation of Bertrande's motives at the film's end. A 1993 Hollywood remake starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere retells the story as Sommersby in the United States after the American Civil War.