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 30 August 2021

Gilles de Rais: A Case for the Defence (Part 2)

My previous essay on the case for the defence deliberately did not address the grounds to suppose that there was some kind of plot against him. That is a whole other topic which needs to be examined in some detail. The motives of his enemies were not wholly financial, as simplified accounts of the life of Gilles de Rais often imply; politics also featured heavily.

However, the initial impetus behind the machination was property, as Bourdeaut grasped when he titled his book Chantocé, Gilles de Rais et les ducs de Bretagne. Gilles came into the world as a result of politicking over the border castles of Champtocé and Ingrandes and died for the same reason. Jeanne La Sage needed an heir urgently because she was a lone woman and therefore prey to any predatory noble.  And Jean IV, the father of Gilles' nemesis, had long coveted the Rais estates, and those two castles in particular. They were of huge strategic importance, controlling ingress to Brittany by river, but they were also highly lucrative. Their lord could tax the river traffic; Jean de Craon's battles with the Loire boatmen lived on long after him in the form of various lawsuits. Gilles hung on to Champtocé almost until the end, not (as is sometimes suggested) out of sentimentality about his birthplace, but because the revenue it accrued was a welcome source of cold cash.

Brittany was, at this point, effectively bankrupt. At one point the Duke misappropriated the money his late wife had left to have masses said for her soul, because he was lacking in both money and morals. The Rais estates must have looked tempting. In fact, they were so alluring that they were confiscated a good fortnight before Gilles was even arrested: as Reinach remarks, when you give away the bearskin before the hunt starts, it means you have firmly resolved to kill the bear, by fair means or foul. (Quand on cède ainsi la peau de l'ours, c'est qu'on est bien décidé, per fas et nefas, a tuer l'ours.) 

Most biographers argue that, since Jean V had obtained the two castles he particularly craved in early 1438, he had no reason to plot against Gilles to seize the rest of his estates. There is a muddled belief that Gilles was virtually bankrupt and no longer had anything worth stealing. Nothing could be further from the case. In order to acquire the estates he wanted, the Duke had had to exchange them for the entirety of the barony of Rais, which Gilles had sold previously. That was how valuable those particular estates were to Brittany. Once acquired, however, it was by no means certain that Jean V could hold on to them. According to Breton law, the Duke was not allowed to enter into property transactions with his vassals. For this reason he used proxies such as "Jean Pain" and, notoriously, Geoffroy Le Ferron. Champtocé was ostensibly bought for one of his sons. In fact, the lawsuits about the misappropriation of Gilles' properties continued for a century after his death and all of them were eventually restored to the Rais family. 

Jean V had another reason to be doubtful that he could hang on to his ill-gotten gains. The contract for the sale of Champtocé was fiendishly complex and went through several drafts. The final agreement included the clause that Gilles could buy the castle back at any point within the next six years, at the price he had sold it for. Most commentators dismiss this as a motive: the money simply was not there. However, we know that the Duke had at least two spies in Gilles' household - Guillaume Grimaud and Guillaume Sauzaie - who were bribed to persuade their master to sell Champtocé (and, meanly, would not be paid unless they succeeded). It is certain that they would have told him that Prelati was claiming to be close to finding the Philosopher's Stone. If he could turn base metals into gold, money would cease to be a problem for Gilles. 

This, then, is the financial aspect of the plot. As we see, it was not as simple as "follow the money", though it should be stressed that not one sou of the proceeds went to the Church; it was divided between the Duke's sons.

The politics, similarly, appears simple but is deeply complex, hinging as it does on the absurdity of a French war hero on trial in the quasi-independent duchy of Brittany. Charles VII owed his throne to two commanders, Gilles and Jehanne. He had singled them out from the rest by awarding them the highly unusual honour of a border of fleurs de lys around their coats of arms. If both had been executed for heresy, then it might be argued that he had won the crown with the help of the Devil. To smear Gilles was to smear Jehanne and, by extension, the French King. 

