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)

Monday 18 June 2012

Why did Gilles not proclaim his innocence in the moments before dying?

This press cutting is extracted from the Milwaukee Sentinal, 12th April 1936. It deals with an attempt to rehabilitate Gilles de Rais in the mid 1920s, on rather strange grounds. What concerns us here is the final paragraph, which dismisses the claims of Gilles's innocence because he failed to speak the truth at the foot of the gallows.
So did Gilles have nothing more to fear from telling the truth? Not at all. He had made a deal with his judges and if he had gone back on his word and retracted his confession, the consequences for him would have been appalling. He would have been excommunicated on the spot, which to his mind would have consigned him to Hell. Instead of dying the swift death of a cooperative prisoner, his neck broken instantly, he would have been allowed to strangle slowly over the flames which would consume him. Then his ashes would have been thrown into the Loire instead of resting in the cathedral of Notre Dame des Carmes alongside other Breton heroes. From his point of view, as a mediaeval Christian, if he remained silent he would die relatively painlessly and be received into Heaven; if he spoke out he would suffer a prolonged and agonising death that would plunge him into Hell. A last-minute profession of innocence was not an option that a sane man would take.

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with your logic. I've studied Gilles' story obsessively since 1992, and I 100% concur with all of your thoughts on his innocence. If you think about it, he did proclaim his innocence repeatedly in the early stages of his trial, and he also only admitted to practicing alchemy (until via excommunication and torture/threat of torture, he changed his tune).