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)

Thursday 20 June 2013

A likely story...

The testimony of outside witnesses at the trial of Gilles de Rais is supposed to constitute a cast-iron case against him. In fact, the evidence is feeble in the extreme; fragmentary, contradictory, largely hearsay and containing many improbable stories like the following:

The sixteenth recorded abduction/murder, in April 1439, was that of the son of Micheau and Guillemette Bouer. No name or age is given for him. The boy left his home near Machecoul to go to the castle and ask for alms; he never returned.

At the trial, his mother told a curious anecdote of how the next day, presumably long before she realised that her son was missing, a large stranger in black approached her as she was minding the animals in the fields and asked where her children were and why they were not doing the task. She replied that they (suddenly her son had a sibling or siblings with him) had gone begging at Machecoul.

The necessary implication is that somebody at the castle took the trouble to find out the name and home of the young presumed victim and deliberately travelled some distance to seek out his mother and ask a suspicious question.

Why? It simply makes no sense at all.

Particularly as Gilles was living at Tiffauges at the time, not Machecoul.

Illustration taken from the site of the Musée Pays de Retz, which relates Gilles life - the non-revisionist version - in French

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