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 30 December 2017

Was Gilles de Rais tortured?

We are told that Gilles de Rais confessed "voluntarily and without coercion", but this was merely an Inquisition formula; the same is said of his servants, and it is quite clear that their testimony was extracted forcibly. Most biographers state that Gilles' confession was produced merely by the threat of torture, and often there is an implication that he was a coward. It seems unlikely that he was allowed to escape physical interrogation, however, since at that period torture was used routinely, often merely to confirm a confession that had already been made.

On October 20th, after Gilles had made a rudimentary confession in court, in which the only crime he admitted to was alchemy, the prosecutor announced that he had established the case for the prosecution with this confession and the production of witnesses and their evidence. However, “in order that the truth might be further scrutinised and elucidated”, he asked the judges to have Gilles tortured. Malestroit and Blouyn then consulted with experts and concluded that Gilles should be put to the Question.

The court assembled at terce the next day and the previous day's events were recapped. Although the next day was already fixed for Gilles to present his argument, the judges decided to proceed with the torture immediately. The accused was then brought in and “humbly begged” for the torture to be deferred until the next day, reasonably pointing out that this was the day they had set aside for the purpose. He promised to deliberate on the transgressions he stood accused of, in the hope that he could satisfy them and so make torture unnecessary. He asked that the Bishop of St-Brieuc and Pierre de l'Hôpital – representing respectively the ecclesiastical and secular courts – should hear what he had to say. He made two stipulations: that this must be done somewhere away from the torture chamber, and that he would not talk to Malestroit and Blouyn, only to their representative. The judges readily assented, but would only delay the torture until 2pm of that same day. They conceded that if Gilles were to confess to all or even some of the charges, perhaps they might postpone the torture until the next day “because of their great affection for him”.  Note that at no point did they promise that he would not be tortured at all.

It is noticeable that apart from two passages of direct speech, there is very little in this so-called “out-of-court confession” that could not have been extracted from the articles of accusation, the statements of complainants, or various other points during the course of the trial; all of which were based on  Malestroit's secret letter of the 30th July. The only new information is the dating of the crimes, and even there Gilles refers only to sodomy and differs from the articles by six years. The rest is a mere formula, which Gilles was required to assent to in order to avert the threat of torture.

Gilles' public confession took place the next day, October 22nd, not in the morning, but in the evening; only one other sitting took place at vespers rather than terce, on October 17th, after the interrogation of Gilles' friends. It is almost certain that he was tortured in the interim. His judges had only promised that the torture would be deferred if he confessed, not waived. The most likely method would have been the water torture, an early form of waterboarding in which water was forced into the victim's body through a funnel in the mouth.

Gilles' rank did not spare him from being put to the Question. The confirmation comes in an unexpected form in Charles VII's letters patent of January 1443.  These documents are often dismissed as insincere, but the King expressed himself with great forcefulness for a man making a cynical political gesture. The key word in his letters is attentats, outrages, meaning that Gilles was subjected to severe ill treatment while in prison. This is the strongest possible implication that he was tortured.

Friday 22 December 2017

The Montfaucon portrait: a wild theory

There is a mystery about the Montfaucon portrait of Gilles de Rais, which should properly be called the Bonnier portrait, from Gilles le Bonnier, who commissioned it; Dom Bernard de Montfaucon merely published a version of it in his Les Monumens de la Monarchie Françoise in the early 18th century.

The portrait was almost certainly made after Gilles' death, but Bonnier had been familiar with him, at least by sight. He was otherwise known as Berry-King-at-Arms, or First Herald of France, under Charles VII and his father. The manuscript of which the portrait forms a part was presented to the former, who also knew Gilles.

Montfaucon clearly labels the portrait "Gilles de Laval", adding that this is the Marshal who was executed at Nantes; the text apparently was taken from Berry. So it seems from its provenance that this is the only authentic portrait of Gilles de Rais in existence. The problem is that, instead of his familiar arms - d'or à la croix de sable - we see the arms of Montmorency: or on a cross gules, cantoned with sixteen alerions azure. The addition of five scallop shells specifies the Montmorency-Laval family, but not Gilles' branch of it.

Since Bonnier knew Gilles, and was an expert in heraldry, it seems unlikely that he would have allowed such a grave error to slip by, so most scholars have assumed that the figure in the portrait is actually Guy de Laval,  his cousin. However, this also involves a serious error, since the original text was very specific - it was not simply a question of a scribe accidentally writing "Gilles" instead of "Guy", since the latter was not a Marshal of France and nor was he executed.

E A Vizetelly, the biographer most vexed by this issue, favours the theory that a scribe erred, but adds: If our surmise be inaccurate, and the figure be really that of Gilles de Rais, we can only assume that he, on entering the service of France, discarded the arms of his Breton barony to bear those of his Montmorency ancestors, regardless of any agreement into which his father had entered. 

Obviously he thinks this theory to be quite outlandish, but is it? Gilles would have been a Laval if his father had not covenanted with Jeanne La Sage to take the name and arms of Rais. We know that he identified as French, espousing the unpopular and apparently lost cause of the Dauphin. We also know that Brittany allied with England as often as with France. Perhaps Gilles found it more appropriate to fight under French arms rather than Breton ones. 

There may be a link to the sale of Blaison in 1429. This was the first property Gilles sold, probably to finance his troops, and it seems significant that it was his father's patrimonial estate. This looks like a meaningful gesture that indicates some animus between father and son. Possibly Gilles resented having to bear the arms and name of a Breton barony when his loyalties lay with France, or possibly there had been some other dispute. In either case, since he disposed of Blaison without a qualm, he would certainly not have hesitated to dump the Rais arms and break his father's covenant. 

Would Gilles really have turned his back on the black cross of Rais and the agreement that had made him the heir to massive estates in the Pays de Rais? It would have been a shocking and controversial move, but it would not be the first or last on his part. We should not rule out the theory that the Montfaucon portrait represents him bearing arms that had been renounced by his father before he was born.

Gilles de Rais was a man who made a career of the improbable.