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 29 October 2015

The Ghost of Gilles de Rais

As soon as the moon got up, I walked once
more down into the beautiful valley. to enjoy
the scenery by that peculiar light. All three
of my landladies joined in entreating me not to
think of going into or near the castle, assuring
me that it was extremely dangerous; that nobody
in Tiffauges would dream of going near
the ruins after dark, for that "il était impossible
de dire ce qu'il pouvait y arriver." lt is
curious that, of all the various names attached
to this old castle, and all the motley records
of its eventful history, the only name which
yet lives in the memory of the people, and the
only historical facts which have made a lasting
impression on the popular mind, are that
of Gilles de Laval, the wicked Marechal de
Retz, and the atrocities committed there by
him — so prone is the uncultivated mind to
the contemplation of horrors.

Throughout the neighbourhood a thousand
superstitions are current about the ruins of
the dwelling of the murderer and necromancer.
The hideous half-burnt body of the monster
himself, circled with flames, pale, indeed, and
faint in colour, but more lasting than those
the hangman kindled around his mortal form
in the meadow under the walls of Nantes, is
seen, on bright moonlight nights, standing
now on one topmost point of craggy wall, and
now on another, and is heard mingling his
moan with the sough of the night-wind. Pale,
bloodless forms, too, of youthful growth and
mien, the restless, unsepulchred ghosts of the
unfortunates who perished in these dungeons.
unassoiled, with lingering agony, as their
lifeblood flowed from their veins for the
impure purposes of' the tyrant's demon-worship
— these, too, may at similar times be seen
flitting backwards and forwards, in numerous
groups, across the space enclosed by the
ruined wall, with more than mortal speed, or
glancing hurriedly from window to window of
the fabric, as still seeking to escape from its
hateful confinement.

Despite these terrors, with which their old
tyrant still contrives to torment the descendants
of his former vassals, I enjoyed my
moonlight stroll exceedingly. The dancing
stream, the grey rocks on the side of the hill,
lying half in shade, half silvered by the cold
pale rays, ghosts of the departed sunbeams,
the ruins of the castle, exhibiting a thousand
capricious changes of light and shade, are all
well calculated to form a lovely moonlight
scene. And though possibly I might have
seen —nay, am rather inclined to think I did
see—some of the appearances of whose existence
 l had been warned, as the fitful light,
changing with every passing cloud that flitted
across the sky, brought now one part and now
another of the fantastically-shaped fragments
into relief, yet I had the comfort of knowing
that the Sévre's running stream was at
the time between me and them; and, thus
secured from their doing me a mischief, I
returned to my bed, and, I believe, to my good
hostesses' surprise, safe and sound from my

Thomas Adolphus Trollope

A little treat for the Hallowe'en season. This account of supposed hauntings at Tiffauges is occasionally quoted but never given in full. It is the only reference to Gilles or his victims walking as ghosts, and whether it owes more to the imagination of Mr Trollope or his mischievous landladies is difficult to tell. At any rate, it is at least as reliable as much of Bossard. 

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