Jean V's links with England were strong. Few writers explain exactly how strong they were. After his father died, his mother, Jeanne de Navarre, married the English king, Henry IV; her son, the future Jean V, became a ward of the Duke of Burgundy, one of the staunchest allies of the English. As Duke of Brittany, he operated a politique de bascule which was highly successful: between 1420 and 1427 he switched sides no fewer than five times. During Gilles' trial, he actually signed an important treaty with the English, so it is clear which way the pendulum was swinging at that time, and it was not in a direction favourable to the pre-eminent  French commander standing before a Breton court

Besides, Jean V loathed the Lavals. A 17th century historian, François-Eudes de Mézeray, remarked that the Duke was “very glad to avenge his own offence in avenging that of God”. Michelet adds that he was all the more delighted to strike at the Lavals because the King had elevated the barony of Rais to a county and therefore Gilles from a baron to a count. The Duke had a paranoid fear that the Lavals were plotting against him; in December 1437, while he was negotiating with Gilles for the sale of Champtocé, he dismissed his cooks for fear of poison.  Jean V would never have trusted Gilles completely; he was descended from the Lavals on his father's side and would have carried that name if it had not been for the complex deal that had eventually resulted in a passionately pro-French Laval owning a huge swathe of Brittany. All this must have rankled.

Gilles' judge Jean de Malestroit, usually described as the Bishop of Nantes, was also the Chancellor of Brittany. He was a lifelong supporter of the English, had led several embassies to London, and was strongly suspected of sabotaging the French cause - not least by Richemont, the Constable of France, who in 1426  kidnapped him and flung him into prison. Malestroit's chief aim in life was to maintain the independence of Brittany and prevent it from being subsumed into France, and he rightly supposed that an alliance with England was the best way to ensure this. Unlike the Duke, his allegiance never wavered. 

The important fact to remember is that the French King had nothing to do with the trial of Gilles de Rais. It is impossible to make sense of what happened without understanding the separation between Brittany and France. 

In the end it all came down to property and dirty politics. 

Thursday 12 August 2021

The Martyr

Links to the film are now dead because the Rhode Island International Film Festival, which was showing it, is over. This blog post will be updated with new links when the film is shown elsewhere. 

Nearly a year ago I mentioned the short film I had been making with director Edmund Stenson and his crew - details and pictures here. It finally airs on Friday 13th August and will be available to watch for a week at this site. It lasts 15 minutes and is free to view. 

"A quirky, docu-fairytale brought to life through hand-illustrated animation, The Martyr paints a sinister-yet compassionate-portrait of two outcasts, and the obsession that binds them."

To my great astonishment, animator Robbie Ward introduced an image of me into the action (albeit with tidier hair): here I am witnessing the execution of Gilles de Rais. This gave me an eerie frisson, as it echoes a dream I had twenty-odd years ago. Nobody in the film crew knew about this, least of all Robbie Ward, who I never met. 

Once again, the link to the film, which is free to watch and will take up just fifteen minutes of your time. Click here

Tuesday 3 August 2021

Gilles de Rais: A Case for the Defence

Almost everything we think we know about Gilles de Rais has come from corrupted sources and is false. Briefly, up until the late 19th century there was no authoritative biography. Everything written about him was fictionalised and sensationalised. Eugène Bossard, an abbot from the area round Tiffauges, seized on him as a suitably obscure subject for a thesis. His speciality was French literature: he was not a historian. And he was completely ignorant of folklore, which is why his identification of Gilles with Bluebeard is so utterly spurious. Every biographer since has leaned heavily on Bossard, assuming him to be reliable. He is not.

Bossard accepted as genuine a known forgery, the account of the trial penned by Paul Lacroix, "The Bibliophile Jacob". Lacroix was a writer of titillating fictionalized pieces, with a fascination for anything bloodthirsty or lubricious. Many of his inventions have entered later biographies as fact. To complicate matters further, J-K Huysmans plundered Bossard to write his scandalous novel, Là-Bas, and added some myths of his own. Because Huysmans has been widely translated, but Bossard has not, much of the English-speaking world takes its information about Gilles de Rais from the former.

It is often said that "most historians" believe that Gilles de Rais was guilty. There is no evidence for this whatsoever. Nobody has taken a poll. Probably most historians have never given the matter a thought. Certainly, the only historians whose opinion would be more relevant than Joe Public's would be those who specialise in that particular time and place, and preferably those who are acquainted with the relevant documents, a tiny minority. One contemporary historian who fits the bill exactly is Professor Thomas Fudge, who wrote a chapter about Gilles de Rais and researched the subject deeply. He came to the conclusion that it's a troubling case and there are strong grounds to suppose that it may have been a stitch-up.

In general, though, historians have had precious little to do with creating the legend of Gilles de Rais, and are unlikely to have much to do with his rehabilitation. Briefly, there are few primary sources, most of them are compromised and unreliable, and biographers (for the most part non-historians) simply do not look at them. The historical method has been much ignored in assembling the traditional narrative of the life of Gilles de Rais.

