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, 4 July 2015

Comorre the Cursed: the original Bluebeard?

Gilles de Rais was not Bluebeard. A previous post has already examined how desperately the Abbé Bossard tried to make the connection, arguably to the point of falsifying evidence to support his case. In fact, Bossard was completely ignorant about folklore: these tales seldom have one single source, and the Bluebeard motifs appear in myths from all over the world. If Perrault had been minded to take his inspiration from close to home, however, there was a tale of a Breton nobleman who was a serial uxoricide, Comorre (the name is variously spelt). Many have argued that he was a far more likely Bluebeard than Gilles. Bossard was aware of this theory, but rejected Comorre completely; he insisted that the story bore no resemblance at all to the Bluebeard legend. Here is the story: judge for yourself.

The Flight of Tryphina

Long ago, in the low, sunny, treeless land of the Morbihan,
there lived a certain Count of Vannes whose wife, after
bearing him four stalwart sons, at last gave birth to a little
daughter. Great was the rejoicing at this happy event, for
the Count had long wished for a daughter. But his
happiness was short-lived, for soon afterwards his wife died,
leaving the little girl motherless at the tender age of three
The child, who had been named Tryphina, grew into a
beautiful young maiden, resembling her mother in looks
and in the goodness and piety of her nature, and this
resemblance endeared her especially to her father, who
never ceased to mourn the loss of his beloved Countess.
Now, it happened one day that a rich and powerful
lord named Comorre, who was known throughout the
land for his wickedness and cruelty, visited Vannes and
chanced to see Tryphina as she set out with her attendants
to carry alms to the poor. Straightway he fell in love with
her and resolved to marry her at any cost.
Comorre's lands adjoined those of the Count of Vannes,
but of the two Comorre was much the more powerful,
by reason of his having gained the favour of Childebert,
King of the Franks, who had loaded him with riches and
raised him to his present status. He was a great giant of a
man and nearly twice Tryphina's age besides, and his
dark, cruel looks were enough to frighten any girl.
Moreover, Comorre had been -married four times already and
every one of his previous wives had met a violent death;
indeed it was widely rumoured that Comorre himself had
murdered them.
On his return to his own domain, Comorre lost no time
in sending two of his most trusted servants to wait upon
the Count of Vannes and to ask for the hand of Tryphina.
They brought with them gifts of valuable cattle, wine and
honey, but they also carried swords and their request was
couched more in tones of coercion than of pleading.
The Count, who knew Comorre's reputation only too
well, refused the gifts as courteously as possible and,
making the excuse that Tryphina was as yet far too young to
think of marriage, bade the messengers be gone. But the
servants were not to be put off so easily.
"You had best reconsider your words, Lord ofVannes,"
replied one. "Our master's instructions were that, in the
event of your refusing him your daughter, we were to
declare war upon you."
Then the second servant seized a bundle of straw and
set it ablaze, declaring that the anger of Comorre should
pass over the country of Vannes in like manner and all be
put to fire and sword.
"If your master sees fit to make war upon us, so be it,"
answered the Count. "I will not give him my daughter."
So the servants departed and the armies of the two
countries prepared for war.
Now when Tryphina went forth to visit the poor and
the sick, she saw everywhere blacksmiths forging weapons,
the flash of steel and glint of armour, stern-faced men and
weeping women. She was filled with distress at the thought
of the bloodshed and suffering that was to come, and
passed her days in weeping and praying. She could get no
comfort from her father or any of her four brothers, who
were busy drilling troops and making ready for war, and
mother she had none.
At last, in her loneliness and trouble, she sent for the
only one she felt might help her. This was Saint Gildas, a
holy man for whom her father had built a monastery on
the peninsula of Rhuys, and who had been her friend and
teacher when she was a child. To him she unburdened her
troubled heart and begged for advice as to what she ought
to do.
The holy man listened sympathetically, then, laying a
hand compassionately on her little, drooping head, he
said, "My child, God has given you a great opportunity
for showing your love to your people of Vannes. By becom-
ing the wife of this Lord Comorre, you may gain much
influence over him and make him a blessing instead of a
curse to the countryside. You will, besides, save your own
people from all the horrors of war."
"Alas!" cried the poor young girl. "Must I then sacrifice
all joy and happiness for the sake of my people? Oh, why
was I not born a beggar? I might then at least have mar-
ried another beggar of my own choosing. Surely there
must be some other way to avert this terrible war that is
being thrust upon us?"
"There is no other way," replied the saint gravely.
"Then, if I am to marry this giant who terrifies me so,
say over me the service of the dead, holy Gildas," sobbed
Tryphina, "for I will surely die as his other wives have
"No, my child, you will not die," said Gildas firmly.
"I give you my promise that if you make this sacrifice for
the people of Vannes, I will bring you back one day safe
and sound to your father."
Tryphina buried her face in her hands and a bitter
struggle raged in her breast.
At last she looked up and, drying her tears, said bravely,
