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)

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Quotes about Gilles de Rais

The wizard or warlock is on a higher plane. Often he is scientifically far in advance of his generation; as we may suspect that Gilles de Laval, usually known as de Rais (or Retz) really was, though the Church made him out to be an inhuman, Devil-worshipping monster, and burnt him as such. - Philip W. Sergeant: Witches and Warlocks, 1936

 At least two lobbies also have no interest in seeing this [the traditional] version revised. Some French newspapers reported that, unwilling to reopen a ruling by the Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church sees the hand of Freemasons behind the creation of the 'arbitration court.'
For the villagers who live off tourists visiting the ruined castles at Tiffauges, Machecoul and Champtocé, on the other hand, the very notion of transforming Gilles de Rais from monster to martyr poses a threat to their trade. "We're not interested in reopening the affair," Georges Gautier, a guide to Tiffauges castle, proclaimed. - N Y Times, November 1992

I think, then, it is not altogether unfair to assume that Gilles de Rais was to a large extent the victim of Catholic logic. Catholic logic: and the foul wish-fantasms generated of its repressions, and of its fear and ignorance. He wanted to confer a boon on humanity; therefore he consorted with the learned; therefore he murdered little children. - Aleister Crowley: The Banned Lecture

The overwhelming probability, of course, is that Gilles de Rais was innocent; like all the other famous victims of sorcery trials he was framed by his enemies, who used the same vicious slanders to discredit and destroy him as the English had used to discredit & destroy his companion-in-arms Joan of Arc. Because his trial was a domestic affair, later generations of Frenchmen were content to let his conviction stand so that the Church might use it as a terrible example to those who faltered in the faith. - Brian M Stableford

...The presence of Rais at Louviers - less than sixteen miles from Rouen, where Joan was imprisoned - is a very significant circumstance. Some writers have suggested that, being a mere spy employed by La Trémouille, Rais abandoned the cause of the Maid after the failure of the attempt on Paris. We think otherwise, and are inclined, moreover, to give Charles VII credit for some desire to save the unfortunate Joan. - E A Vizetelly
(Gilles was at Louviers, with an army, while Jehanne was on trial, & he was later joined by Dunois, also at the head of an army. It is inconceivable that a rescue attempt was not being plotted. This is something that has been suppressed in later biographies in order to separate de Rais from Jehanne & make him a spy & a villain from the start.)

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: Gilles de Rais ou La Gueule du Loup, 1992

...Voltaire classes Gilles de Rais with the Princess of Gloucester and and Baron Cobham as an unfortunate victim of fanaticism compounded of ignorance and superstition.
En Bretagne, on fit mourir le maréchal de Rais, accusé de magie et d'avoir égorgé des enfants pour faire avec leur sang de prétendus enchantments. [In Brittany, the Maréchal de Rais was put to death, accused of magic and of having slit the throats of children to use their blood, allegedly, in casting spells.]
As one who had reason to doubt the validity of the judicial system of his own day, Voltaire had even less reason to imagine that the medieval Inquisition would have delivered a reasonable judgement. - Val Morgan: The Legend of Gilles de Rais...

The expiatory monument erected by Marie de Rais at the site of her father's execution. "...miraculous powers were ascribled to the Virgin in the niche, she became known as the 'Bonne Vierge de Crée-Lait,' 'the Milk-Giver'; and until the Reign of Terror mothers and nurses flocked to the spot to pray her for an abundance of milk..."  - E.A.Vizetelly

There was a Marshal of France, Gilles de Rais, a nobleman who fought beside Joan at Orleans, at Les Tourelles, at Jargeau, at Pathay, and at Paris, and who carried the sacred vessel which the Angel brought, long ago, with holy oil, at the King's coronation. Later this man was accused by the Inquisition of the most horrible crimes. Among other things, he was said to have sacrificed children to the devil, and to have killed hundreds of little boys for his own amusement. But hundreds of little boys were not proved to be missing, and none of their remains were ever found. Gilles de Rais denied these horrible charges; he said he was innocent, and, for all that we know, he was. But they took him to the torture vault, and showed him the engines of torment, and he confessed everything, so that he might be put to death without torture, which was done. - Andrew Lang: The Story of Joan of Arc, 1906

Qu'ont-ils détecté, déniché, découvert au cours de leurs exploration? Rien, pas un indice. Pas une dent. Pas un vestige, pas un cheveu. Pas un témoin qui puisse dire: «J'ai vu». Pas une mère en pleurs qui clame: «Voilà la robe souillée de sang de ma fille morte.» Pas un père qui vienne apporter un coeur d'enfant arraché de la poitrine et enveloppé dans un linge maculé. [What did they find, unearth, discover during their exploration? Nothing, not a clue. Not a tooth. Not a trace, not a hair. Not one witness who can say: "I have seen." Not a weeping mother who claims: "There is the dress stained with the blood of my dead daughter" Not a father who brings a child's heart ripped from its chest and wrapped in a spotted cloth.] -  Gilbert Prouteau

Sentenced to be hanged, his repentance and the resignation with which he went to the gallows were acclaimed at the time as an example of Christian penitence, although it is equally possible that Rais simply wished to avoid being tortured to death by the ever-busy French torturers. The fact is that the Duke of Brittany, who instigated the proceedings against Rais, had a significant financial interest in Rais' ruin: it seems that accusations of witchcraft were a convenient method of getting rid of awkward people, and that Rais' reputation, passed down the centuries, is a gross slander. - Nigel Cawthorne: Witches, History of a Persecution
[A fairly standard point of view. The interesting part is that a year earlier a different edition of this book was published in which this passage ended with the word "penitence". Cawthorne clearly had a change of heart between 2003 and 2004, which is encouraging...]

An hypothesis no better founded is that which consists in identifying Bluebeard with the Marshal de Rais, who was strangled by the arm of the Law above the bridges of Nantes on 26th of October, without inquiring, with M. Salomon Reinach, whether the Marshal committed the crimes for which he was condemned, or whether his wealth, coveted by a greedy prince, did not in some degree contribute to his undoing, there is nothing in his life that resembles what we find in Bluebeard's; this alone is enough to prevent our confusing them or merging the two individuals into one. - Anatole France