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 7 April 2024

Mythbusting #1

That human remains were found in any of the castles of Gilles de Rais either during his lifetime or more recently

One of the most common tropes in online discussions is "but bodies were found!" This is largely because of the Chinese Whispers effect, and also because Joe Public is unable to distinguish between evidence and allegations.

The prosecution claimed that "suspicious" ashes and a bloodstained, stinking child's chemise were found at Machecoul. Not, please note, in the château as you might expect, but in a small hovel of ill repute on the outskirts of the village, where Blanchet and Prelati lived for a short time. Nobody has ever claimed that any murders or magical operations took place there or that Gilles ever visited it. It was a tiny building with, obviously, a correspondingly small fireplace and chimney, so burning bodies to ashes there would have been completely out of the question. 

The other allegation that is regularly treated as indisputable fact is the supposed discovery of a barrel" or "conduit" (the word used is ambiguous) full of children's bones at Champtocé. This has entered into contemporary myth to the point where a 1900 fantasy picture of Gilles' arrest has become current on the internet. The image shows him pinioned, brutish and hangdog,  watching while a barrel of bones is tipped over in front of him. It goes without saying that nothing of the kind happened

The myth of the cache of children's bones comes in the testimony of Guillaume Hilairet, an interesting serial witness who is also named as a "person of interest". He did not, himself, see the thing he reported, he was merely repeating what he was told by one Jean Jeudon. It is, in fact, classic ouϊ-dire (hearsay) evidence. M. Jeudon, like all the alleged eyewitnesses, does not appear in court. 

Many of the people who claim that "bones were found" imagine that they have been found recently. Occasionally somebody asks if the castles have been excavated and whether skeletal remains were dug up. Indeed, there have been excavations, unsurprisingly. Nothing incriminating has ever been unearthed. 

Here is a recent post about excavations of the sousterrains of Tiffauges. Inevitably, one ghoul could not contain herself & was politely but firmly told: No. No bones at all. Other commenters challenged her about the Champtocé claim. She was unable to defend her assertion. 

Further reading -

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