"If you promise me that, holy Gildas, then I will make
this sacrifice for the sake of my people. I will go at once to
my father and make known to him my decision."
At first the Count of Vannes was aghast and refused to
listen to his daughter. But Tryphina pleaded so fervently,
emphasizing the horror and destruction that Comorre and
his armies would bring upon them, adding that she feared
for the lives of her own dear brothers, and telling him,
moreover, that he need have no fear for her, since she had
Saint Gildas's promise that she would return safely one
day. And at length, unwillingly, her father gave way.
So the people of Vannes were saved from war and there
was much rejoicing among the womenfolk, who blessed
Tryphina for giving back to them their husbands and sons.
Comorre lost no time in sending for his bride, and after
taking tender leave of her father and brothers, Tryphina
set forth, accompanied by a fierce band of her lord's
retainers. .
As they journeyed, the country through which they
travelled became more and more forbidding. Trackless
forests shut out the sky, rivers of black, swirling waters ran
deep and strong, and paths grew ever more rocky and
precipitous. Small wonder if Tryphina found it daunting,
after her own sunny, treeless country of Morbihan! And
when at last they came to the Castle of Comorre - a
frowning fortress perched high on a mountain top- the
poor girl shuddered to think that this was to be her future
At first, Comorre was kind to his new little bride. In his
own fierce way he loved her, and although his caresses
caused her more fear than pleasure, she submitted cheer-
fully, hoping she might gain influence over him, as Saint
Gildas had suggested, and gradually win him to better
ways. But after a time Comorre had to leave her, to attend
a meeting of the states at Rennes, and she was left alone in
the grim, forbidding castle, to amuse herself as best she
might. She employed herself by getting to know her
servants and dependants, who soon grew to love her for her
sweet disposition. And she spent many hours, too, in the
chapel of the castle, praying on the tombs of Comorre's
former wives.
Presently she began stitching at dainty little garments
and jewelled caps for the baby that was soon to come to
her. Then the days passed pleasantly for Tryphina and she
smiled and sang at her needlework, for the future looked
bright and full of hope.
One day, as she sat in her little turret-room, she heard
the noise of horses entering the courtyard at the back of
the castle, and looking out, saw that her lord had returned.
As he burst in, she raised a smiling face to welcome him
and he, radiant, stretched out his arms towards her. But
all at once, as he looked at her, and his gaze fell on the
piece of needlework she held, his face changed. A murder-
ous light came into his eyes, and uttering a terrible oath,
he rushed from the room.
Now Tryphina was frightened indeed. She could not
understand the cause of her lord's anger, for she was not
aware of having committed any offence. She passed the
rest of the day in fear and trembling, and when darkness
fell she made her way into the chapel and, falling on her
knees, began to pray.
When, somewhere in the castle, a clock struck the hour
of midnight, she raised her head, to see four ghostly
phantoms approaching. Transfixed by terror, she watched
them take the shape of four beautiful young women, each
holding something in her hand—the first a cup, the second
a rope, the third a stick and the fourth a flaming torch.
"Do not fear us, Tryphina," said the first. "We are
Comorre's former wives, whom he murdered, and we have
come to help you in your hour of need."
"You are in great danger," warned the second.
"You must flee the castle at once," urged the third.
"Fly back to your father, as swiftly as you can."
"There is not a moment to lose," echoed the fourth.
"Fly! But how?" cried poor Tryphina, in an agony of
fear. "If I should try to leave the castle, Comorre's great
dog will tear me limb from limb."
Then the first ghost wife handed her the cup she held,
saying, "Here is poison. It killed me, it will do the same
for the dog."
"And how am I to cross the wall?" asked Tryphina.
"Take this cord," whispered the second wife, handing
her the rope she held. "It was used to strangle me, it will
help you across the wall."
"But the way is so long, so long, and I am so weak,"
cried Tryphina piteously.
"This stick with which Comorre struck me shall help
you on your road," said the third wife, handing it to her.
"And who is to guide me through the darkness of the
forest?" asked Tryphina, shuddering.
"The light with which Comorre kindled the fire to
burn me," said the fourth wife, handing her the torch.
Tryphina thanked them and then they told her the
reason for Comorre's cruelty—how there was an ancient
prophecy that he should die at the hands of his son, and
how, to prevent its fulfilment, he killed his wives as soon
as there was a prospect of their becoming mothers. And
they urged Tryphina once more to flee at once, if she would
escape the fate which had overtaken them.
Then the phantoms vanished as suddenly as they had
appeared, and Tryphina was left alone in the darkness.
But now she knew what she must do and she did not
hesitate. Wrapping her cloak about her, she stole swiftly
and silently from the chapel.
When she came to the gate where the great dog lay, she
gave him the cup of poison to drink. With the aid of the
rope she scaled the wall that was so fearfully high. When
her feet slipped on the steep and treacherous path, the
stick prevented her from falling. And when she came to the
black, swirling waters of the river she ran hither and thith-
er flashing her torch, and its light showed her where there
were stepping-stones. She struggled across, sometimes
