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)

A likely story...

A small selection of the more absurd pieces of evidence against Gilles de Rais.

A likely story #1

The testimony of outside witnesses at the trial of Gilles de Rais is supposed to constitute a cast-iron case against him. In fact, the evidence is feeble in the extreme; fragmentary, contradictory, largely hearsay and containing many improbable stories like the following:

The sixteenth recorded abduction/murder, in April 1439, was that of the son of Micheau and Guillemette Bouer. No name or age is given for him. The boy left his home near Machecoul to go to the castle and ask for alms; he never returned.

At the trial, his mother told a curious anecdote of how the next day, presumably long before she realised that her son was missing, a large stranger in black approached her as she was minding the animals in the fields and asked where her children were and why they were not doing the task. She replied that they (suddenly her son had a sibling or siblings with him) had gone begging at Machecoul.

The necessary implication is that somebody at the castle took the trouble to find out the name and home of the young presumed victim and deliberately travelled some distance to seek out his mother and ask a suspicious question.

Why? It simply makes no sense at all.

Particularly as Gilles was living at Tiffauges at the time, not Machecoul.

A likely story #2

Another typically improbable and unsupported anecdote from the witness statements.

In 1438 the son of Jean Bernard, aged 12, went to ask for alms at Machecoul - as Bataille helpfully points out, this is a distance of about 55 kilometres from his home in Port-Launay, Nantes, and he would have had to cross the river. He was not alone: his friend went with him, but they were clearly separated, and the Bernard boy did not turn up at their rendezvous.

Already the distance involved makes the story rather unlikely. Would a boy of twelve - we are not told how old the friend was - really have made such a lengthy journey? It is true that Gilles' almsgiving was legendary - but we are also told that there was a "public rumour" that he was abducting and killing children. No later than 1433 it was being averred that Machecoul was a place where "they eat little children", according to serial witness André Barbe.

We are not told whether the boys actually went to the castle when they arrived in Machecoul. Young Master Bernard went off in search of lodgings and for some reason his friend, the son of Jean Meugner, did not go with him. This seems odd in itself; why would they not stay together, especially as Machecoul was rumoured to be a dangerous place for children?

If he had appeared in court, the friend who survived the trip might have shed some light on exactly what did happen. But he did not. The disappearance of Jean Bernard's son was attested to by his neighbours: Jean Fouriage, his wife Jeanne and a couple of others, who had "heard the son of Jean Meugner" give his account of what happened; in other words, it was yet another example of what Prouteau dismissively calls ouï-dire, hearsay.

The boy's father was dead but his mother, very much alive, was heard complaining bitterly. In spite of her grief, she did not give evidence at Gilles's trial; she was too busy with the grape harvest.

So the two people who knew most about this case were not present in court and the boy's loss was attested to by neighbours of his dead father who produced hearsay evidence and, for good measure, added a gratuitous anecdote about seeing an old woman with a child pass through Port-Launay on her way to Machecoul and later return without the child. Without hearing from the son of Jean Meunier we have no idea whether the boys really reached Machecoul safely, how and why they came to split up, and whether they went to the castle and received alms or not.

It is a pointless and fragmentary anecdote with no real link to Gilles and no evidence other than hearsay from people with only a tenuous connection to the persons involved.

A likely story #3

One of the most striking oddities in the trial of Gilles de Rais is the deafening silence from members of his household. We are given the forced confessions of his body servants and the self-extenuating words of Prelati and Blanchet, but of his two hundred-strong army, the members of his chapel (including the allegedly abused boys in the choir) and the various other pages, squires and sundry domestics who lived at close quarters with him, we hear nothing. Surely somebody would have noticed something incriminating? Surely, for instance, the porter at Machecoul could have been summoned to court and asked to explain exactly what he imagined was going on when an elderly crone handed young boys into his care? And, although he was no longer in Gilles' choir, it would have been interesting to hear from André Buchet, who could have told us if he was sexually assaulted and might even have answered questions about whether, when Gilles was at Vannes, he supplied him with a boy for purposes he knew all too well. Buchet would have been easy to find, as he was employed by the Duke of Brittany...

The one voice speaking up for Gilles' entire household is that of a certain André Brechet, a soldier in the garrison at Machecoul. But Brechet has nothing to say about lost children, strange sounds or foul-smelling smoke. Instead we are treated to a completely irrelevant anecdote about standing sentry duty on the ramparts at Machecoul. He was clearly not a good watchman, as he fell asleep. He was woken by a small man, a stranger to him, who threatened him with a dagger & told him "You're dead." However, the stranger did him no harm and went on his way, leaving the hapless sentry in a muck sweat. The next day, Brechet met Gilles de Rais on his way to Machecoul. And, he tells us, he no longer dared keep watch at Machecoul, which must have been an easygoing kind of garrison where soldiers could pick and choose their duties.

What are we to make of this tale? It sounds as if somebody played a prank on the sleeping soldier and frightened him badly. It has no relevance to Gilles or to the charges against him - he was not even at Machecoul, since he arrived the next day. The small man with the dagger was unlikely to be one of Gilles's friends, as Brechet would have known them by sight and his testimony is firm that the man who threatened him was not known to him.

The only purpose this slight anecdote serves is to give the impression that Machecoul was a sinister place where uncanny & quasi-supernatural events were commonplace. And also, of course, to pad out the testimony with more meaningless and unsubstantiated verbiage.

A likely story #4

Of all the likely stories presented as evidence, this may be the most startling. There is a strong implication in Jean Jenvret’s testimony that Gilles was in two places at once.

