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)

Friday 18 May 2018

Talking Sh*t

The penultimate alleged murder, that of an anonymous boy in Vannes, should have been vivid in the minds of all concerned, since it happened only a few months earlier and the circumstances were exceptional. For some reason, however, there was no agreement about such crucial points as where exactly the murder took place and whether the head was severed and burned, although a burning head in a private house would surely have been memorable. André Buchet provided the child and was present throughout, so he might have been a useful person to ask, since he was living in the Duke of Brittany's household at the time of the trial. However, Buchet was quietly removed from the list of suspects halfway through the trial and never held accountable.

Wherever the boy was killed, all are in agreement that his body (with or without head) was disposed of in the latrines. The story we are told at the trial is that the corpse failed to sink into the sludge of human waste and therefore Poitou descended into the cesspool to push it out of sight. It was only with some difficulty that Gilles' other accomplices (including Buchet) pulled him out again. The episode is presented as broad farce.

Nobody has ever remarked upon the obvious dangers of this operation. The latrines would have been full of sewer gases – hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, methane, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – which would have been released in greater quantities when the body was thrown in and pushed under. These gases are extremely toxic and would have been present in high concentrations; at the highest level, one breath would be enough to cause unconsciousness. The latrines were deep enough that he needed a rope to get into them and required help to get out, so he must have been there for several minutes. He would have been dead.

This is merely one of many impossibilities in the trial of Gilles de Rais which have gone unchallenged for nearly 600 years.

[Illustration is a plaque available from this site].