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 23 April 2018

The Elephant in the Room (postscript)

Although many witnesses suspected that Gilles de Rais had abducted their children, they did not know for what reason he had seized them. One reads that there were numerous rumors, all false, about the abductions: it was reported that Gilles abducted boys in order to turn them over to the English as ransom for one of his soldiers [sic], Michel de Sillé, that he ate children, and that he was writing a magical book with the blood of infants. There is no evidence in the testimony of witnesses that it was rumored that Gilles sodomized the missing children. Indeed, only a very few of Gilles' chosen servants, sworn to secrecy, were aware of how he abused children. It is surprising, therefore, that the first document relative to the prosecution, dated 30 July, refers specifically to declarations by these same witnesses that Gilles “committed the sodomitical vice” with children. It is apparent that this document and a number of others were emended after the truth of the crimes was divulged by Gilles' accomplices Etienne Corrillaut on 17 October. It is doubtless, too, that the prosecutor's articles of accusation, dated 13 October, were emended after the confessions of Corrillaut and Griart, for the accusations contain many details about the crimes, such as the number of victims, the circumstances of the murders and the secret cremation of the corpses, that only Gilles and his accomplices could have known. It is probable that these articles were emended years after the trial, since they consistently date Gilles de Rais' crimes between one and a half and four years earlier than they occurred. The emendation of the legal documents was a right which the inquisitorial court reserved for itself, as stated in the last paragraph of the articles of accusation. 

Reginald Hyatte, Laughter For The Devil, introduction

When I wrote about this discrepancy in a blog post from 2012, The Elephant in the Room, I put forward various suggestions as to how it might have arisen. Reginald Hyatte, writing in 1984, was more radical, although he may not have realised it. Anxious to avoid any implication that the trial testimony was a tissue of lies from start to finish, he advanced the theory that the minutes of the trial might simply have been altered after the event. This is a highly controversial but plausible theory; it does explain some of the odd chronological errors, such as the misdating of the incident at Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte to 1439.

Professor Thomas Fudgé, a scholar of mediaeval history, feels that it is most unlikely that the records were tampered with in this way - "There is the possibility that notaries or other court officials fraudulently manipulated the legal record of the trial of Gilles de Rais. I can find no grounds for sustaining this possibility." Hyatte differs, and for once I find myself agreeing with him. It is perfectly true that a rubric at the end of the articles of accusation reserves the right to edit the document: in Hyatte's own translation, without violation of of the rights of correction, expansion, emendation, diminution, objection, amelioration and further presentation and proof, if need be, at the opportune place and time. 

It is also true that, if the documents were edited, it poses an enormous problem for the traditionalists. The record of the trial is the only contemporary document we have concerning the supposed crimes of Gilles de Rais. If it was partially rewritten afterwards, that compromises its authority enormously. Put bluntly, if it was altered to update the charges against Gilles, which other sections may have been tinkered with? Which parts, if any, can we trust?

Excellent questions, of course, and ones that revisionists are happy to see asked. Reginald Hyatte, I suspect, not so much. 


  1. He without a doubt was guilty i must say,your project is without basis as it was a modern trial without any consultation with medieval law experts,so yes he was guilty and this is a shameful attempt to justify an evil murderer

  2. Hello, brave Mr Anonymous. (You critics never do have the bottle to leave a name, or even a pseudonym).

    If you had read my blog, you would know that it doesn't depend on the 1992 retrial, which I have criticised myself. In fact, my researches predate it by some years.

    Do you have any evidence to back up your defence of the quasi-Inquisition trial of 1440? Anything other than the usual cut-&-paste allegation that no mediaeval law experts were consulted in 1992?

    If so, do make your argument here. I don't delete, but I'm a stern & informed critic. And a name would be nice.