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. 

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