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)



Saturday, 29 July 2017

Title reveal


It is no secret that , although there have been several biographies in both French and English, Gilles de Rais has been ill served by his biographers. Most lean heavily on his first biographer, Abbé Bossard, who is unreliable, partisan, and props up his ludicrous Bluebeard theory by quoting liberally from a fictionalised account of the trial by Paul Lacroix, the Bibliophile Jacob. Consequently, myths such as the "illustrated Suetonius" that supposedly had such a corrupting influence, and the wholly fictitious veiling of the cross at a critical moment during the trial, are almost universally accepted as fact. Even Gilbert Prouteau mischievously copied Bossard's errors, notably by killing off Gilles' two fiancées, whereas at least one, and probably both, outlived him.

It seemed to me that an accurate biography would not only need to retell the life, but also track down those pernicious myths to their source and debunk them.

After several years of research and writing, I am preparing to publish my alternative biography in October 2017. The title is The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais. Updates will be posted here, on Twitter, and on my Facebook page

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Article: "The Modern Movement to Exonerate a Notorious Medieval Serial Killer"

Atlas Obscura recently published an article by Sonya Vatomsky about my forthcoming book. The piece is intelligent and sympathetic; there is even an academic, John D. Hosler, supporting the view that Gilles' trial was merely one of many similar fakeries - “Personally, it all looks highly suspicious to me” - which is pretty much Reinach's position. Interesting that this is now seen as a rather standard opinion.
I hope to publish the book towards the end of the year, all being well. And then the true story of Gilles de Rais will finally be told. 

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Whitewashing Bluebeard 1925

Hutchinson Herald, 3rd May 1925

(click to enlarge)


Lighthearted article suggesting that anybody attempting to whitewash Gilles de Rais and other "villains" should face the death penalty. In 1925, in the wake of Joan of Arc's canonization, there was an attempt to rehabilitate Gilles, led by luminaries such as Salomon Reinach and Prouteau's mentor Maurice Garçon. Why the American press of the twenties, thirties & forties expressed such a marked interest in the matter is a minor mystery. Why Prouteau never mentioned it is another. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Hangin' round...

Page from a French bande dessinée, title unknown.
[Click on the picture to enlarge]

A few details of the so-called confessions, low key in the testimony, have stood out vividly to posterity and are always emphasised and elaborated on by biographers. These are invariably the most Grand Guignol elements. One of the most notorious of these details is the partial hanging of a child before the attack began in earnest. According to Henriet and Poitou's evidence, a child would sometimes be suspended from a hook, either by Gilles or one of his assistants, in order to silence any cries for help. Gilles would then take the boy down and reassure him that it was only a game, a reassurance that one can hardly imagine being effective on a terrified and half-strangled child. Writers have had a field day with this scenario, hypothesising that Gilles got a certain perverse thrill out of calming and caressing a child that he was about to kill. However, the valets are quite clear and prosaic: the hanging was done to silence the child. Of course, this was one way in which the prosecution sought to explain why no member of the household was alerted to the bizarre goings-on in the master's rooms: hanging would damage the vocal cords and make the slightest sound impossible. Gilles himself, in his various confessions, does not even go as far as his servants; he merely mentions hanging from a hook as one of several methods of killing. If the sadistic charade of hanging and rescuing had been a favourite pastime of his, one might reasonably expect him to mention it.

In fact, this is yet another example of the way in which writers have ignored contemporary documents and invented their own ogreish Gilles de Rais.

Note, please, that the cartoonist has placed the potence, or gallows, outside. Obviously nobody would have an instrument of torture in their bed chamber, the idea is ridiculous! In fact, it is the only part of the episode that is supported by the trial records: the children were supposedly hung from a hook in Gilles' room...

