The case for the defence

Born 1404
Executed 1440
Exonerated 1992

It is now widely accepted that the trial of Gilles de Rais was a miscarriage of justice. He was a great war hero on the French side; his judges were pro-English and had an interest in blackening his name and, possibly, by association, that of Jehanne d'Arc. His confession was obtained under threat of torture and also excommunication, which he dreaded. A close examination of the testimony of his associates, in particular that of Poitou and Henriet, reveals that they are almost identical and were clearly extracted by means of torture. Even the statements of outsiders, alleging the disappearance of children, mostly boil down to hearsay; the very few cases where named children have vanished can be traced back to the testimony of just eight witnesses. There was no physical evidence to back up this testimony, not a body or even a fragment of bone. His judges also stood to gain from his death: in fact, Jean V Duke of Brittany, who enabled his prosecution, disposed of his share of the loot before de Rais was even arrested.

In France, the subject of his probable innocence is far more freely discussed than it is in the English-speaking world. In 1992 a Vendéen author named Gilbert Prouteau was hired by the Breton tourist board to write a new biography. Prouteau was not quite the tame biographer that was wanted and his book, Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup, argued that Gilles de Rais was not guilty. Moreover, he summoned a special court to re-try the case, which sensationally resulted in an acquittal. As of 1992, Gilles de Rais is an innocent man.

In the mid-1920s he was even put forward for beatification, by persons unknown. He was certainly not the basis for Bluebeard, this is a very old story which appears all over the world in different forms.

Le 3 janvier 1443... le roi de France dénonçait le verdict du tribunal piloté par l'Inquisition.
Charles VII adressait au duc de Bretagne les lettres patentes dénonçant la machination du procès du maréchal: "Indûment condamné", tranche le souverain. Cette démarche a été finalement étouffée par l'Inquisition et les intrigues des grands féodaux. (Gilbert Prouteau)

Two years after the execution the King granted letters of rehabilitation for that 'the said Gilles, unduly and without cause, was condemned and put to death'. (Margaret Murray)

Thursday 26 April 2012

A very strange omission

This illustration (from a French bande dessinée, the title of which is unknown to me) depicts Gilles de Rais burning multiple bodies in a large fireplace, exactly as described in the trial. This is, if not impossible, then at least highly improbable. The temperatures required to incinerate a human corpse are very high indeed - crematoriums take one and a half hours to incinerate an adult corpse at temperatures of 1600-1800°C. By comparison, a house fire would usually reach 1200°C and casualties would not be burnt to ashes. Even a large fireplace in a castle could not hope to achieve these temperatures. And then there is the stench - not just of burning flesh, but also of hair, nails, blood, wet internal organs, the content of the gut. Given the length of time it would take to reduce a body even to a skeleton, and the number of alleged victims, this would have been almost a full-time activity. Yet, although there had been a "public rumour" that Gilles de Rais murdered children, nobody at the trial commented on any foul smell or dense smoke around his castles. And that seems a very strange omission.

Sunday 22 April 2012

A little inconsistency

From Jehanne la Pucelle, by Paul Gillon

This is the usual explanation for Gilles' abrupt change in personality - that he was deranged by Jehanne's capture and execution. Such a shame that charge XV at his trial specified that "for the past fourteen years, every year, every month, every day, every night and every hour... [Gilles] took, killed, cut the throats of many children, boys and girls..." That would be 1426, not the 1432 of the "confession" that would have chimed so sweetly with Jehanne's death. Just one little contradiction among many.

Sunday 8 April 2012

The church at Saint Étienne de Mer Morte

The plaque reads:
   "Gilles de Raiz, Maréchal de France pénétra en cette Église
    le jour de la Pentecôte 1440, en armes à la tête de ses routiers
    pendant la grand-messe.
    Il s'emparait de Jean Le Ferron, clerc tonsuré qu'il enfermait
    en sa forteresse toute proche.
    Jean de Malestroit Évèque de Nantes le citait à comparaître
    devant son official par mandement du 15 septembre.
    Jean V, Duc de Bretagne, faisait arrêter Gilles dès le lendemain.
    Il avouait ses crimes, jugé, condamné, il fut mis au gibet
    en Prairie de Biesse à Nantes le 26 octobre 1440."

Saturday 7 April 2012

The Spokane Daily Chronicle 1926

It is fairly well known that Gilles de Rais was unofficially re-tried in 1992, and acquitted. What is not so well known is that a similar attempt to rehabilitate him was made, with less success, in the mid 1920s. This lighthearted article belies the seriousness of the attempt. The people involved included Salomon Reinach and Maurice Garçon, the mentor of Gilbert Prouteau...

Sunday 1 April 2012

The overwhelming probability, of course, is that Gilles de Rais was innocent...

The overwhelming probability, of course, is that Gilles de Rais was innocent; like all the other famous victims of sorcery trials he was framed by his enemies, who used the same vicious slanders to discredit and destroy him as the English had used to discredit & destroy his companion-in-arms Joan of Arc. Because his trial was a domestic affair, later generations of Frenchmen were content to let his conviction stand so that the Church might use it as a terrible example to those who faltered in the faith.
Brian M Stableford