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)

Saturday 11 August 2012

The Elephant in the Room

On September 13th, 1440, Jean de Malestroit wrote this -
"...we listened repeatedly to the shocking complaints made by as many good and discreet synodic by several other credible people of probity, at the same time as by many well by the oft-repeated public rumor as as by the preceding denunciations, we discovered that the said nobleman, Milord Gilles de Rais, baron of the said lands in our diocese, had killed, cut the throats of, and massacred many innocent children in an inhuman fashion, and with them committed, against nature, the abominable and execrable sin of sodomy, in various fashions and with unheard-of perversions that cannot presently be expounded upon by reason of their horror, but that will be disclosed in Latin at the appropriate time and place; that he had often and repeatedly practised the dreadful invocation of demons and took care that it be practised; that he sacrificed and made offerings to these same demons, contracted with them; and wickedly perpetrated other crimes and offenses, professing doctrinal heresy against Divine Majesty, in the subversion and distortion of our faith, offering a pernicious example unto many."
(The Trial of Gilles de Rais, by Georges Bataille, translated by Richard Robinson, Amok Books)

On October 13th, the Bill of Indictment was read and, as promised, did indeed go into more detail.

The interrogations of François Prelati, Eustache Blanchet, Etienne Corillaut (Poitou), and Henriet Griart took place between the 16th and the 17th of October. At the point when Jean de Malestroit wrote his initial letter, and when the Bill of Indictment was drafted, the only evidence before him was from the "public rumour" that children had gone missing and from his own interviews with parents and other concerned parties. All that they could tell him was that children were allegedly disappearing in the area, not what had happened to them. What de Malestroit writes is inside information and we are not told where it comes from.

Most writers do not address this discrepancy; I suspect that many do not even notice it. Among the ones who do is Frances Winwar, in The Saint and the Devil, who makes the logical assumption that somebody from Gilles's household had informed on him.

It is possible that François Prelati, Eustache Blanchet or André Buchet (who is named in the Bill of Indictment and was working for Jean V when he allegedly procured a child to be murdered) voluntarily gave information because they realised that Gilles de Rais was about to be arrested and sought to save their own skins. It is equally possible that they were tortured or threatened with torture. Or bribed. Or told that they would save their lives if they made a private confession inculpating their master. It is just as likely that the accusations were pure invention.

The only thing we know for certain is that Jean de Malestroit made allegations, later confirmed by confessions under torture, which he seems to have produced out of thin air and chose not to source.

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