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, 5 May 2020

FAQs #8

One thing is certain, though, isn't it? The fairy tale character Bluebeard was based on him.

Absolutely false! This is one of the most persistent and idiotic myths about Gilles de Rais; a moment's thought should be sufficient to debunk it. Why on earth would a supposed murderer of children be transformed into a suave ogre of a wife-killer?

Perrault published his tale in 1692, a quarter of a century after Gilles' death. It was almost two hundred years after the publication of Bluebeard before anybody thought to link the disgraced hero with the murderous husband. Eugène Bossard, Gilles' first biographer, was not a folklorist and was spectacularly ignorant about the genesis of popular stories. He was writing a thesis on French literature; his goal was to link Gilles to the Breton Barbe Bleue legend, and he ignored any evidence that contradicted him, including the more apposite figure of Comorre the Cursed, a local supposed uxoricide. Comorre would have been a far more likely model, had Perrault been looking for one. But he had no need for such a thing: his conte is based on a tradition that is found all over the world. Bluebeard is only one of many demon lovers with a dark secret and a habit of killing wives, including the ancient Mr Fox, mentioned by Shakespeare and still a thrilling tale . As we know, Gilles had one wife, who outlived him.

Further reading -
The B Word
Comorre the Cursed: the original Bluebeard?


But he was wildly extravagant; it must have been a sign of mental imbalance that he spent so much money on a play?

Not by the standards of his day. As a nobleman, he was expected to display his wealth; he may be compared with René d'Anjou, his contemporary and another great sponsor of the arts. His brother may well have complained of Gilles ostentation in his chapel and his love of the performing arts; when the King wrote to his heirs in 1446, restoring some of their inheritance, he mentioned none of these things. He blamed Gilles' financial problems on bad servants, lack of order, poor management of rural smallholdings, and alchemy. He might have added: subsidising and providing an army to assist an impoverished Dauphin.

Further reading -
Holy Innocents
Money matters

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

FAQs #7

The 1992 retrial was just a publicity stunt, right? After all, no mediaeval historians were involved.

Yes and no. Gilbert Prouteau was a mischief -maker, but he seems to have been sincere. He did no original research, but based his case on the writings of his predecessors, Salomon Reinach and Fernand Fleuret. There was much that was wrong with the retrial – for instance, overtly fictional material from Prouteau's novel was admitted as evidence. Also, it carried no formal weight: it did not officially overturn the verdict of the 1440 trial, as some accounts imply. However, the lack of historians was not particularly a flaw. Few historians have written about Gilles. His first biographer, on whom all subsequent biographies lean heavily, was not a historian. There is no indication that any writer has paid due attention to the contemporary documents since Bossard's day. In order to have a more informed opinion, any historian would have to have specialised in Gilles' period and to have looked closely at the trial record. It is unlikely that such a person existed in 1992; there are precious few even now. Mediaeval historians had nothing to do with creating the myth of Gilles de Rais and nothing to do with this attempt at unravelling it.

Further reading -
1992 news reports
"History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn't there."

You say he was tortured? But he wasn't tortured, he was spared that in return for a confession.

This myth is based on a universal misreading of the trial record. At no point did his judges offer to waive the torture altogether, merely to defer it until the next day if he cooperated. He was given a few hours to think about it, and made his first (out of court) confession that same day. His second (in court) confession was given the next day, in a rare evening sitting. There is every reason to suppose that he was tortured in the morning. That would have been the norm; torture was routinely applied merely to confirm a confession.

Not much more than two years after Gilles de Rais' execution, the King wrote letters  asserting his innocence, using highly emotive language and claiming that he suffered "attentats" - outrages - in prison. Clearly Charles, too, believed that he was put to the Question. 

It is vital to correct this error, since it is often stated that Gilles confessed voluntarily, at the mere threat of torture. This has the double effect of making him seem a coward and his forced confession a spontaneous effusion of guilt.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Further reading -
Was Gilles de Rais tortured?
Wrongly, unduly and without cause

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Once upon a time...

To commemorate Gilles de Rais Day, here is my attempt to tell the story of Gilles de Rais as a fairy tale. It is deliberately romanticized, but accurate. 