In June 1438, Jenvret's nine-year-old son disappeared. Modern writers, taking their cue from Georges Bataille, aver oxymoronically that the boy “sometimes frequented” the Hôtel de la Suze. In fact, the text says that he never at any time went there; the error seems to be with the translator, Klossowski, replacing aucune fois with parfois, an indication of how little respect has ever been shown to the original text. Obviously, if he had been a regular visitor, no intervention would have been necessary; he would simply not have come home one day. As it was, one of the mysterious procuresses was apparently involved.

According to the testimony of the child's parents, the conveniently dead Perrine Martin was supposed to have admitted to leading the child from Nantes to Machecoul; Poitou, on the other hand, said that he “could have” killed him at La Suze. Bataille gamely tries to reconcile the clear contradiction by theorising that perhaps she took the boy's dead body to Machecoul for disposal.

The most glaring error, however, is the suggestion that Gilles was in residence at La Suze when young Jenvret vanished, yet La Meffraye took him to Machecoul where she handed him over to – Gilles. If not bilocation, this is confused and confusing testimony.

Be that as it may, M and Mme Jenvret attested to their son's loss and several local witnesses confirmed that they had heard the couple lamenting and never saw the boy again thereafter.

A likely story #5

Guillaume le Barbier, eighteen years old and therefore an unlikely victim, is one of a mere dozen vanished boys who is given a full name. The details of his case are contradictory, however. His father was Georget, a tailor – or, according to Blanchet, a pastrycook.  The former seems more likely, as the lad was apprenticed to Jean Peletier, the tailor to Lady de Rais and the rest of the household. A minor oddity is that the presence of her tailor implies that Catherine, who supposedly lived apart from her husband, was in residence at Machecoul while he was engaged on a murder spree. Although we are consistently told that his wife and daughter lived at Pouzauges, Abbé Bourdeaut calmly asserts that young Marie was brought up at Tiffauges où Gilles de Rais et sa femme demuraient habituellement. The presence of his family at both his favourite castles would rather mar their testosterone-soaked Sadean splendour.

The only suspicious circumstance surrounding this particular disappearance was that Blanchet saw the boy entering the castle of Machecoul – where, after all, he was employed – in the company of the automatically sinister Poitou. Nor is the date of his disappearance clear-cut; his father was firm that it was St Barnabas' Day, June 11th, whereas two other witnesses mentioned Easter. Both dates clash with Blanchet's evidence; he claimed that it happened while he was lodging with Etienne Ferron, but he only stayed there briefly and left in late February or early March. Poitou, however, affirmed before the civil court that Guillaume le Barbier was among the victims.

Blanchet asserted that the boy's possessions, including a silver coin, were returned to his father, which seems to indicate that he had died a natural death, since this would hardly have been done if he had been murdered. Although he must have come and gone from the castle at will, the descriptions of  his disappearance imply that he was abducted, which would hardly have been necessary. Even here, accounts clash: his father said that he vanished while playing with a ball of thread; the omnipresent witness André Barbe had him picking apples, which is a good trick in June, let alone at Easter.

A likely story #6

One of the set pieces of the trial is the case of Jean Hubert, aged fourteen, son of Jean and Nicole Hubert, who went missing in 1438. Georges Bataille asserts that, of all Gilles' victims, we know his fate the most precisely; in fact, the converse seems to be the case. At first, the lad's parents gave their testimony together. Their son was employed briefly by Princé, Pierre Jacquet, who was Gilles' herald at arms, but the arrangement did not work out, apparently because Jean was afraid of Princé's horse. He was then passed on to Henriet, who introduced him to a mysterious gentleman known as Spadin, or Spadine. It has been plausibly conjectured that this is a misspelling of the Scottish name Spalding. Henriet spoke of training the boy up as a valet to replace Poitou, improbably said to be leaving Gilles' service. We hear no more of this surprising career move on the part of Gilles' most devoted servant. 

The three internal witnesses – Gilles himself, Henriet and Poitou – are unanimous that Jean lodged at the Hôtel de la Suze in Nantes for eight days before being killed. However, Gilles was absent for four or five of those days. On his return, he was kind to the boy, had him clean his room, and gave him wine to drink and a loaf of bread to take to his parents. Jean did this, and then returned to La Suze. Shortly after, Spadine/Spalding called for M Hubert to ask where the child had gone, and there was an unseemly dispute over who had lost him. The parents made several complaints to Gilles' men and were told that “a Scotsman” had taken their son away. Now, young Jean had already told his parents that he did not want to go back to school because Spadine was going to take him “north” or “upriver”. He stayed with his parents for only one night between employers and seems to have been an adolescent who yearned to escape from his dull home life.

There was a run-in with one Mme Briand, wife of a kitchen employee called Jean Briand; she accused Mme Hubert of saying that Gilles killed her son, which the latter woman prudently denied. Mme Briand made an earlier appearance in the evidence, in relation to the disappearance of a boy named Delit. It is interesting that the conversation with Mme Hubert follows almost exactly the same course as the one with Mme Delit, concluding with Mme Briand's threat or warning that “she and the others would regret it”.

To complicate matters further, Nicole Hubert reappeared alone later in the trial, and contradicted the evidence she gave with her husband. This time, she did not mention her son meeting Gilles at all. The loaf of bread was a present from Spadine; in the earlier testimony, there were two loaves, one from Gilles and one from a servant called Simonnet, though the second loaf was intended for an unnamed woman in town. Princé has been edited out of the story altogether – in Mme Hubert's solo account, her son worked for a man called Mainguy, who died.

This case is unique in that it was affirmed by Gilles, his servants, and the parents of the missing child, among others. The only comparable case is that of Bernard le Camus, although he was reported missing by the man he lodged with rather than a relative.

Reading the accounts given at the trial, it is not easy to work out exactly what happened. Gilles' biographers get round this little difficulty in their usual fashion, by deciding on the narrative and editing out the contradictions. 

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. 

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