The case for the defence
Born 1404 Executed 1440 Exonerated 1992It 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.It is now very widely supposed 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... (read more)
- 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, 16 June 2020
The Marechal de Rays.
One of the greatest encouragers of alchymy in the fifteenth century was Gilles de Laval, Lord of Rays and a Marshal of France. His name and deeds are little known; but in the annals of crime and folly, they might claim the highest and worst pre-eminence. Fiction has never invented any thing wilder or more horrible than his career; and were not the details but too well authenticated by legal and other documents which admit no doubt, the lover of romance might easily imagine they were drawn to please him from the stores of the prolific brain, and not from the page of history.
He was born about the year 1420, of one of the noblest families of Brittany. His father dying when Gilles had attained his twentieth year, he came into uncontrolled possession, at that early age, of a fortune which the monarchs of France might have envied him. He was a near kinsman of the Montmorencys, the Roncys, and the Craons; possessed fifteen princely domains, and had an annual revenue of about three hundred thousand livres. Besides this, he was handsome, learned, and brave. He distinguished himself greatly in the wars of Charles VII., and was rewarded by that monarch with the dignity of a marshal of France. But he was extravagant and magnificent in his style of living, and accustomed from his earliest years to the gratification of every wish and passion; and this, at last, led him from vice to vice and from crime to crime, till a blacker name than his is not to be found in any record of human iniquity.
In his castle of Champtocé he lived with all the splendour of an eastern caliph. He kept up a troop of two hundred horsemen to accompany him wherever he went; and his excursions for the purposes of hawking and hunting were the wonder of all the country around, so magnificent were the caparisons of his steeds and the dresses of his retainers. Day and night his castle was open all the year round to comers of every degree. He made it a rule to regale even the poorest beggar with wine and hippocrass. Every day an ox was roasted whole in his spacious kitchens, besides sheep, pigs, and poultry sufficient to feed five hundred persons. He was equally magnificent in his devotions. His private chapel at Champtocé was the most beautiful in France, and far surpassed any of those in the richly-endowed cathedrals of Notre Dame in Paris, of Amiens, of Beauvais, or of Rouen. It was hung with cloth of gold and rich velvet. All the chandeliers were of pure gold curiously inlaid with silver. The great crucifix over the altar was of solid silver, and the chalices and incense-burners were of pure gold. He had besides a fine organ, which he caused to be carried from one castle to another on the shoulders of six men, whenever he changed his residence. He kept up a choir of twenty-five young children of both sexes, who were instructed in singing by the first musicians of the day. The master of his chapel he called a bishop, who had under him his deans, arch-deacons, and vicars, each receiving great salaries; the bishop four hundred crowns a year, and the rest in proportion.
He also maintained a whole troop of players, including ten dancing girls and as many ballad-singers, besides morris-dancers, jugglers, and mountebanks of every description. The theatre on which they performed was fitted up without any regard to expense, and they played mysteries or danced the morris-dance every evening for the amusement of himself and household, and such strangers as were sharing his prodigal hospitality.
At the age of twenty-three he married Catherine, the wealthy heiress of the house of Touars, for whom he refurnished his castle at an expense of a hundred thousand crowns. His marriage was the signal for new extravagance, and he launched out more madly than ever he had done before; sending for fine singers or celebrated dancers from foreign countries to amuse him and his spouse; and instituting tilts and tournaments in his great court-yard almost every week for all the knights and nobles of the province of Brittany. The Duke of Brittany's court was not half so splendid as that of the Maréchal de Rays. His utter disregard for wealth was so well known, that he was made to pay three times its value for every thing he purchased. His castle was filled with needy parasites and panderers to his pleasures, amongst whom he lavished rewards with an unsparing hand. But the ordinary round of sensual gratification ceased at last to afford him delight; he was observed to be more abstemious in the pleasures of the table, and to neglect the beauteous dancing girls who used formerly to occupy so much of his attention. He was sometimes gloomy and reserved, and there was an unnatural wildness in his eye which gave indications of incipient madness. Still his discourse was as reasonable as ever, his urbanity to the guests that flocked from far and near to Champtocé suffered no diminution; and learned priests, when they conversed with him, thought to themselves that few of the nobles of France were so well informed as Gilles de Laval. But dark rumours spread gradually over the country; murder, and, if possible, still more atrocious deeds were hinted at; and it was remarked that many young children of both sexes suddenly disappeared, and were never afterwards heard of. One or two had been traced to the castle of Champtocé, and had never been seen to leave it; but no one dared to accuse openly so powerful a man as the Maréchal de Rays. Whenever the subject of the lost children was mentioned in his presence, he manifested the greatest astonishment at the mystery which involved their fate, and indignation against those who might be guilty of kidnapping them. Still the world was not wholly deceived; his name became as formidable to young children as that of the devouring ogre in fairy tales, and they were taught to go miles round, rather than pass under the turrets of Champtocé.
