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)

Monday, 22 October 2012

The Veiling of the Cross

The one thing that everyone knows about Gilles de Rais is that, at the most lurid moment of his confession, the Bishop of Nantes veiled the crucifix out of shame. It is a set-piece of several biographies and novelisations.

J-K Huysmans describes it thus -

He seemed to see nothing, hear nothing. He continued to tell off the frightful rosary of his crimes. Then his voice became raucous. He was coming to the sepulchral violations, and now to the torture of the little children whom he had cajoled in order to cut their throats as he kissed them.

He divulged every detail. The account was so formidable, so atrocious, that beneath their golden caps the bishops blanched. These priests, tempered in the fires of confessional, these judges who in that time of demonomania and murder had never heard more terrifying confessions, these prelates whom no depravity had ever astonished, made the sign of the Cross, and Jean de Malestroit rose and for very shame veiled the face of the Christ.

                                            (from Là-Bas)

It was a moment of high drama.

And it never happened.

Gilles de Rais is a magnet for myths and this is one of the most persistent. There is no reference in the record of his trial to Jean de Malestroit veiling the cross. The biographies that mention it do not cite their sources - even Emile Gabory, who was a serious historian and gave proper citations for everything except this claim. There is an similar incident in the Bibliophile Jacob, but in his account the cross was covered by Pierre de l'Hôpital so that Henriet could give his testimony without inhibition.

The veiling of the cross is a myth and it seems to have been invented in its usual form by - J-K Huysmans! Who was writing a novel and not a factual work and may be forgiven for adding a little colour to the dry bones of the trial record and playing fast and loose with the Bibliophile's already fictional version.  There is no contemporary account that includes this touching little scene and no reason to suppose that it is anything but a piece of novelettish whimsy. The genuine historians who have slavishly disseminated this fairy tale have no excuse for their gullibility and lack of research.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Alias Poitou

Considering that their forced confessions put the rope round both Gilles de Rais' neck and their own, Henri Griart and Etienne Corillaut (alias Poitou) are given short shrift in most accounts. If they are distinguished at all, Henriet was possibly Gilles' librarian and Poitou possibly his lover.

Their evidence is identical in almost every respect, a sure sign that they were tortured into telling the story that the prosecution wanted to hear. Poitou, however, is distinct from Henriet in one crucial respect. He had, he said, survived Gilles' allegedly murderous sexual attentions once. Or twice...

The story he told the ecclesiastical tribunal was that he was assaulted as soon as he came to be Gilles' page, at the age of ten. He was threatened with a dagger, he said, but spared because of his good looks. This would be around 1427, which accords perfectly with the prosecution case that the murders began in 1426, when Gilles was still Jehanne's companion and protector. This timing was critical to Jean de Malestroit's plot to smear the Pucelle by implying that she knowingly consorted with a sodomite and murderer.

Gilles' confession, given under threat of torture and excommunication, not surprisingly follows the template of his servants' statements in every detail - except one. For whatever reason, he insisted that his supposed crimes began in the year of Jean de Craon's death, that is around 1432, five years after Poitou claimed to have been assaulted and almost killed. The discrepancy is glaring.

Apparently the judges were content to let this pass. Magnanimously, they allowed Gilles de Rais to decide the exact timing of the crimes he never committed. An obvious attempt to tidy the matter up was made, however, at the civil trial. Under interrogation for the second time, Poitou once more divulged that he had been raped and threatened. This time, however, it was not when he was a child and new to Gilles' service, but as a young man of twenty, after he had seen incriminating evidence in the form of two dead children. In this case, the sex was a form of initiation into the sport of Caesars.

Almost all biographers ignore or conflate these incidents. Jean Benedetti makes a game effort to square the circle by theorising that there might, in fact, have been two attacks on Poitou, so similar that he confused them. This seems highly unlikely. Rape at knifepoint as a child of ten would have left a profound impression, not likely to be muddled with something, however traumatic, that happened less than three years before.

The best explanation is the simplest one. Poitou was tortured into reciting the words that were put into his mouth. When those words did not fit with his master's "confession", his torturers merely changed the script.