Once upon a time there was a boy named Gilles de Rais. He was born in the Black Tower of the castle of Champtocé, the first-born of a wealthy and powerful family. He was destined for great things, but somehow his destiny went awry, as if he had been cursed by a wicked fairy or born under an evil star.

Gilles had all the material possessions he could have wished, but they did not prove a blessing to him. The one gift denied to him was good fortune. He would die at the age of 35, a death of such infamy that the ignorant would later call him Bluebeard.

His father died when he was ten years old, gored by a boar while hunting and brought home on a litter to die. His mother vanished from his life at the same time, possibly dying while giving birth to a second son, René. The two boys would grow up to be bitter enemies.

To complete an unlucky year, Gilles also lost his uncle Amaury, killed at the battle of Azincourt. Amaury de Craon was the only son of his maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon, who now found himself without a male heir. He filled the gap by snapping up the two orphaned brothers into his tender care, defying the last wishes of their father. 

Craon was part diplomat, part robber baron, and promptly set about marrying young Gilles into even more money. His first attempts failed and legend later insisted that the first two chosen brides died. The third was Catherine de Thouars, a cousin to Gilles, although not a close one, and the match was banned by the Church on the grounds of consanguinity. 

However, Craon was not the man to allow a minor matter like incest to thwart his dynasty-building schemes. He took the direct route to the solution, having the sixteen-year-old girl kidnapped so that Gilles could rape her. After more kidnapping and bribery, and the threat to sew Catherine's mother into a sack and drown her in the river, the pair were able to marry legally. They had one child, a daughter, Marie.

The backdrop to young Gilles' life was not a peaceful one. He had been born in France, but he was also the Baron of Rais, in the Duchy of Brittany. France was torn by the Hundred Years War, and the country north of the Loire was occupied by English troops. Brittany, by means of some able politicking by its Duke, managed to stay out of the war with England but had its own problems in the form of the Breton wars of succession.

Now, Gilles had been trained as a knight, as befitted his noble station, and had his first experience of war at sixteen, in the service of his Duke, who had been imprisoned by a rival. Gilles and his grandfather liberated him and were handsomely rewarded.

As a Baron of Brittany, Gilles might have held aloof from the war with England. But, whether from love of France, or a desire for war and adventure, or simple perverseness, he espoused the cause of the impoverished Dauphin.

At much the same time as Gilles was casting off the black and gold arms of Rais to fight for France, a strange figure appeared at the Dauphin's court in Chinon – a maiden in male attire, astride a horse, claiming to have been sent by God to save France. There was an old prophecy that France had been lost by a harlot – the Dauphin's mother, who disputed his legitimacy – and would be saved by a virgin. Since the royal plight had never been so desperate, it must have been felt that the freakish tomboy from Domrémy could do no harm and might do much good.

Thus Gilles de Rais met Joan of Arc.

Cover of Jehanne La Pucelle by Paul Gillon

Joan was entrusted into his care, apparently at her own request. Gilles was a fierce warrior in his own right; with the Maid he was undefeatable. The town of Orléans had been under siege for months. Joan and Gilles liberated it in three days. They cut a swathe through the Loire valley, clearing the way to Reims so that the Dauphin could be crowned King Charles VII. On the same day, Gilles was made a Marshal of France; he was not yet twenty-five years old. 

This was to prove the zenith of his life. The only way for him, and for Joan, was down.

The capital, Paris, was occupied by the Burgundian allies of the English. Joan badly wanted to free it, but she failed. She was injured in the attempt and Gilles tended to her, not for the first time. The King, whose heart was never in this particular enterprise, disbanded the army. Joan was never to see Gilles, or any of her captains, again. When she was pulled from her horse at Compiègne and captured by the enemy, she was fighting her own guerrilla war, unsupported by the King. History has blamed Gilles, who was not present and probably knew nothing of her private campaign, for failing to save her. Probably he blamed himself.

Joan was put on trial at Rouen and Gilles certainly planned a rescue attempt; he was at Louviers, just across the river, with an army. But the plan miscarried and Joan was burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic.

Her death shattered Gilles. He continued to fight for France, but with diminishing enthusiasm. He fades into the shadows. What he did with his time in the eight or so years remaining to him is hotly disputed to this day.

