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)

Wednesday 28 December 2022

A Childermass conundrum

At Orléans in 1434 Gilles de Rais  is supposed to have signed an infamous procuration, or deed of attorney, that put the management of his finances into the hands of Roger de Bricqueville. There are several reasons to be suspicious of this document. Firstly, there is no proof whatsoever that Bricqueville was in Orléans; he & Sillé are both omitted from the list of Gilles' entourage. Secondly, the document was dated 28th December, Holy Innocents Day, which, given that Bricqueville was accorded the right to marry off the infant Marie de Rais to whoever he chose, strikes an ominous chord to many writers. However, Gilles is consistently presented to us as a superstitious man, and Holy Innocents Day, or Childermass,  was regarded as the unluckiest day of the year, so ill-starred that the day it fell on was deemed unlucky for the whole year. Any enterprise begun on it would be doomed to failure. It seems highly improbable that Gilles, as a man of his time and one who particularly venerated the child martyrs, would have risked entering into such a vital contract on that day of all days. Also, it should be noted that Bricqueville never did arrange a marriage for young Marie, even though she was a good match; her late great grandfather Jean de Craon would certainly have found her a husband with no qualms at all. 

The Coventry Carol - "Herod the king in his raging..." 

Le Massacre des Innocents by Nicolas Poussin, 1628

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Gilles de Rais Day 2022

 Ne craignez point la mort de ce monde, ce petit trépas...  

Illustration by Robbie Ward from the short film The Martyr

Sunday 10 July 2022

Beyond Copypasta

Time for another Bluebeardery and Copypasta post, I think, as we've been serious for a long time.

Some people come up with the most bizarre ideas and I'd love to know where they get them from -

But, sadly, they never tell me. They drift off, never to return. A proper cliff-hanger, you might say. 

Some commenters have noticed that the Shrek villain Lord Farquaad looks like Gilles de Rais, though they usually get it back to front and wonder why Gilles de Rais looks like Farquaaad. Clearly because Eloi Féron way back in the 19th century took his influence from Disney, dude. Others go even further astray -

Obviously, a topic like this offers great opportunities to be as edgy as hell, but that only works if nobody pops up to tell you how you got it all wrong -

It's important to point out to me how very weird I am for caring about the most egregious historic miscarriage of justice of all time -

And that old chestnut, "Gilles de Rais is my ancestor!" Which doesn't give them quite the épater les bourgeois distinctiveness they imagine -

I often think I should organise a get-together of all his descendants. Might be fun. 

Selection of idiocies -

Finally, the kind of foot-stamping that always draws me in -

Why do I respond to these idiots? Because, unless they dirty delete as they occasionally do, these posts are there for good. What I try to do is refute the lies in an entertaining way for future browsers. My motto has always been: seize the narrative. Looking at recent comments on more serious forums, it seems to be working. 

[The comments in this post were taken from Twitter and YouTube]


Sunday 15 May 2022

Printing the legend

While writing my book, and indeed in this blog, I always avoided following the various Jehanne alternative narratives down their various rabbit holes. This was a deliberate decision. I was heavily invested in the theory of Gilles de Rais' innocence, which was quite controversial when I began my work, and that was enough to make me look eccentric. I didn't need any more conspiracy theories to make me seem like a crazy woman. So - was Jehanne, in fact, a by-blow of nobility? Other than pointing out that she was not a lowly peasant but a gently-raised girl who certainly never tended the flocks, as she herself  indignantly asserted, I didn't go there. On the vexed issue of the False Pucelle, Jeanne des Armoises, I had no choice, since Gilles espoused her cause, but I took a conservative view -

The question must be asked: could Claude des Armoises have been the real Jehanne, somehow saved from burning? Rumours of her survival had proliferated from the moment of her death, and one chronicler wrote finalement la firent ardre publiquement, ou aultre femme en semblable d'elle [finally she was burned publicly, or another woman who looked like her], allowing for the possibility of some substitution. Francis Leary admitted that the only way this could have been done was before the handover to the English, since they had only seen her from a distance, in armour and helmet, and had little idea what she looked like. According to this unlikely theory, a false Jehanne stood trial and went to the stake in her place. Even Leary finds this scenario improbable, and a substitution at the last minute would have been next to impossible. Sadly, it is almost certain that the real Jehanne was handed over to her enemies, subjected to an unfair trial and executed. As we have seen, Gilles' own behaviour encourages this melancholy conclusion: he behaved consistently like a man bereaved and plunged into the deepest depression. He may have been temporarily fooled by a False Jehanne, or he may have used her knowingly for his political ends. But in the end, she was a forgery, like the tinsel that Prelati tried to pass off as gold.

