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

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