The one certainty is that, on the sixth anniversary of the liberation of Orléans, he organized a colossal play as part of the celebrations. It was performed on multi-tiered trestles throughout the town and it is said that there were fountains that flowed with wine. No costume was worn more than once. The play was performed over and over, for several months. Gilles paid for everything.

Joan haunted his thoughts. Not long before his death, he even took a False Joan into his household, a double who claimed to be the Maid saved from the stake. But he had known Joan too well to fool himself for long.

Gilles was still a rich man, but he was spending money faster than the rents and taxes from his estates could accrue and was sometimes reduced to pawning his possessions. He had a private army to feed and house, his own chapel – the Chapel of the Holy Innocents – to furnish and equip with clergy and choristers, he gave alms lavishly, his hospitality was renowned, and he continued to pay actors and entertainers to amuse him and his retinue.

Inevitably, he began to sell his castles and land. But fewer estates meant less revenue. It also led to friction with his family, especially his younger brother René. Eventually his kinsfolk appealed to the King to declare Gilles prodigal and forbid anybody to buy his lands. And the King complied, weary of his talented marshal's unreliability.

Gilles could no longer sell his lands in France. However, the King's writ did not apply in Brittany. Gilles continued to deplete his inheritance, though selling only to the Duke and his Chancellor, the Bishop of Nantes. Under Breton law, it was illegal for the Duke to engage in this kind of transaction with his vassals; he got round this by using proxies.

At this point, Gilles had no friends or allies except, as he naively imagined, his cousin the Duke. His family had turned against him. The King had abandoned him as he had abandoned Joan. Gilles was alone and in need of money. Logically for that time, he turned to alchemy in the hope of transmuting base metals to gold. 

Now, alchemy was perfectly lawful as an intellectual pursuit for the rich and bored, but the transmutation of metals was not. It was a minor crime, on a par with forgery, but Gilles had crossed a boundary with his spell books and furnaces. He was now on the wrong side of the law, and he knew it.

And here the tale of Gilles de Rais becomes murky. The events in his life lack all coherence. He was no longer a soldier, though he kept a small army. He dabbled in theatre and alchemy and religion, seeking diversion like a man whose true purpose in life had gone. He signed strange documents, one of them effectively disinheriting his wife and daughter. He seemed certain that his family was plotting against him, as indeed it was. He continued to sell his properties. He constantly returned to Orléans, the scene of his greatest triumph, where he felt happy and loved. His behaviour was that of a deeply unhappy man.

Some of his actions were inexplicable and violent. He kidnapped a priest who had been his boyhood tutor, on the flimsy pretext that the man had helped publish the King's writ. As if this were not enough to alienate the Church, he reclaimed the castle of Saint-Etienne-de-Mermorte, which he had sold to an official of the Duke. The key-holder was the purchaser's brother, a priest; Gilles raided the church where he was hearing Mass at Whitsun, captured him and had him open the gates of the castle, where he was imprisoned. He was joined in the dungeons by two of the Duke's officers.

Weeks before, at Easter, Gilles had made confession and insisted that the poor people present, who had stood back from the altar out of respect, should join him in holy communion. It is difficult to believe that this is the same man as the one who entered the church at Saint-Etienne-de-Mermorte waving a battleaxe and shouting threats.

In one moment of madness, he had offended against the Church and the Duchy of Brittany. He had already lost the support of the King. His family regarded him as an embarrassment or worse. There was nobody left to save him.

The Duke, who had long coveted certain of Gilles' castles, had his cousin and Chancellor the Bishop make certain enquiries. What emerged resulted in France's greatest hero, after Joan of Arc, being brought to trial in Brittany for horrible crimes, condemned, and executed like a common felon.

He stood accused of heresy, devil worship, alchemy and much worse. It was said that children disappeared in the vicinity of his castles, never to be seen again. Mysteriously, everybody knew exactly what happened to them – they were murdered in horribly inventive ways after being sexually assaulted, and then burned and their ashes scattered. Or possibly they were sacrificed to the Devil.

