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)

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.


  1. Hello! Great work, but I have some questions. Firstly, I have searched for Francois Prelati but can't find very much about him. Why would he have testified?

  2. You're right! I just searched my blog & what few mentions of Prelati there are mostly quote somebody else. I shall have to address that omission. Thanks for pointing it out.

    My take on Prelati is that he was an informant in the pay of the Duke of Brittany. We know there were at least two others (Guillaume Sauzaie & Guillaume Grimaud). If Gilles had been close to turning base metals into gold, as we're told he was in late 1439, he would have been financially solvent & could have bought back Ingrandes & Champtocé, as the conditions of sale allowed him to do.

  3. Thanks for the quick response! I'm very interested in this. So you are saying that Prelati was one of several people payed to ensure Gilles' conviction because he was close to being able to buy back his properties? That Prelati informed the Duke of Brittany that Gilles was close to completing 'the Great Work?'

  4. That's my theory. It seems to make sense because, although Prelati gave evidence that should have sent him to the gallows, only Gilles & his servants were executed. Prelati admitted to magical evocations & compacting with demons, which was heresy & a capital offence. Clearly he had come to some kind of deal with the authorities. There is a story that he was later hanged for other offences, but I think that's just something invented by 19th century writers who were morally outraged that he went unpunished.