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 12 April 2019

FAQs #1

Surely there's so much evidence against Gilles de Rais that his guilt is beyond doubt?

Not at all. In fact, the first hint that he may have been unjustly condemned came in January 1443, when the King made a gesture towards acquitting him. Although most of the writers who produced sensationalised versions of his life over the centuries had no interest in questioning the orthodox narrative, there have always been dissenters. In the twentieth century the trial record became easily available, first in 1921 (in a version produced by Fernand Fleuret) and then in 1965 (in Pierre Klossowski's translation). It is no coincidence that these dates marked sudden upswings in revisionist thought. Once it was possible to buy and read a modern French translation of the trial, it became abundantly clear that considerable chicanery took place. Even traditionalist writers were forced to accept that it is undeniable that there was a plot to bring about Gilles' downfall. Their case now rested on the notion that the Duke and the Bishop had conspired against a man who was a dreadful villain, and just happened to own the estates that the Duchy had coveted since before he was born. The many discrepancies and contradictions in the evidence, which had been ignored by biographers, were now exposed, although few bothered to look for them. All existing biographies contain monstrous errors and promulgate non-historical myths such as the veiling of the cross and the illustrated Suetonius.

Further reading:
An Overview:The Truth About Gilles de Rais
The Veiling of the Cross

But what about the bones that were found in some of his castles? 

There were no bones. At several points during the trial, there are claims about human remains – mass cremations at Machecoul, a conduit full of children's bones at Champtocé, a couple of skeletons found at Machecoul. These, however, are unsupported allegations; no forensic evidence was produced in court. In more recent times, there have been several rumours of bones found at one or other of Gilles de Rais' castles, but these always prove to be just that – rumours. The most recent was supposedly located at  La Suze-sur-Sarthe, which was not even part of Gilles' estates.

Further reading: 
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones...
The Beast of Extermination: a numbers game