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 29 September 2019

FAQs #6

Where did the King come into the plot? Was he jealous of Gilles' showy wealth, too?

This is another recent myth, put about by people who do not understand the complexities of the political situation. The King did what he usually did, and what he did when Jehanne was on trial for her life: nothing. Gilles had served his purpose. The King had established his own army and no longer had to rely on brigands and mercenaries. The likes of Gilles were redundant, and in fact Charles had started to move against the dissolute barons whose soldiery terrorised the countryside, some of whom were rebelling against him. It would have done him no harm to stand back and allow Brittany to make an example of Gilles, indicating that the impunity of the nobles was well and truly over.

It is very important to remember that the plot against Gilles de Rais was nothing to do with the King of France, or, indeed, the Catholic Church. He was tried in Brittany, which was an independent Duchy at that time, and it was the coffers of Brittany which profited from his downfall. Although Gilles' judge, Jean de Malestroit,  was the Bishop of Nantes, he was also Chancellor of Brittany and was acting in that capacity. Malestroit was a lifelong ally of the English; his cousin  the Duke played a cunning game of switching allegiance between France and England, but signed a treaty with the latter halfway through Gilles' trial.

Although the Duchy badly needed Gilles'  money, the plot was as much political as financial, and aimed partly at Charles VII of France. If his two preeminent captains were disgraced and executed for heresy and worse, it implied that he owed his throne to witchcraft and the Devil. 

Further reading -
L'évêque diabolique - ?

Why is there no single estimate of the number of victims? Was it 120? Or 800? Or some number in between? 

The reason no number is specified is that no number was given in court. Charge 15 of the indictment states only that for the past fourteen years, every year, every month, every day, every night and every hour... [Gilles] took, killed, cut the throats of many children, boys and girls... This would imply a huge number, although only around forty cases are mentioned in court, and many of these are mere sketches with no names or details given. It was J-K Huysmans who first mooted 800 victims, in a novel. 

Further reading -
The Beast of Extermination: a numbers game

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