In the course of a few years, the reckless extravagance of the marshal drained him of all his funds, and he was obliged to put up some of his estates for sale. The Duke of Brittany entered into a treaty with him for the valuable seignory of Ingrande; but the heirs of Gilles implored the interference of Charles VII. to stay the sale. Charles immediately issued an edict, which was confirmed by the provincial Parliament of Brittany, forbidding him to alienate his paternal estates. Gilles had no alternative but to submit. He had nothing to support his extravagance but his allowance as a marshal of France, which did not cover the one-tenth of his expenses. A man of his habits and character could not retrench his wasteful expenditure, and live reasonably; he could not dismiss without a pang his horsemen, his jesters, his morris-dancers, his choristers, and his parasites, or confine his hospitality to those who really needed it. Notwithstanding his diminished resources, he resolved to live as he had lived before, and turn alchymist, that he might make gold out of iron, and be still the wealthiest and most magnificent among the nobles of Brittany.
In pursuance of this determination, he sent to Paris, Italy, Germany, and Spain, inviting all the adepts in the science to visit him at Champtocé. The messengers he despatched on this mission were two of his most needy and unprincipled dependants, Gilles de Sillé and Roger de Bricqueville. The latter, the obsequious panderer to his most secret and abominable pleasures, he had entrusted with the education of his motherless daughter, a child but five years of age, with permission that he might marry her at the proper time to any person he chose, or to himself if he liked it better. This man entered into the new plans of his master with great zeal, and introduced to him one Prelati, an alchymist of Padua, and a physician of Poitou, who was addicted to the same pursuits.
The marshal caused a splendid laboratory to be fitted up for them, and the three commenced the search for the philosopher's stone. They were soon afterwards joined by another pretended philosopher, named Anthony Palermo, who aided in their operations for upwards of a year. They all fared sumptuously at the marshal's expense, draining him of the ready money he possessed, and leading him on from day to day with the hope that they would succeed in the object of their search. From time to time new aspirants from the remotest parts of Europe arrived at his castle, and for months he had upwards of twenty alchymists at work, trying to transmute copper into gold; and wasting the gold which was still his own in drugs and elixirs.
But the Lord of Rays was not a man to abide patiently their lingering processes. Pleased with their comfortable quarters, they jogged on from day to day, and would have done so for years, had they been permitted. But he suddenly dismissed them all, with the exception of the Italian Prelati, and the physician of Poitou. These he retained to aid him to discover the secret of the philosopher's stone by a bolder method. The Poitousan had persuaded him that the devil was the great depository of that and all other secrets, and that he would raise him before Gilles, who might enter into any contract he pleased with him. Gilles expressed his readiness, and promised to give the devil any thing but his soul, or do any deed that the arch-enemy might impose upon him. Attended solely by the physician, he proceeded at midnight to a wild-looking place in a neighbouring forest; the physician drew a magic circle around them on the sward, and muttered for half an hour an invocation to the evil spirit to arise at his bidding, and disclose the secrets of alchymy. Gilles looked on with intense interest, and expected every moment to see the earth open, and deliver to his gaze the great enemy of mankind. At last the eyes of the physician became fixed, his hair stood on end, and he spoke, as if addressing the fiend. But Gilles saw nothing except his companion. At last the physician fell down on the sward as if insensible. Gilles looked calmly on to see the end. After a few minutes the physician arose, and asked him if he had not seen how angry the devil looked? Gilles replied that he had seen nothing; upon which his companion informed him that Beelzebub had appeared in the form of a wild leopard, growled at him savagely, and said nothing; and that the reason why the marshal had neither seen nor heard him was, that he hesitated in his own mind as to devoting himself entirely to the service. De Rays owned that he had indeed misgivings, and inquired what was to be done to make the devil speak out, and unfold his secret? The physician replied, that some person must go to Spain and Africa to collect certain herbs which only grew in those countries, and offered to go himself, if De Rays would provide the necessary funds. De Rays at once consented; and the physician set out on the following day with all the gold that his dupe could spare him. The marshal never saw his face again.
