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)

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. 

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