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 16 March 2013

Wrongly, unduly and without cause

Dated January 3rd 1443, the letters patent from Charles VII to Pierre de l'Hôpital and François I (who had succeeded Jean V as Duke of Brittany), summoned them to the Parliament of Paris to account for the wrongful execution of Gilles de Rais. The letters were never acted upon and were probably suppressed for political reasons. Even through the old French, the strength of the language comes across. Reference is made to the "seizure, arrest & detention of [Gilles'] person and refusal and denial of justice, and other wrongs and grievances to be declared more plainly at the [appropriate] time & place, against him and to his prejudice, wrongly, unduly and without reason"; later we read: "The said late Lord de Rais was condemned and put to death by the said de l'Hôpital, unduly and without reason." There is no sitting on the fence; Gilles has been wronged, the King says, and restitution must be made. And indeed, subsequently Gilles' confiscated estates were restored to his daughter, Marie de Rais, an eloquent gesture that seems to be at least a partial rehabilitation.

(Text of the letters patent taken from Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup by Gilbert Prouteau)

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones...

As yet another new web page insists that Gilles de Rais must have been guilty because "some time after the trial" fifty human skulls were discovered at the château of La Suze-sur-Sarthe, let us nail this persistent canard once and for all.

There were no skulls, bones or any other human remains found at any of Gilles de Rais' castles at any time. Even Bossard, that fausseur évangile as Prouteau calls him, balked at promoting this myth. He mentions it, but dismisses it as being on a par with the legend of the young girls (girls!) freed from the dungeons. It never happened. And Bossard would have loved for there to have been bones; if there had been, he would have gleefully reported it.

The sum total of forensic proof against Gilles amounted to: -

A bloodied and foul-smelling small chemise found, not at the château, but at the house on the outskirts of Machecoul where Eustache Blanchet lodged along with Francesco Prelati.  Hardly evidence against Gilles.

Some "suspicious" ashes found in the hearth at the same house. But, as Prouteau says, they might just as well have been from a suckling pig.  Ashes are what you expect to find in a hearth.

This seems very little to show for hundreds of murders. Where were the severed heads that Gilles was supposed to keep as trophies?

I repeat: there was no forensic proof against Gilles whatsoever. No credible witnesses. And a forced confession.

Anonymous French illustration, circa 1900

[Incidentally, the château of La Suze-sur-Sarthe did not belong to Gilles. Perhaps there is some confusion with the Hôtel de la Suze. But that was not a castle, it was a house in the centre of Nantes and would have lacked the extensive souterrains for the storage of multiple cadavers.]