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.
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)
This is what director Edmund Stenson says about the film -
"They say never meet your heroes. But what if your hero, like Margot K. Juby’s, is a 15th-century serial killer? Gilles de Rais was a nobleman, decorated military statesman — and one of the grisliest murderers in recorded history. Or, at least, that’s what we're told. Margot’s fastidious, 20-year long research project suggests otherwise: de Rais, was, in fact, the victim of a vast conspiracy. She’s so sure that she has “Gilles de Rais was innocent” tattooed on her arm.
The Martyr interweaves the story of how Margot developed a passion for all things de Rais, with a gothic, animated retelling of the nobleman’s life. Along the way, the film uncovers an unbelievable plot by the French intelligentsia to exonerate the nobleman, and a potential conspiracy at the heart of the medieval French court. Painting a eerie — yet compassionate — portrait of unrequited love, The Martyr is a film about the dark obsessions that shape all of us."
Some snapshots taken during the last shoot, in April 2019. Ed is on the left, in blue cap, in all pictures; on the right is Dimitris Mastroyiannis, camera & sound man.
Gilles de Rais, a young man of 25, very smart and self-possessed, and sporting the extravagance of a little curled beard dyed blue at a clean-shaven court, comes in. He is determined to make himself agreeable, but lacks natural joyousness, and is not really pleasant. In fact when he defies the Church some eleven years later he is accused of trying to extract pleasure from horrible cruelties, and hanged. So far, however, there is no shadow of the gallows on him.
Saint Joan (1923) by G B Shaw
Costume design by Anthony Holland circa 1940
This is how George Bernard Shaw introduces Gilles de Rais: he is thereafter called Bluebeard. This is absolutely usual for the period, to the point where Emile Gabory titled his biography Vie et la morte de Gilles de Raiz dit, à tort, Barbe Bleue (Life and Death of Gilles de Raiz, wrongly known as Bluebeard) and excoriated the idiocies of Bossard and his followers. Of course, when it was translated into English, the subtitle was the more snappy, and unforgivably misleading, Alias Bluebeard.
On the surface, Shaw's brief character gloss seems uncontroversial enough. However, there is something slightly awry about that "accused of". Works of literature are not written in a void. Just as the Bluebeard trope is absolutely typical of that time, so is the uncertainty about whether Gilles was actually guilty of the horrors he was accused of and executed for. The play was written in 1923, inspired by Jehanne's canonisation in 1920. As we have seen, her elevation to the sainthood led to a renewed interest in Gilles de Rais, and speculation about his own possible innocence. There was even talk that he, too, should be a saint. Shaw would have been well aware of the controversy and, in that uncharacteristically mealy-mouthed "accused of", one does feel he was hedging his bets.
In fact, Bluebeard, or Gilles de Rais, features little in the play. He is conspicuously absent in the Epilogue, in which various characters, both living and dead, appear in a dream to Charles VII. The dead characters discuss their experience of the afterlife - for instance, the soldier who held up a cross made of sticks to Jehanne, to comfort her as she burned, has been consigned to Hell, but is allowed a day's holiday every year for his one good action. If Shaw had been disposed to have Gilles make an appearance, what could he have said of the posthumous condition of his soul? Would the atheist/mystic playwright have placed him in a theoretical Heaven or Hell? Setting aside complex considerations of Christian theology, that would depend on whether he was innocent or guilty, and Shaw does not seem to have had a firm opinion on that.
The Epilogue takes place in 1456, when Jehanne's rehabilitation trial had declared her innocent of heresy and unjustly burned. Please note how the news is announced to Charles VII: "Rejoice, O king; for the taint is removed from your blood, and the stain from your crown." Shaw understood completely the political reasons why Jehanne (and Gilles) had to die: if his two preeminent generals had been dealing with the Devil, then the King owed his throne to witchcraft.
These are some of the photographs, mostly of Champtocé with one of Pornic and another on the drawbridge of the Chateau Ducale in Nantes (our hotel was right behind the castle). They are poor quality because they were originally slides, and for various reasons I only recovered them recently. There are none of Machecoul; at that time, it was not possible to see the ruins of the castle. I regret that deeply, and also the fact that we never made it to Tiffauges.
But here they are, for what they are worth. They are part of the story, and somebody may enjoy them.
The blog posts that deal with the more contradictory evidence against Gilles de Rais are now gathered on one page, called "A likely story...", for ease of reference. Here you will find the boy who was picking apples at Easter, and that time when Gilles was in two places at once.
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.
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.
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.
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.