The story as it is presented to us has been cobbled together by a process of Chinese whispers, where each biographer copies the others and nobody bothers to check back to the primary sources. Evidence is relentlessly cherry-picked, contradictions and impossibilities ignored. That boy who supposedly disappeared while scrumping apples? Accounts vary, but this was said to have happened either on June 1st or at Easter. Apples? Really? What are referred to as "witnesses" are more properly complainants. The eye witness accounts come from inside his household and were produced by torture. The seventy-odd people who appear in court are, for the most part, not parents of the allegedly missing children. They are giving hearsay evidence. It's often as lame as "I saw a man in Machecoul looking for his son" or "I used to see these two brothers working the fairs, but I haven't seen them for a long time." Even Bataille (not a historian) naively points out a whole slew of children who apparently went missing from Machecoul when Gilles was living at Tiffauges. Those sinister old procuresses who fill the gap by ferrying boys across country? Not mentioned by any of the insiders when they were listing the other accomplices, and not produced in court even though (apparently) arrested.

In no particular order, some of the easily-dispelled myths about Gilles de Rais -

The most notorious fib, copied by Bossard and passed on to almost all of his successors, is that there was an illustrated Suetonius that had a corrupting effect on Gilles. There is evidence that such a book did not even exist at that time, but even if it did it would be irrelevent. The Suetonius story does not come from a primary source, it is a mid-19th century confection.

Another legend, which has been quoted as fact by many writers (including, shamefully, the historian-biographer Emile Gabory) is that the evidence at the trial was so shocking that the Bishop of Nantes veiled the crucifix. This derives from that notorious novel by J-K Huysmans; he got the idea from Lacroix and changed it for dramatic effect. Lacroix had Pierre de l'Hôpital covering the cross so that Henriet would not feel inhibited by it as he gave his testimony.

Almost all biographies of Gilles de Rais include the Suetonius or the veiling of the crucifix or both, indicating how very little research their authors did. They simply make no attempt at using contemporary sources. These are mistakes that could not be made by anybody who had done proper research.

At the moment, there is a craze for clickbait sites mentioning the "forty naked bodies" that were supposedly discovered - that is simply not true. At the trial there were allegations that a conduit (or barrel) of dead children was found at Champtocé; there are no eye witness accounts, the evidence was hearsay. No forensic evidence for this or any other accusation was produced in court, which means that a huge number of bodies must have been disposed of without trace. Nobody reported any foul smell or suspicious smoke.

Another falsehood concerns Gilles de Rais' military career. He never executed enemy soldiers. The ones he had hanged were French collaborators - traitors. Every commander did this. Treason was a capital offence.

Also, he never abandoned Jehanne. The army was disbanded after the failed attack on Paris. Joan never saw any of her commanders again. She was fighting her own unofficial war at Compiègne when she was captured; Gilles would probably have known nothing about it. Documents place him at Louviers, just across the river from Rouen where Joan was on trial, in the winter of 1430/1431. La Hire was with him. Both men were at the head of armies. They were in the heart of English-occupied Normandy. Clearly a rescue operation was planned - the English obviously thought so, as they threatened to throw Joan into the river and drown her if any attempt was made to save her.

Another common misconception is that Gilles de Rais confessed freely, without torture. This is untrue. He was not, as everyone insists, given exemption in return for a confession. He was told that if he confessed, the torture would be deferred till the next day, and sure enough there was a convenient gap the next morning, when the court met in the evening instead. There were only two evening sessions; the other one handily occurred after his servants were tortured.

As many people know, there was a rehabilitation trial in 1992, fronted by the Breton novelist Gilbert Prouteau, which acquitted Gilles completely. It was unofficial, and contentious. It did, however, bring the matter to the public eye and has very gradually seeped across the internet to the point where someone will bring it up on a relevant thread. I have been researching Gilles de Rais for many years and feelings about his guilt have definitely changed dramatically in the last twenty years.

See also Gilles de Rais: A Case for the Defence (Part 2)

As stated, the biographies are a poor lot. These two stand above the rest, because they at least acknowledge the possible political and financial motives for a stitch-up.

E A Vizetelly – Bluebeard: an account of Comorre the Cursed and Gilles de Rais (1902)

Jean Benedetti – Gilles de Rais, the authentic Bluebeard (1971)

The revisionist biographies are almost exclusively in French -

Fernand Fleuret/ Dr Ludovico Hernandez – Le Procès Inquisitorial de Gilles de Rais (1921)

Jean-Pierre Bayard – Plaidoyer pour Gilles de Rais (1985, reprinted 1992)

Gilbert Prouteau – Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup (1992)

My book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais, was published in 2017