knee-deep in the water, sometimes almost swept away by
the current. At last she stood safely on the opposite side
and sought to find the long, long road that would lead her
back to her own dear country.
"Once upon the road," thought she, "there will be
bridges by which to cross the rivers; I shall be able to
travel more quickly."
But first there was a great, dark forest through which
she must pass. Bravely she pressed on through the world of
trees, her only light the flickering torch. Often she
stumbled and would have fallen but for the aid of the
stick. Her clothes were torn almost to rags, her little white
feet were cut and bleeding, but fear drove her onwards.
At dawn she found a woodman's hut and, entering, laid
herself down in utter exhaustion. By and by she fell into an
uneasy sleep in which she unconsciously bemoaned her
sad plight, crying, "Tryphina! Ah, poor little Tryphina!
Who will help her?"
While she slept, an old magpie flew down and perched
on the door of the hut. Hearing her cries, the bird repeated
them, calling, "Tryphina! Ah, poor little Tryphina!" He
was very proud of his achievement.
It was sunset when Tryphina awakened and, starting
up, set out once more on her perilous way.
Towards the second evening, she found herself at last
upon the great, white, glistening road that led in a straight
and ever-narrowing line uphill and down, away to the
"Now I shall soon find my way home," she thought.
Suddenly she stopped to listen. Was it the sound of
hoofbeats that she heard? She knelt down and laid her ear
to the ground. She was not mistaken. Quite distinctly she
heard the regular thud, thud of galloping hooves, coming
nearer and nearer.
Her eyes wild with terror, she turned swiftly from the
road and hid herself in a hawthorn bush, praying that
Comorre would not find her—for that it was he who was
following her she did not doubt.
Presently she saw through the thicket a cloud of dust
and in a few moments Comorre came thundering by on his
big black horse, a couple of fierce bloodhounds at his side.
As he passed through the forest in his search for Tryphina,
the old magpie had called her name and thus betrayed the
direction in which she had gone
The two bloodhounds ran hither and thither trying to
pick up the scent and baying horribly. The big, black horse
reared and plunged as Comorre struck vicious spurs into
him. They were so close that Tryphina could see the
murderous look on Comorre's dark face and could almost
feel the hot breath from the flaring nostrils of his charger.
Even then she might have escaped discovery, but at that
instant the old magpie came flying from the forest and
perched on the very hawthorn bush where she hid, calling,
"Tryphina! Ah, poor little Tryphina !"
With a yell of triumph, Comorre burst through the
thicket and fell upon Tryphina. With savage blows he
beat her until he was sure that she was dead. Then mount-
ing his big black horse, he galloped away, leaving her
there under the hawthorn bush, with only the old magpie
as witness of his cruel deed.
All that night Tryphina lay there, white and motion-
less. Yet, although grievously wounded, she was not dead;
a feeble pulse still beat in her temple.
At daybreak, a poor charcoal burner and his son,
making their way to the forest, found-her.
"Why, it is the sweet lady of Comorre !" exclaimed the
son. "What villain can have committed such a dastardly
"None other than Comorre himself," replied the father
sternly. "His cruelty and wickedness are a byword
throughout the country. It is well known that he killed all
four of his former wives and now he has murdered this
sweet lady."
But when they examined her more closely, they saw that
she still breathed.
"We will take her to the hermitage of La Roche-sur-
Blavet" said the father. "There is a holy man there who,
they say, has wonderful powers of healing. Perhaps he can
revive her."
So they lifted her tenderly and carried her to the
hermitage not far away.
Now it so happened that this holy man of whom they
spoke was none other than the good Saint Gildas, who was
staying at the hermitage with his friend Saint Bieuzi.
Saint Gildas had studied medicine under a great Welsh
Druid and knew of herbs that, gathered by moonlight and
distilled in a certain manner, would sometimes bring the
dead to life; and Tryphina, he saw, was not yet dead. He
dressed her wounds and for many weeks he nursed and
tended her with all his skill. And slowly, very slowly,
Tryphina came back to life again.
At last there came a day when Saint Gildas fixed his
wonderful grey eyes upon her and said, "Tryphina, I
command you to rise and follow me !"
Tryphina arose and walked and Saint Gildas led her
back to her own country, to the castle at Vannes, where
he delivered her to her father, thus fulfilling his promise.
There, shortly afterwards, Tryphina's son was born and
grew up to be a handsome and valiant young prince,
resembling his mother in the sweetness of his disposition
and being not in the least like his father, Comorre.
In course of time, Tryphina entered a convent and
devoted the remainder of her life to religious works.
As for Comorre, he continued for many years in his
wicked course. But the ancient prophecy concerning him
was destined to be fulfilled, for it happened one day that
his young son, casting a handful of stones against the old
walls of his castle, caused them to crumble and fall,
burying Comorre in the ruins. And so he died by the act
of his own son, as had long been foretold.

Agnes Ashton from Saints And Changelings - Folk Tales Of Brittany

Although Ms Ashton's version of the tale is atmospheric, she has bowdlerised it slightly, disguising the miraculous nature of Saint Gildas' healing. In most accounts Comorre cuts off Tryphina's head, as in this version