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)

Sunday 3 February 2019

A likely story #5

Guillaume le Barbier, eighteen years old and therefore an unlikely victim, is one of a mere dozen vanished boys who is given a full name. The details of his case are contradictory, however. His father was Georget, a tailor – or, according to Blanchet, a pastrycook.  The former seems more likely, as the lad was apprenticed to Jean Peletier, the tailor to Lady de Rais and the rest of the household. A minor oddity is that the presence of her tailor implies that Catherine, who supposedly lived apart from her husband, was in residence at Machecoul while he was engaged on a murder spree. Although we are consistently told that his wife and daughter lived at Pouzauges, Abbé Bourdeaut calmly asserts that young Marie was brought up at Tiffauges où Gilles de Rais et sa femme demuraient habituellement. The presence of his family at both his favourite castles would rather mar their testosterone-soaked Sadean splendour.

The only suspicious circumstance surrounding this particular disappearance was that Blanchet saw the boy entering the castle of Machecoul – where, after all, he was employed – in the company of the automatically sinister Poitou. Nor is the date of his disappearance clear-cut; his father was firm that it was St Barnabas' Day, June 11th, whereas two other witnesses mentioned Easter. Both dates clash with Blanchet's evidence; he claimed that it happened while he was lodging with Etienne Ferron, but he only stayed there briefly and left in late February or early March. Poitou, however, affirmed before the civil court that Guillaume le Barbier was among the victims.

Blanchet asserted that the boy's possessions, including a silver coin, were returned to his father, which seems to indicate that he had died a natural death, since this would hardly have been done if he had been murdered. Although he must have come and gone from the castle at will, the descriptions of  his disappearance imply that he was abducted, which would hardly have been necessary. Even here, accounts clash: his father said that he vanished while playing with a ball of thread; the omnipresent witness André Barbe had him picking apples, which is a good trick in June, let alone at Easter.

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