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)

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...