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, 16 November 2013

Gilles de Retz - a poem by Sidney Keyes

Marshall of France. The prancing horses
And banners licking the air. I tell you now,
Standing in pride who have no cuirass,
That was not half the glory, not a jot of it.
Now, velvet-draped like a coffin with nothing inside
But the echo of nails, remembering the hammer's
Talk in an empty vault, all I can do is tell you
God's mercy to me when I was alive.
I have seen angels marching - others also
Armed but all strong as morning, among the trumpets;
Though I am still young, God's anger like a woman
Fought by my side three years, then was extinguished
In flame, the old sign, the old blazon shining.
It comes strange ways, the pure divine anger,
Piercing your safety like a lancet, or perhaps
A flat knife working for years behind the eyes,
Distorting vision. That is the worst of all.
Or a boy's voice flowering out of silence
Rising through choirs to the ear's whorled shrine
And living there, a light.
What if I sought that glory
When, sign forgotten, fire had darkened my image
Of pure bright anger? What if indeed I danced
Another figure, seeking pain's intricate
Movements to weave that holy exultation?
Knife in the head before, now in the hand
Makes little difference. Pain is never personal;
As love or anger unconfined, it takes
Part in each moment & person, unconditioned
By time or identity, like an atmosphere.
There is no giving or receiving, only
Pain and creation coming out of pain.
Now I have made you angry; but think of this -
Which is the stronger, my pain or your love?
Old men like towers separate in the evening.

Six score in a year, I tell you. The high white bed,
Caesar's pleasures and the dry well. See
How I believed in pain, how near I got
To living pain, regaining my lost image
Of hard perfection, sexless and immortal.
Nearer to you than living love, to knowing
The community of love without giving or taking
Or ceasing or or the need of change. At least
I knew this in my commonwealth of pain.
You, knowing neither, burn me and fear my agony
And never learn any better kind of love.
Six score, then raising Lucifer by guile,
I sinned. It was unnecessary; so
It is for you to punish me.But remember
Never a man of you fought as I those years
Beside the incarnation of mortal pride,
The yearning of immortals for the flesh.
Nor will you ever feel God's finger
Probing your soul's anatomy, as I
Have been dissected these five years; for never
Since Christ has any man made pain so glorious
As I, nor dared to seek salvation
Through love with such long diligence as I through pain.

Have mercy, Lord, on misdirected worship.
On this soul dressed for death in hot black velvet.
Bishop of Nantes, cover the Cross.


This sub-Eliot poem is far from revisionist, but it is interesting and not easy to come by, so it is included here for the sake of completeness.

 Picture of Sidney Keyes taken from this site.