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)

Monday 26 December 2016

The Trials of Gilles de Rais: short passage from new biography

The first thing to stress is that the trial record is not a reliable nor, obviously, an impartial document. Little attempt has been made to conceal the fact that it was amended after the event; how long after is not known. It is not complete: we see Perrine Martin and Tiphaine Branchu brought into court and hear other witnesses refer to what they had to say, but we cannot read their own words. Their confessions, we are told, have not come down to us. It seems unlikely that this is accidental. We will see witnesses contradict each other and themselves, and allegations of impossible deeds. We will examine clear signs that the most damning evidence was extracted by torture, or at the very  least by the threat of torture. We will see Gilles de Rais harassed, antagonised, threatened and eventually broken.

What we will not see is the Bishop of Nantes rising up in outrage to veil the face of the crucifix when Gilles' testimony is at its most lurid; this was a flight of fancy by J-K Huysmans in his popular novel Là-Bas, elaborating on a less dramatic invention by none other than the Bibliophile Jacob. Nor, sadly, do we read “Pale grey starred with gold; and if he opened his doublet, a belt of scarlet with a dagger of grey steel hidden in a red sheath” or “Gilles appeared all in black, with a hood of velvet and a doublet of black damask trimmed with fur of the same colour”, as Valentine Penrose would have it. All these symbolic couture details are fictional and come from the fevered pen of Paul Lacroix, the Bibliophile. Nor will we see Gilles' beard with the bluish highlights, nor the lycanthropic grimaces of his handsome face: all this, likewise, was Lacroix's work. It is fair to say that nobody, probably not even Bossard, has so profoundly influenced Gilles' image. The trial record, in spite of the shocking nature of its content, is a dry and difficult read, which is why so few people have read it attentively. As a rule of thumb, whenever the accused is described, or the crowd's reaction is indicated, this is the hand of the Bibliophile. We are not told what Gilles wore or how he appeared; we do not even, surprisingly, have any explicit indication that the ecclesiastical trial was open to the public.

Translations of the documents are freely available in both English and French and there is no substitute for a careful study of them. The intention of this chapter is to explain clearly and chronologically what happened, to clarify any obscure points, and to examine in particular detail the passages that biographers tend to gloss over. Most commentators agree that it was a conspicuously fair trial for that period; although Reginald Hyatte, no revisionist, says “It is possible to interpret the legal action initiated against Gilles de Rais in both courts as the legitimate means by which the Duke of Brittany managed to acquire Gilles' possessions without arousing suspicion or causing a revolt among his other vassals.”  E A Vizetelly, the only English writer with a revisionist slant, remarks that “the proceedings of the court were scarcely lawful”. As we shall see, Gilles seems to have agreed with him, and for much the same reasons.

[Second brief taster of my new Gilles de Rais biography, which should be completed in 2017. The first snippet is here.]