[From my book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais]

These contentious issues were addressed directly in a 1961 book called Operation Shepherdess, by André Guérin and Jack Palmer White, described as "ineffably surreal" by The St Joan Centre. For many years I had a copy of this book on my shelves but, inexplicably,  I never read it. Then, a decade or more ago, it disappeared during a house move. I searched diligently, but it never reappeared, and I didn't need it for the book so I put it to the back of my mind. Recently I thought I might buy another copy - it's long out of print but not hard to obtain - and finally get round to reading it. 

Well. A quick flick through the index soon explained why I didn't bother with it all those years ago. From a promising start, the text went off the rails in the third sentence - "Moscow"? What?

... Gilles de Rais, whom Charles VII named Marshal of France after the Coronation in 1429, when de Rais was but twenty-five.

A very wealthy Breton, the newly honoured Marshal assembled about him workers of precious metals, silversmiths, jewellers, weavers, lace-makers and engravers of arms, also clowns, monks, troubadours, astrologers, and alchemists. [So far, so good.] The renown of his library reached Moscow. The councillors of Henry VI of England modelled the royal stables on his. Eventually, however, he fell into the hands of unscrupulous magicians, necromancers, sorcerers, and sundry mountebanks. Increasingly excited by them, he drove the artists away and, in the countryside around his château, inaugurated a reign of terror which ended only when he was hanged and burned by the Duke of Brittany at the age of thirty-six for having offered up to the Devil numberless women, especially his wives, and over 1,000 small children. Because he not only refused to be clean-shaven like the rest of the courtiers but had recourse to dye, he was popularly known as Bluebeard.

Numberless women! Wives! A thousand children! Bluebeard! This, of course, is the heavily mythologised version of Gilles that prevailed in the early sixties - Klossowski's modern French translation of the trial record was not published until 1965. It is painfully clear that, however deeply the authors researched Jehanne, they spent not even five minutes on her second in command. The notorious beard betrays its Shavian origins - Gilles is seen  "sporting the extravagance of a little curled beard dyed blue at a clean-shaven court", and, like Shaw, the authors thereafter routinely call him Bluebeard.

Perhaps, like me, Guérin and White merely wanted to concentrate on their protagonist without being distracted by the peripheral characters. However, they could not have provided a more salutary example of the dangers of printing the legend: when the reader comes across a serially polygamous, uxoricidal, beard-dying Gilles de Rais on page twenty of Operation Shepherdess, how likely is that reader to believe anything else in that text? 

Tuesday 15 March 2022

Tryphina, Comorre, and the four dead wives

[This is an extract from The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais. The tale is written in my own words, as it seemed wrong to steal an existing version.]

Gilles de Rais was not Bluebeard. No matter how desperately the Abbé Bossard tried to make the connection, arguably to the point of falsifying evidence to support his case, he never came close to justifying his thesis. In fact, Bossard was completely ignorant about folklore: popular tales seldom have one single source, and the Bluebeard motifs appear in myths from all over the world. If Perrault had been minded to take his inspiration from close to home, however, there was a tale of a Breton nobleman who was a serial uxoricide: Comorre, or Comor (the name is variously spelt). Many have argued that he was a far more likely Bluebeard than Gilles. Bossard was aware of this theory, but rejected Comorre completely; he insisted that the story bore no resemblance at all to the Bluebeard legend. Here is the story: judge for yourself.

Tryphina was the only daughter of the Count of Vannes, although she had four brothers. In some versions, her mother died when she was a child. In all versions, she was the prototypical fairy tale heroine, as good as she was beautiful, a combination that always seems to call down misfortune. Her father doted on her. 

When she grew into a young woman, a powerful lord named Comorre became enamoured of her and sent ambassadors to ask for her hand in marriage. He was twice her age and already a widower four times over, a giant of a man, terrifying in his aspect. Neither Tryphina nor her father was disposed to accept his proposal, in spite of the bribes that his representatives offered. However, the velvet glove hid an iron fist: when the Count politely declined, on the grounds of his daughter's youth, the ambassadors threatened war. 

