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 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


  1. Resending this message a year later - I'm not sure if my original was received:

    Hello, I've just discovered your fascinating site after re-reading a variety of other works on and references to G d R. Whether true or false, the popular story is uniquely creepy. I'm not sure if my comments were going through via Blogger, so I am emailing you directly.

    Might I play devil's advocate (maybe angel's advocate in this case), and put a few questions to your thesis? I'm not trying to refute your well-researched investigations, but I'd be interested in your thoughts on the following:

    1. There must have been many European nobles of the Middle Ages and later who were caught up in political and financial intrigues. Why would ghastly charges of mass torture and murder be needed to seize G d R's assets and remove him from power? Surely his enemies could have achieved the same end without spinning such a macabre tale?

    2. We know that other aristocrats of this period (Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Bathory, for example) perpetrated cruel atrocities on their subjects and rivals, knowing their noble status elevated them above the law, at least for most behavior. Couldn't G d R have acted on the same assumption of feudal entitlement?

    3. Although many "confessions" of witchcraft and heresy were extracted under torture in this era, the gory details of G d R's murders - if they're authentic - seem well beyond any mere admission of guilt. If he didn't voluntarily confess to his crimes, who would have thought to invent them with such obscene precision?

    4. Sadly, horrific cases of pedophilia, rape, and torture are not unknown in our day. Who's to say such pathological impulses as we find in contemporary serial killers couldn't have also taken hold in a nobleman from the Fifteenth Century, long before modern policing and investigative techniques?

    5. Do you think G d R at least was involved in alchemical experiments or rituals of black magic? In a pre-Enlightenment time, didn't many ambitious or reckless people pursue "forbidden" knowledge, at great personal risk?

    I'd be interested in your thoughts on these. I am a writer and blogger on a variety of subjects; you may wish to see some of my published credentials at my blog:

    Best, GC

    1. All your questions are essentially groundless, as there is not much to deliberate about. Gilles was a great war hero, a companion of the Maid of Orléans - but he was also a Beast and was guilty of at least the vast majority of the charges against him.
      He was convicted based on extensive evidence - and his "acquittal" is a game played by "historians-debunkers" in their own opinion. With poor scientific skills and complete ignorance of the realities of the era... By the way: Gilbert Prouteau was not even next to the historian, but was a well-known prankster and swindler, with a very "light pen". Ergo: the substantive value of his book is >none<.

    2. I'll attempt to reply to both these comments at once, with apologies for having taken so long.
      To Anonymous -
      1 Jean V loathed the Lavals (remember, Gilles was a Laval by birth). As well as coveting the Rais estates, & wanting to smear a great French war hero for political reasons, this was personal.
      2 So? Assuming that Vlad Tepes (seen as a hero in his own country) & Bathory (who has her defenders) were monsters. That doesn't make Gilles de Rais one.
      3 Leaving aside the extremely contentious nature of the trial records, which have explicitly been amended & rewritten dozens of times over the years, the word "confession" didn't mean then what it means now. Back then, the Inquisitor would ask the question & the accused only had to affirm the truth of the accusation. (If he or she knew what was good for them). All the lurid details came from the minds of the Inquisitors. And no doubt they were inspired by Suetonius (as Gilles was once thought to be) & other texts.
      4 Well, OK, who's to say? All these things exist & always have existed. But all the evidence points to this being a stitch-up. The evidence is either hearsay or extracted by torture.
      5 Yes! Alchemy was the only one of the accusations that Gilles admitted to without duress, in a little-remarked statement of October 15th. Now, alchemy was legal as an expensive little hobby for the rich, but arquémie was not allowed. That was the form of alchemy we think of today - the attempt to turn base metals to gold. This is what Gilles is admitting to as a crime, though a trivial one - it was treated as forgery.

      P. Wolf -

      No, there was not "extensive" evidence. If you read my blog, I have debunked huge chunks of it as being impossible, highly unlikely, or contradictory. It's hearsay; the five (FIVE!) actual eyewitnesses are all from Gilles' inner circle. The complainants - most of whom were not parents of missing children - have not witnessed a thing.

      Gilbert Prouteau was in fact a novelist. He was also an ageing enfant terrible & I'm sure he enjoyed the mischief-making aspect of his book & the retrial. But he seems sincere. I have been quite critical of him & have pointed out a few instances where he has twisted the facts. Most of his research was done by others - Reinach, Fleuret, Bayard.

      He wasn't a historian, nor did he pretend to be. But nor were Bossard, Bataille, in fact most of Gilles' biographers. Prouteau's book is, among other things, a parody of Bossard.

      What he was, was a genius at the dark art of PR. And for his efforts in that field I owe him a colossal debt.

  2. Really sorry! I had a computer disaster & the file with the emails I'd set aside to reply to was lost. I was struggling to find them all again. Can you send another email - blank will do - just so I have your address to reply to? Sorry again.