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 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.