But the eager Lord of Champtocé could not rest. Gold was necessary for his pleasures; and unless by supernatural aid, he had no means of procuring any further supplies. The physician was hardly twenty leagues on his journey, before Gilles resolved to make another effort to force the devil to divulge the art of gold-making. He went out alone for that purpose; but all his conjurations were of no effect. Beelzebub was obstinate, and would not appear. Determined to conquer him if he could, he unbosomed himself to the Italian alchymist, Prelati. The latter offered to undertake the business, upon condition that De Rays did not interfere in the conjurations, and consented besides to furnish him with all the charms and talismans that might be required. He was further to open a vein in his arm, and sign with his blood a contract that "he would work the devil's will in all things," and offer up to him a sacrifice of the heart, lungs, hands, eyes, and blood of a young child. The grasping monomaniac made no hesitation, but agreed at once to the disgusting terms proposed to him. On the following night, Prelati went out alone, and after having been absent for three or four hours, returned to Gilles, who sat anxiously awaiting him. Prelati then informed him that he had seen the devil in the shape of a handsome youth of twenty. He further said, that the devil desired to be called Barron in all future invocations; and had shewn him a great number of ingots of pure gold, buried under a large oak in the neighbouring forest, all of which, and as many more as he desired, should become the property of the Maréchal de Rays if he remained firm, and broke no condition of the contract. Prelati further shewed him a small casket of black dust, which would turn iron into gold; but as the process was very troublesome, he advised that they should be contented with the ingots they found under the oak tree, and which would more than supply all the wants that the most extravagant imagination could desire. They were not, however, to attempt to look for the gold till a period of seven times seven weeks, or they would find nothing but slates and stones for their pains. Gilles expressed the utmost chagrin and disappointment, and at once said that he could not wait for so long a period; if the devil were not more, prompt Prelati might tell him that the Maréchal de Rays was not to be trifled with, and would decline all further communication with him. Prelati at last persuaded him to wait seven times seven days. They then went at midnight with picks and shovels to dig up the ground under the oak, where they found nothing to reward them but a great quantity of slates, marked with hieroglyphics. It was now Prelati's turn to be angry; and he loudly swore that the devil was nothing but a liar and a cheat. The marshal joined cordially in the opinion, but was easily persuaded by the cunning Italian to make one more trial. He promised at the same time that he would endeavour on the following night to discover the reason why the devil had broken his word. He went out alone accordingly, and on his return informed his patron that he had seen Barron, who was exceedingly angry that they had not waited the proper time ere they looked for the ingots. Barron had also said, that the Maréchal de Rays could hardly expect any favours from him, at a time when he must know that he had been meditating a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to make atonement for his sins. The Italian had doubtless surmised this from some incautious expression of his patron, for de Rays frankly confessed that there were times when, sick of the world and all its pomps and vanities, he thought of devoting himself to the service of God.
In this manner the Italian lured on from month to month his credulous and guilty patron, extracting from him all the valuables he possessed, and only waiting a favourable opportunity to decamp with his plunder. But the day of retribution was at hand for both. Young girls and boys continued to disappear in the most mysterious manner; and the rumours against the owner of Champtocé grew so loud and distinct, that the Church was compelled to interfere. Representations were made by the Bishop of Nantes to the Duke of Brittany, that it would be a public scandal if the accusations against the Maréchal de Rays were not inquired into. He was arrested accordingly in his own castle, along with his accomplice Prelati, and thrown into a dungeon at Nantes to await his trial.