Gilles was arrested at his castle of Machecoul, in Brittany. Although it was capable of withstanding a siege, he gave himself up without resistance. Probably he imagined that he was being summoned to explain his conduct at Saint-Etienne-de-Mermorte.

He was taken to the Duke's castle in Nantes to await trial, along with his two body servants, his Italian alchemist, and his household priest. There he awaited his appearance before an ecclesiastical tribunal, with the Bishop of Nantes presiding. He was treated well and behaved politely in court, but he had only been told of the charge of heresy. When, a month later, he was read the other charges, he lost his temper and raged against his judges. He refused to take an oath and was excommunicated.

Gilles was a religious man. Excommunication meant that he was excluded from the Church and would go to Hell should he die excommunicate. Aware that he was certainly facing death, Gilles had no real choice; he admitted to all the charges. His two servants had already been tortured into confessing; his account follows theirs exactly. He testified twice, one in private and once in court, and it is certain that he endured torture in between the two confessions.

The story that, at the most ghastly part of his confession, the Bishop rose and veiled the crucifix is just that, fiction. But the account he gave was lurid enough.

Since the Church officially could not shed blood, Gilles was brought before a civil court for sentencing. It was decided that he and his two body servants would be hanged and burned the next day. Because of his penitence, he was allowed extraordinary concessions; the people of Nantes would accompany him to the gallows, praying for his soul, and he would be taken from the pyre intact and interred in a church of his choice. The sentence of excommunication was also lifted. 

And so ended the life of Gilles de Rais, in much the same manner as his companion Joan of Arc. He died an exemplary Christian death, and was entombed among the great Breton heroes and rulers. It is said that the noble ladies who prepared him for burial removed some of his bones to keep as relics. Later an expiatory monument was built at the site of the gallows and mothers visited it to ask for abundant milk for their babies. A similar cult grew up around his tomb. The odour of sanctity around his death is strangely disturbing.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

FAQs #6

Where did the King come into the plot? Was he jealous of Gilles' showy wealth, too?

This is another recent myth, put about by people who do not understand the complexities of the political situation. The King did what he usually did, and what he did when Jehanne was on trial for her life: nothing. Gilles had served his purpose. The King had established his own army and no longer had to rely on brigands and mercenaries. The likes of Gilles were redundant, and in fact Charles had started to move against the dissolute barons whose soldiery terrorised the countryside, some of whom were rebelling against him. It would have done him no harm to stand back and allow Brittany to make an example of Gilles, indicating that the impunity of the nobles was well and truly over.

It is very important to remember that the plot against Gilles de Rais was nothing to do with the King of France, or, indeed, the Catholic Church. He was tried in Brittany, which was an independent Duchy at that time, and it was the coffers of Brittany which profited from his downfall. Although Gilles' judge, Jean de Malestroit,  was the Bishop of Nantes, he was also Chancellor of Brittany and was acting in that capacity. Malestroit was a lifelong ally of the English; his cousin  the Duke played a cunning game of switching allegiance between France and England, but signed a treaty with the latter halfway through Gilles' trial.

Although the Duchy badly needed Gilles'  money, the plot was as much political as financial, and aimed partly at Charles VII of France. If his two preeminent captains were disgraced and executed for heresy and worse, it implied that he owed his throne to witchcraft and the Devil. 

Further reading -
L'évêque diabolique - ?

Why is there no single estimate of the number of victims? Was it 120? Or 800? Or some number in between? 

The reason no number is specified is that no number was given in court. Charge 15 of the indictment states only that for the past fourteen years, every year, every month, every day, every night and every hour... [Gilles] took, killed, cut the throats of many children, boys and girls... This would imply a huge number, although only around forty cases are mentioned in court, and many of these are mere sketches with no names or details given. It was J-K Huysmans who first mooted 800 victims, in a novel. 

Further reading -
The Beast of Extermination: a numbers game

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Playing At Butcher

Gilles de Rais was not Bluebeard. There is no dispute about this whatsoever. The idea was first mooted by a few nineteenth century French and Breton writers, most notably the Abbé Bossard. There was never any traditional link between Gilles and Bluebeard before that time; in fact, he was seen as a kind of saint. Bossard was as ignorant of folklore as he was of history and had no idea that there were similar stories of an uxoricidal lover or spouse in other cultures. He knew of the legend of Comorre the Cursed, which was both similar to Perrault's conte and disturbingly local, but he dismissed it out of hand. 

