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)

Thursday 28 January 2021

"I am a direct descendant of Gilles de Rais!"

I’m sorry to have to break it to you, but you certainly are not. Gilles de Rais had one daughter, who married twice but died without issue. The estates that she had, with the help of the King, reclaimed from the Duchy of Brittany reverted to her uncle, René de la Suze. He had one daughter, who produced a male heir. However, the Rais family died out in 1502; Jeanne La Sage’s apparently successful attempt to provide herself with heirs to the estate of Rais had failed after less than a century. 

"God, the Creator, became so displeased with this house, which had been very great, that no children were born to it, and it died out through dissipation, whence sprang thousands of lawsuits, which were still lasting in our life-time."  Bertrand d'Argentré, 16th century

It is not uncommon for anonymous internet commentators to try and enhance their street cred by claiming to be descended from The Wickedest Man In The World. What surprised me was that one of Gilles’ lesser-known biographers attempted a similar trick. Valerie Ogden, author of Bluebeard: Brave Warrior, Brutal Psychopath, explained her interest in de Rais by claiming that she married into a family that is descended from him. Her in-laws “run away” whenever she brings the subject up, however. It is impossible to know whether this is a genuine family tradition, or some kind of in joke, or whether Ogden simply made up the whole story as a publicity stunt. In any case, her decision to go public with it was poorly judged, as it underlines her utter ignorance of her subject. She even alludes to the discredited Bluebeard link by insisting that her husband’s family have “cobalt-blue hair”, presumably inherited from a literally blue-bearded "ancestor"  whose line did not long outlast the 15th century. 

Few things are clear in the complicated story of Gilles de Rais. But this much is certain: if you encounter someone who claims to be his descendant, that person is either lying or deluded. 

Gilles' line ends at the bottom of the chart. 1520 is a typo for 1502. 

Monday 4 January 2021

Mr Fox - the English Bluebeard

Lady Mary was young, and Lady Mary was fair. She had two brothers, and more lovers than she could count. But of them all, the bravest and most gallant, was a Mr. Fox, whom she met when she was down at her father’s country-house. No one knew who Mr. Fox was; but he was certainly brave, and surely rich, and of all her lovers, Lady Mary cared for him alone. At last it was agreed upon between them that they should be married. Lady Mary asked Mr. Fox where they should live, and he described to her his castle, and where it was; but, strange to say, did not ask her, or her brothers to come and see it.

So one day, near the wedding-day, when her brothers were out, and Mr. Fox was away for a day or two on business, as he said, Lady Mary set out for Mr. Fox’s castle. And after many searchings, she came at last to it, and a fine strong house it was, with high walls and a deep moat. And when she came up to the gateway she saw written on it:

Be Bold, Be Bold.

But as the gate was open, she went through it, and found no one there. So she went up to the doorway, and over it she found written:

Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold.

Still she went on, till she came into the hall, and went up the broad stairs till she came to a door in the gallery, over which was written:

Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold, Lest That Your Heart’s Blood Should Run Cold.

But Lady Mary was a brave one, she was, and she opened the door, and what do you think she saw? Why, bodies and skeletons of beautiful young ladies all stained with blood. So Lady Mary thought it was high time to get out of that horrid place, and she closed the door, went through the gallery, and was just going down the stairs, and out of the hall, when who should she see through the window, but Mr. Fox dragging a beautiful young lady along from the gateway to the door. Lady Mary rushed downstairs, and hid herself behind a cask, just in time, as Mr. Fox came in with the poor young lady who seemed to have fainted. Just as he got near Lady Mary, Mr. Fox saw a diamond ring glittering on the finger of the young lady he was dragging, and he tried to pull it off. But it was tightly fixed, and would not come off, so Mr. Fox cursed and swore, and drew his sword, raised it, and brought it down upon the hand of the poor lady. The sword cut off the hand, which jumped up into the air, and fell of all places in the world into Lady Mary’s lap. Mr. Fox looked about a bit, but did not think of looking behind the cask, so at last he went on dragging the young lady up the stairs into the Bloody Chamber.

As soon as she heard him pass through the gallery, Lady Mary crept out of the door, down through the gateway, and ran home as fast as she could.

Now it happened that the very next day the marriage contract of Lady Mary and Mr. Fox was to be signed, and there was a splendid breakfast before that. And when Mr. Fox was seated at table opposite Lady Mary, he looked at her. “How pale you are this morning, my dear.” “Yes," said she, “I had a bad night’s rest last night. I had horrible dreams.” “Dreams go by contraries,” said Mr. Fox; “but tell us your dream, and your sweet voice will make the time pass till the happy hour comes.”

“I dreamed,” said Lady Mary, “that I went yestermorn to your castle, and I found it in the woods, with high walls, and a deep moat, and over the gateway was written:

Be Bold, Be Bold.

“But it is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr. Fox.

“And when I came to the doorway over it was written:

Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold.

“It is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr. Fox.

“And then I went upstairs, and came to a gallery, at the end of which was a door, on which was written:

Be Bold, Be Bold, But Not Too Bold, Lest That Your Heart’s Blood Should Run Cold.