The judges appointed to try him were the Bishop of Nantes Chancellor of Brittany, the Vicar of the Inquisition in France, and the celebrated Pierre l'Hôpital, the President of the provincial Parliament. The offences laid to his charge were, sorcery, sodomy, and murder. Gilles, on the first day of his trial, conducted himself with the utmost insolence. He braved the judges on the judgment-seat, calling them simoniacs and persons of impure life, and said he would rather be hanged by the neck like a dog without trial, than plead either guilty or not guilty before such contemptible miscreants. But his confidence forsook him as the trial proceeded, and he was found guilty on the clearest evidence of all the crimes laid to his charge. It was proved that he took insane pleasure in stabbing the victims of his lust and in observing the quivering of their flesh, and the fading lustre of their eyes as they expired. The confession of Prelati first made the judges acquainted with this horrid madness, and Gilles himself confirmed it before his death. Nearly a hundred children of the villagers around his two castles of Champtocé and Machecoue, had been missed within three years, the greater part, if not all, of whom were immolated to the lust or the cupidity of this monster. He imagined that he thus made the devil his friend, and that his recompense would be the secret of the philosopher's stone.
Gilles and Prelati were both condemned to be burned alive. At the place of execution they assumed the air of penitence and religion. Gilles tenderly embraced Prelati, saying, "Farewell, friend Francis! In this world we shall never meet again; but let us place our hopes in God; we shall see each other in Paradise." Out of consideration for his high rank and connexions, the punishment of the marshal was so far mitigated, that he was not burned alive like Prelati. He was first strangled, and then thrown into the flames: his body, when half consumed, was given over to his relatives for interment, while that of the Italian was burned to ashes, and then scattered to the winds.
Extracted from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841)
by Charles Mackay
This account predates Bossard (1885) and even Lacroix (1858) and therefore draws its information from the semi-fictional sources that existed before them. By these standards, it is reasonably good - it does not, for instance, wander in and out of the Bluebeard story like Levi Strauss.
It is poor enough, however. Having dated Gilles' birth to 1420, it is thereafter understandably short on dates. We are told that his father died when he was twenty and that he married at 23, that is, three years after his death. The author does not hazard a guess as to the date of his execution.
It would be possible to skim read this text and fail to notice that Gilles was a famous military commander. This is thrown away in a single sentence, which does not mention Jehanne; to link the wicked marshal to the Maid of Orléans would be to sully her name.
The cast is slimmed down, presumably for the sake of simplicity. There are no bestial servants; only the alchemist Prelati is executed with him. Gilles' emotional farewell fits in rather well at the foot of the gallows, although it took place nearly a week before and Prelati was not condemned to death. At least it does not make the same faux pas as Lacroix, who misread his sources and had the Italian alchemist die from his beating by the devil, thus removing him from the trial completely.
Mackay seems most interested in the magical operations, which are dramatised and edited for coherence.This section is not wholly accurate, but the incidents are recognisable to anyone familiar with the trial record. The rest is largely composed of atmospheric filler, based on the allegations of extravagance levelled against Gilles by his brother in the Mémoires des Héritiers. The ten dancing girls, for example, are entirely fictitious and added solely in order that Gilles can lose interest in them in a piece of clunking symbolism. The choir certainly would not have included female voices. We know that he was generous in entertaining his guests, but not the exact details of his menus. His chapel was indeed luxuriously fitted out, but it is pure conjecture to say that All the chandeliers were of pure gold curiously inlaid with silver. The great crucifix over the altar was of solid silver, and the chalices and incense-burners were of pure gold. And although it is certainly true that He had besides a fine organ, which he caused to be carried from one castle to another on the shoulders of six men, Mackay might have phrased it differently.
Why does the inaccuracy of a nearly two hundred-year-old text matter? Because Charles Mackay's book was hugely popular in its day and no doubt influenced a number of other writers in that Chinese whispers manner by which myths spread. It is still available: the wonderfully opportunistic Wordsworth Press reprinted it, & the Gutenberg Project has it online. Irrationally, most people feel that anything printed in a book is automatically true.
The most telling phrase in this entire compendium of lies and half-truths is this: were not the details but too well authenticated ... the lover of romance might easily imagine they were drawn to please him from the stores of the prolific brain, and not from the page of history. Really, the angry insistence that Gilles de Rais was guilty comes down to this - people find the gruesome story pleasing. We all love to have our spines chilled, and it is more painful to lose an ogre than a hero.
Tuesday, 5 May 2020
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 -
Thursday, 27 February 2020
All the FAQs are now collected on one page, which will be updated when necessary.
Tuesday, 5 November 2019
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
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
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