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)

Wednesday 1 May 2019

FAQs #2

Well, if Gilles de Rais didn't kill the children, who did?

Nobody did. There is no evidence to indicate that more children than might be expected went missing in his vicinity. The country was in a state of upheaval, with bands of soldiers living off the land, and the years when Gilles was supposedly pursuing his murderous career were a kind of mini Ice Age, with long and bitter winters. The attrition rate would have been high, especially among homeless beggars. Around forty children over eight years in a wide area would not have been an alarming or unusual number. A close examination of the evidence shows that children were going missing from areas he had no reason to visit, from Machecoul when he is recorded as living at Tiffauges, and that many of the children had no link to Gilles or his entourage at all. The attempt to explain this by positing the existence of two or more female procurers ranging the countryside is unconvincing, especially as none of Gilles' friends mentions them, not even Poitou and Henriet.

Further reading:
The Beast of Extermination: a numbers game
La Meffraye

So was it all a plot by the Church?

Now that the theory of Gilles' innocence has reached a wider audience, it is quite common for internet commentators to blame the Catholic Church. But this popular scapegoat was not responsible in his case, although the ecclesiastical court was certainly weaponised against him. His judge, Jean de Malestroit, was Bishop of Nantes but he plotted against Gilles in his capacity as Chancellor of Brittany. He was a lifelong Anglophile and felt that the Duchy would be more likely to keep its independence if it allied with England rather than with France. Ironically, in 1488 Brittany was handed over to French governance by the Lavals, Gilles' family.

The Church did not profit from Gilles' demise: his estates went to the sons of Jean V.

Further reading:
L'évêque diabolique - ?

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