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)

Sunday 2 December 2012

Noble, valiant, gentle prince...

Bossard, in trying to date the Mystère du Siège d'Orléans, goes to great lengths to establish that it must have been written and staged prior to Gilles de Rais' disgrace in 1440. After that time, he insists, the playwright could not have shown Gilles at Jehanne's side, praised by her as one of her nobles, vaillans princes gentilz, and playing a decisive part in her victory. Nor would any audience have tolerated the spectacle.

The picture below was published in International History Magazine in 1974. It shows a pageant in honour of Jehanne d'Arc and riding by her side is a dark, bearded figure who clearly represents Gilles de Rais. So, although Gilles was expunged from French history books and, indeed, from many contemporary chronicles for reasons that Bossard makes all too plain, evidently he has always played a part in local celebrations. Orléans celebrated its liberation yearly and Gilles was a principle agent in that victory. He was fond of Orléans, once spending almost a year there, and the Orléanais were fond of him, and bought his standard to use in their reenactments. His reputation there was that of a hero and a generous patron of the arts. It seems quite likely that, in the general disbelief at his fall from grace, the Orléanais were likely to be more cynical than most and that he would have kept his place in the annual celebrations, as he does today.

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