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)

Friday 29 June 2012

Dead man walking

Gilles de Laval, Lord of Rais 1404-1440, Arrested for his Strange Crimes by Lucien Napolean Francois Totain, 1838-1900 

Gilles de Rais was arrested on September 15th 1440.

He was at Machecoul. He could have resisted almost indefinitely behind its fortifications, but he gave himself up for arrest. This was not the action of a guilty man. In all probability he thought that his arrest was a mere formality in connection with the affray at St-Etienne-de-Mer-Morte - he had had a meeting with Jean V in July to discuss the fine he had been given for this matter. Clearly the meeting had given him no reason for serious misgivings. 

Initially, Gilles accepted his judges, but at this point he did not know the true nature of the charges against him. It was not until October 8th - a full three weeks after his arrest - that it was revealed to him that he stood accused of murder and sodomy. And it was at this point that he railed against his judges, calling them simoniacs and ribalds. This has always been taken to be another example of the madness of Gilles de Rais; in context, it would appear to be the shocked and frustrated outburst of a man who realises that he has fallen into a trap. He was now in the clutches of the Inquisition. He had no counsel for the defence. He was denied the right of appeal because he had necessarily, because unforewarned, attempted to appeal orally instead of in writing. He denied these charges until the point when he was shown the forced confessions of his servants and threatened with torture himself. 

Jean V had already confiscated and disposed of Gilles's property on September 3rd, twelve days before he was arrested. 

The cynicism is breathtaking.

Long before he was arrested, Gilles de Rais was a dead man walking.

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