Yet people in the 21st century still assert that Gilles de Rais was Bluebeard, and it is difficult to see why. There is no similarity between a man who kills curious wives and one who allegedly murders children, except the basic subject matter of killing. Nor is it likely that his story would have been watered down so that he “only” killed wives. Fairy tales were originally intended for adults and there was no taboo on gruesome subject matter: the Pied Piper abducted children to an unknown fate, the Erl-King's daughter (or the Erl-King himself in Goethe's ballad) snatched them, a wicked witch fattened young Hansel for her table, and the ogre who meant to kill Petit Poucet mistakenly cut the throats of his own daughters.

Illustration by Gustave Doré

The following little-known story was garnered by the Grimms from the wilder shores of the oral tradition. It is short, sharp and definitely unsuitable for children. It negates the silly idea that folklore could not have handled the story of Gilles de Rais without bowdlerising it. 

How Some Children Played At Butcher

There once was a father who slaughtered a pig, and his children saw that. In the afternoon, when they began playing, one child said to the other, "You be the little pig, and I'll be the butcher." He then took a shiny knife and slit his little brother's throat.

Their mother was upstairs in a room bathing another child, and when she heard the cries of her son, she immediately ran downstairs. Upon seeing what had happened, she took the knife out of her son's throat and was so enraged that she stabbed the heart of the other boy, who had been playing the butcher. Then she quickly ran back to the room to tend to her child in the bathtub, but while she was gone, he had drowned in the tub. Now the woman became so frightened and desperate that she did not allow the neighbours to comfort her and finally hanged herself. When her husband came back from the fields and saw everything, he became so despondent that he died soon after.

Grimm brothers 

Illustration taken from this blog, where there is also an alternative version of the story.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

FAQs #5

Why would Jean V have gone to such trouble to frame him? Gilles was broke and had already sold the Duke the two border castles he particularly coveted. 

Gilles had what we would nowadays call cash-flow problems, but he was far from bankrupt. In fact, in return for Champtocé and Ingrandes, Jean V returned the entire Barony of Rais to him (incidentally indicating how valuable those particular castles were to the Duchy). However, a clause in the contract meant that Gilles could buy them back at any time within the next six years for the price he sold them for. Modern historians dismiss this because Gilles could never have afforded to do that; however, we know that the Duke had spies in his household, and would have been informed that, in late 1439, Prelati claimed to be close to finding the Philosopher's Stone. If Gilles could turn base metals to gold, he could certainly buy back those estates.

There is also the consideration that Jean V was breaking the law; the Duke of Brittany was not permitted to enter into property deals with his vassals. For this reason he often used straw men as a cover for these illicit deals; Geoffroy Le Ferron, for instance, was acting as his proxy when he bought St-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte. Jean V's claim on the estates he had bought was precarious. In fact, a protracted series of court cases after Gilles, the Duke and the Bishop were dead saw all the disputed estates restored to the Rais family.

Further reading -

If there was a plot, why was it so elaborate? Why such extravagant accusations?

The main focus of the plot was to obtain Gilles' properties legally. However, political forces were also at play. Jehanne had already been burned – not for witchcraft, as is often supposed, but for heresy. Gilles had been the pre-eminent French captain in her army, he was closely linked to her and apparently tried to save her from her captors. He had also staged, and possibly had a hand in writing, a Mystery play in which this condemned heretic was depicted as a messenger from God. This in itself verged on heresy. He was put on trial in Brittany, an independent Duchy which more often allied with England than France. The Duke had close family ties to the English throne, his mother, Jeanne de Navarre, having remarried Henry IV of England; the Bishop was a lifelong and passionate Anglophile. To smear Gilles was to smear Jehanne, and to assert that Charles VII owed his throne to a pair of heretics and black magicians, one of whom was a perverted murderer. The mud did not stick to the maidenly Jehanne for long but, as we know, the smear campaign against Gilles was infinitely more efficient.

Further reading -

Noble, valiant, gentle prince...