Tryphina, distressed by the prospect of being the cause of a bloody conflict, consulted with Saint Gildas, a local holy man. He had little comfort for her. His advice was to save her people by sacrificing herself to her frightful suitor. He did promise, however, that one day he would bring her back safely to her father. 

So Tryphina dutifully married Comorre, and went with him to his own dark and menacing country. As one account expresses it, “Comorre carried off his young bride as a hawk carries off a little white dove.” She was well treated, because her new husband was genuinely fond of her, but she was deeply unhappy and spent much of  her time in the chapel, praying at the tombs of her four predecessors. 

After a few weeks, Comorre was compelled to leave his bride and travel to Rennes to attend a gathering of the princes of Brittany. He was absent for six months and, upon his return, was anxious to be reunited with his lovely wife, whom he had doubtless missed far more than she missed him. He entered her chamber, only to find her embroidering baby clothes. To her surprise, he paled and left her without uttering a word. Tryphina realised that she was in peril, for reasons she could not understand. 

She hastened to the chapel and cowered by the four tombs. On the last stroke of midnight, the dead wives of Comorre appeared to her and warned her to flee back to her father, because her husband planned to kill her as he had killed them. They explained that there was a prophecy that Comorre would be destroyed by his own son: to escape his destiny, he murdered his wives as soon as they conceived. 

Tryphina asked how she could escape the castle, given that Comorre's fierce hound guarded the courtyard.

 The first wife handed her a cup and told her: “This poison killed me, it will do the same to the dog.” 

And how, Tryphina asked, should she climb the high wall? 

“Use this rope that strangled me,” said the second ghost. 

But how could she find her way through the dark forest? 

“With the fire that burned me,” said the third, handing her a blazing torch. 

And how could she ever walk so far? 

“Lean on this staff that cleft my brow,” said the final phantom bride. 

Tryphina took the fatal gifts and fled into the night. Comorre was following close behind, however, and finally she was betrayed by an old magpie that overheard her laments and repeated them. Her husband caught her and struck her head off with his sword. 

This should have been the end of her story, but she was found lying dead in the woods by her grief-stricken father and Saint Gildas. The holy man told her father not to mourn: he bade Tryphina to rise up, and when she did he set her head firmly back on her shoulders. Thus he kept his word and brought her safely home, where in time she gave birth to a son. 

The child duly fulfilled the prophecy that his father had dreaded. When still a young boy, he idly threw a handful of stones against the wall of Comorre's castle. Magically, the walls crumbled into ruin and the tyrant died in their fall.

Monday 7 February 2022

A Likely Story #7

One of the most spectacular set pieces in the allegations against Gilles de Rais is the ferrying of forty decaying cadavers downriver, from Champtocé to Machecoul, for cremation. Bossard paints a delightful picture of this episode, with the barge waiting under the willows; Prouteau sardonically calls it a barque dantesque. In the prosaic words of the trial record, we merely have Henriet remarking that the remains were transported "by water". 

The reasons for this Gothic journey need not detain us long. Gilles was about to hand the castle of Champtocé over to the Duke of Brittany; for complex political reasons, this could only be done by pretending to take it by force from his brother, who was currently occupying it. The token army of about twenty men was accompanied by the Chancellor of Brittany, Jean de Malestroit, presumably to oversee the handover. So everything that took place happened with Gilles' future judge on the premises, an embarrassing fact that is often glossed over. 

None of this is disputed, although the date is unclear. Most commentators have it as June 1438. So in all probability, the Dantean barge processed down the Loire with its cargo of dead children at the height of summer, when nights are short and days long. Note too that Machecoul was supposedly taken by René de la Suze in November 1437; there is no record of how or when Gilles reclaimed it. 

Now, René de la Suze had been living at Champtocé since October of the preceding year, so obviously the bodies were hidden in a reasonably safe place. For some reason, however, Gilles feared that they would be uncovered by Jean V, so it became necessary to exhume and dispose of them. They could hardly be burned on the spot - remember, the Bishop of Nantes was there and might have noticed. Hence the lengthy process of exhumation and the long journey to Machecoul, which could not be reached by river, so the final part had to be overland. Given the time of year, not all of this process could have been accomplished under cover of darkness.