Monday, 26 December 2016

The Trials of Gilles de Rais: short passage from new biography




The first thing to stress is that the trial record is not a reliable nor, obviously, an impartial document. Little attempt has been made to conceal the fact that it was amended after the event; how long after is not known. It is not complete: we see Perrine Martin and Tiphaine Branchu brought into court and hear other witnesses refer to what they had to say, but we cannot read their own words. Their confessions, we are told, have not come down to us. It seems unlikely that this is accidental. We will see witnesses contradict each other and themselves, and allegations of impossible deeds. We will examine clear signs that the most damning evidence was extracted by torture, or at the very  least by the threat of torture. We will see Gilles de Rais harassed, antagonised, threatened and eventually broken.


What we will not see is the Bishop of Nantes rising up in outrage to veil the face of the crucifix when Gilles' testimony is at its most lurid; this was a flight of fancy by J-K Huysmans in his popular novel Là-Bas, elaborating on a less dramatic invention by none other than the Bibliophile Jacob. Nor, sadly, do we read “Pale grey starred with gold; and if he opened his doublet, a belt of scarlet with a dagger of grey steel hidden in a red sheath” or “Gilles appeared all in black, with a hood of velvet and a doublet of black damask trimmed with fur of the same colour”, as Valentine Penrose would have it. All these symbolic couture details are fictional and come from the fevered pen of Paul Lacroix, the Bibliophile. Nor will we see Gilles' beard with the bluish highlights, nor the lycanthropic grimaces of his handsome face: all this, likewise, was Lacroix's work. It is fair to say that nobody, probably not even Bossard, has so profoundly influenced Gilles' image. The trial record, in spite of the shocking nature of its content, is a dry and difficult read, which is why so few people have read it attentively. As a rule of thumb, whenever the accused is described, or the crowd's reaction is indicated, this is the hand of the Bibliophile. We are not told what Gilles wore or how he appeared; we do not even, surprisingly, have any explicit indication that the ecclesiastical trial was open to the public.

Translations of the documents are freely available in both English and French and there is no substitute for a careful study of them. The intention of this chapter is to explain clearly and chronologically what happened, to clarify any obscure points, and to examine in particular detail the passages that biographers tend to gloss over. Most commentators agree that it was a conspicuously fair trial for that period; although Reginald Hyatte, no revisionist, says “It is possible to interpret the legal action initiated against Gilles de Rais in both courts as the legitimate means by which the Duke of Brittany managed to acquire Gilles' possessions without arousing suspicion or causing a revolt among his other vassals.”  E A Vizetelly, the only English writer with a revisionist slant, remarks that “the proceedings of the court were scarcely lawful”. As we shall see, Gilles seems to have agreed with him, and for much the same reasons.

[Second brief taster of my new Gilles de Rais biography, which should be completed in 2017. The first snippet is here.]

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Gilles de Rais Day


One day our descendants will find out the motives and stratagems of the sordid plot that leads me to the stake.
Gilbert Prouteau

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Bluebeardery and copypasta

In the early days of the internet, when it had a capital I and the Millennium Bug was a dark cloud on the horizon, it was sometimes called the Information Superhighway. The idea was that it would be a repository of all knowledge. That was not how it worked out. Disinformation spreads faster than facts and most people now know that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, not everything you read on the internet is true.

Gilles de Rais has suffered more from Chinese whispers than almost any other historical personage, because fiction crept into his life story so early. Since no really accurate biography of him has ever been published, and since some of the most well-known factoids derive from fiction, there has never seemed any pressing reason not to just make things up. On the internet, moreover, we find an infinite number of bloggers and tweeters desperate for something to say, and in the six weeks separating the anniversary of his arrest from that of his death there seems to be a pressing need to copy and paste something about him that may or may not be accurate. 

Thus we find tweets such as this (click on the pictures to enlarge) -


I had to reply to that bizarre fantasy -



Another example -

They can never defend their whimsical assertions.


And finally the jewel of the collection, which seems to be an entry for a competition to make the most errors in the fewest lines of text -


No doubt both families were astonished by these improbable siblings. Do note also Perrault writing in 1967 in spite of his extreme old age.

So be careful out there. Not everybody is telling you the truth.

(Names have been blurred to protect the stupid)