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)

Monday 4 January 2021

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.

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