“It is not so, nor it was not so,” said Mr. Fox.

“And then–and then I opened the door, and the room was filled with bodies and skeletons of poor dead women, all stained with their blood.”

“It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so," said Mr. Fox.

“I then dreamed that I rushed down the gallery, and just as I was going down the stairs, I saw you, Mr. Fox, coming up to the hall door, dragging after you a poor young lady, rich and beautiful.”

“It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so," said Mr. Fox.

“I rushed downstairs, just in time to hide myself behind a cask, when you, Mr. Fox, came in dragging the young lady by the arm. And, as you passed me, Mr. Fox, I thought I saw you try and get off her diamond ring, and when you could not, Mr. Fox, it seemed to me in my dream, that you out with your sword and hacked off the poor lady’s hand to get the ring.”

“It is not so, nor it was not so. And God forbid it should be so," said Mr. Fox, and was going to say something else as he rose from his seat, when Lady Mary cried out:

“But it is so, and it was so. Here’s hand and ring I have to show," and pulled out the lady’s hand from her dress, and pointed it straight at Mr. Fox.

At once her brothers and her friends drew their swords and cut Mr. Fox into a thousand pieces.

As part of my campaign to break the spurious link between Gilles de Rais and Bluebeard, here is the story of Mr Fox, the English Bluebeard. There are many, many other tales with similar elements - the forbidden room, the murderous husband or fiancé - but this happens to be a personal favourite of mine. From the delicious sing-song opening - "Lady Mary was young and Lady Mary was fair"- to the final call and response dialogue leading to the abrupt ending, it maintains a perfect tension. 

The significant point about this old folktale is that it is alluded to by Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing - Like the old tale, my lord: 'it is not so, nor 'twas not so, but, indeed, God forbid it should be so'. The play was written around 1598 or 1599, and even then Mr Fox was an "old tale". 

Perrault's Bluebeard was written in 1697, almost a century later. It can hardly be said that the uxoricidal spouse trope was invented by him, or indeed that the unknown English author of Mr Fox was inspired by Gilles de Rais. 

The truth is that the Abbé Bossard,  who was writing a thesis in the discipline of French Literature, knew even less about folklore than he did about history. Gilles de Rais had never been compared to Bluebeard until the mid-nineteenth century, when the idea first emerged and was seized on by Paul Lacroix, the Bibliophile Jacob. Bossard accepted Lacroix's clearly forged account of the trial and with it his assertion that Gilles had a literal blue beard and was nicknamed for it. Thus he had an entirely original (because false) topic for his thesis, which was his sole aim. The absolutely bogus link between the folktale ogre and the alleged child-murderer came into being solely because subsequent biographers simply could not be bothered to do their own research, but were content to lean on Bossard's dubious assertions. 

Gilles de Rais was not the original of Bluebeard. 

It is not so, nor 'twas not so, but, indeed, 

God forbid it should be so...

Here is a useful list of folk tales similar to Bluebeard, compiled by the excellent Sur La Lune site. They are categorised as  types ATU 312, ATU 310, and ATU 955 in the  Aarne-Thompson-Uther index.

The Execution of Gilles de Rais, by Jean Chartier

Concerning a heretic lawfully executed in Brittany

In this same year (1440), the Duke of Brittany caused to be seized and lawfully arrested and imprisoned Monseigneur Gilles de Raiz, Marshal of France, because it was said that he had killed and had others kill several small children, and that he did many astonishing things against the Faith thinking to attain his intentions and desires, by the temptations and lures of the Enemy [ie the Devil], and also on the advice (so they say) of a man named Gilles de Sillé and others among his servants. And the aforesaid lord of Raiz was put on trial in Nantes by the principal judge of Brittany, Master Pierre de l'Hospital, and was condemned to death. And a gallows was made, a tall ladder beneath it, and under this gallows a great fire. And after he was tied to the gallows the said ladder was pulled from beneath his feet and the fire drew near his body, so that he was hanged and burned at the same time. And they say that he was fully penitent. 
And as soon as he was dead, the rope was cut and he was placed in a coffin by four or five ladies and maidens of high estate, and entombed with great ceremony in the Church of the Carmelites in Nantes. And the said Sillé had fled and left the country, and several others among his servants were similarly seized and executed. 

Jean Chartier was the official court chronicler to Charles VII and had a particular interest in Gilles de Rais. There is even speculation that he may have lived in his household for a while, since a man of that name was recorded as part of the entourage at Orléans, although the name must have been a common one. His account of the execution is likely to be reasonably accurate, although it is implied (disait-on qu'il eut bien bonne repentance) that he was not an eye witness. The phrasing might, however, merely express scepticism: for a short passage, there is a lot of on dit. 

* This is a very loose translation and suggestions are welcome. In particular, the word amonnestement (which is almost certainly a misspelling) was strongly resistant to being rendered into English; I have used the word "lures", which seemed to come closest to the sense. I have not translated the footnotes, which add little to the text and were written by a much later editor.