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)

Tuesday 25 June 2013

A likely story #2

Another typically improbable and unsupported anecdote from the witness statements.

In 1438 the son of Jean Bernard, aged 12, went to ask for alms at Machecoul - as Bataille helpfully points out, this is a distance of about 55 kilometres from his home in Port-Launay, Nantes, and he would have had to cross the river. He was not alone: his friend went with him, but they were clearly separated, and the Bernard boy did not turn up at their rendezvous.

Already the distance involved makes the story rather unlikely. Would a boy of twelve - we are not told how old the friend was - really have made such a lengthy journey? It is true that Gilles' almsgiving was legendary - but we are also told that there was a "public rumour" that he was abducting and killing children. No later than 1433 it was being averred that Machecoul was a place where "they eat little children", according to serial witness André Barbe.

We are not told whether the boys actually went to the castle when they arrived in Machecoul. Young Master Bernard went off in search of lodgings and for some reason his friend, the son of Jean Meugner, did not go with him. This seems odd in itself; why would they not stay together, especially as Machecoul was rumoured to be a dangerous place for children?

If he had appeared in court, the friend who survived the trip might have shed some light on exactly what did happen. But he did not. The disappearance of Jean Bernard's son was attested to by his neighbours: Jean Fouriage, his wife Jeanne and a couple of others, who had "heard the son of Jean Meugner" give his account of what happened; in other words, it was yet another example of what Prouteau dismissively calls ouï-dire, hearsay.

The boy's father was dead but his mother, very much alive, was heard complaining bitterly. In spite of her grief, she did not give evidence at Gilles's trial; she was too busy with the grape harvest.

So the two people who knew most about this case were not present in court and the boy's loss was attested to by neighbours of his dead father who produced hearsay evidence and, for good measure, added a gratuitous anecdote about seeing an old woman with a child pass through Port-Launay on her way to Machecoul and later return without the child. Without hearing from the son of Jean Meunier we have no idea whether the boys really reached Machecoul safely, how and why they came to split up, and whether they went to the castle and received alms or not.

It is a pointless and fragmentary anecdote with no real link to Gilles and no evidence other than hearsay from people with only a tenuous connection to the persons involved.


  1. So they wen't 55km to beg at the home of a man every peasant in the area was whispering was a paedo serial killer.


  2. you go 55 km through a wild forest with wild animals(bears and wolfs),through a plagued land by an on going war with all types of renegades,outlaws,criminals,mercenarys and thiefs only to arrive to an horror castle of an child raping and murdering pedophile.that must be an great starving in the stomach to get such an risk for a little alm.what a adventure journey for a little kid(!) and what a brave mindset even for the cruel medieval times....makes perfect sense to the way its me margot,samson....