The bodies were packed in one or two chests (accounts vary) and were burned at Machecoul. Apparently nobody in the castle or the village noticed the stinking smoke that must have resulted. Note that much is made, during the trial, of how the bodies were burned immediately. How a backlog of forty was allowed to build up under a tower at Champtocé, dating back to around 1432 presumably, and nobody ever noticed are questions which are not addressed. 

Gilles de Rais himself was supposed to have accompanied the remains on their final journey, since he was not a man to miss out on inhaling the stench of burning bodies. We are not told how his guest, Jean de Malestroit, felt about being left to entertain himself while his host was mysteriously absent for a period of many hours. Hospitality was important and Gilles' behaviour would have been seen as unspeakably rude. 

The events at Champtocé have an exact parallel at Machecoul in October of the preceding year. When he heard that René had taken Champtocé, Gilles panicked and had (again) around forty bodies exhumed and cremated. None of this is plausible, as Gilles never before or after displayed any fear of the brother who was by far his military inferior, but at least on this occasion there was no need for an excursion by river. The two episodes are so similar that many biographers confuse or deliberately conflate them. 

Gilbert Prouteau boggled at the sheer unlikelihood of the mass transportation of so many decomposed corpses by river and land over a distance of 111.4 kilometres (nearly 70 miles)Nous passons encore une fois les frontières de la vraisemblance [Once more we go beyond the bounds of credibility], he remarked, and it is hard to argue with him. 

Sunday 2 January 2022

A Likely Story #6

One of the set pieces of the trial is the case of Jean Hubert, aged fourteen, son of Jean and Nicole Hubert, who went missing in 1438. Georges Bataille asserts that, of all Gilles' victims, we know his fate the most precisely; in fact, the converse seems to be the case. At first, the lad's parents gave their testimony together. Their son was employed briefly by Princé, Pierre Jacquet, who was Gilles' herald at arms, but the arrangement did not work out, apparently because Jean was afraid of Princé's horse. He was then passed on to Henriet, who introduced him to a mysterious gentleman known as Spadin, or Spadine. It has been plausibly conjectured that this is a misspelling of the Scottish name Spalding. Henriet spoke of training the boy up as a valet to replace Poitou, improbably said to be leaving Gilles' service. We hear no more of this surprising career move on the part of Gilles' most devoted servant. 

The three internal witnesses – Gilles himself, Henriet and Poitou – are unanimous that Jean lodged at the Hôtel de la Suze in Nantes for eight days before being killed. However, Gilles was absent for four or five of those days. On his return, he was kind to the boy, had him clean his room, and gave him wine to drink and a loaf of bread to take to his parents. Jean did this, and then returned to La Suze. Shortly after, Spadine/Spalding called for M Hubert to ask where the child had gone, and there was an unseemly dispute over who had lost him. The parents made several complaints to Gilles' men and were told that “a Scotsman” had taken their son away. Now, young Jean had already told his parents that he did not want to go back to school because Spadine was going to take him “north” or “upriver”. He stayed with his parents for only one night between employers and seems to have been an adolescent who yearned to escape from his dull home life.

There was a run-in with one Mme Briand, wife of a kitchen employee called Jean Briand; she accused Mme Hubert of saying that Gilles killed her son, which the latter woman prudently denied. Mme Briand made an earlier appearance in the evidence, in relation to the disappearance of a boy named Delit. It is interesting that the conversation with Mme Hubert follows almost exactly the same course as the one with Mme Delit, concluding with Mme Briand's threat or warning that “she and the others would regret it”.

To complicate matters further, Nicole Hubert reappeared alone later in the trial, and contradicted the evidence she gave with her husband. This time, she did not mention her son meeting Gilles at all. The loaf of bread was a present from Spadine; in the earlier testimony, there were two loaves, one from Gilles and one from a servant called Simonnet, though the second loaf was intended for an unnamed woman in town. Princé has been edited out of the story altogether – in Mme Hubert's solo account, her son worked for a man called Mainguy, who died.

This case is unique in that it was affirmed by Gilles, his servants, and the parents of the missing child, among others. The only comparable case is that of Bernard le Camus, although he was reported missing by the man he lodged with rather than a relative.

Reading the accounts given at the trial, it is not easy to work out exactly what happened. Gilles' biographers get round this little difficulty in their usual fashion, by deciding on the narrative and editing out the contradictions.