The case for the defence

Born 1404
Executed 1440
Exonerated 1992

It is now widely accepted that the trial of Gilles de Rais was a miscarriage of justice. He was a great war hero on the French side; his judges were pro-English and had an interest in blackening his name and, possibly, by association, that of Jehanne d'Arc. His confession was obtained under threat of torture and also excommunication, which he dreaded. A close examination of the testimony of his associates, in particular that of Poitou and Henriet, reveals that they are almost identical and were clearly extracted by means of torture. Even the statements of outsiders, alleging the disappearance of children, mostly boil down to hearsay; the very few cases where named children have vanished can be traced back to the testimony of just eight witnesses. There was no physical evidence to back up this testimony, not a body or even a fragment of bone. His judges also stood to gain from his death: in fact, Jean V Duke of Brittany, who enabled his prosecution, disposed of his share of the loot before de Rais was even arrested.

In France, the subject of his probable innocence is far more freely discussed than it is in the English-speaking world. In 1992 a Vendéen author named Gilbert Prouteau was hired by the Breton tourist board to write a new biography. Prouteau was not quite the tame biographer that was wanted and his book, Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup, argued that Gilles de Rais was not guilty. Moreover, he summoned a special court to re-try the case, which sensationally resulted in an acquittal. As of 1992, Gilles de Rais is an innocent man.

In the mid-1920s he was even put forward for beatification, by persons unknown. He was certainly not the basis for Bluebeard, this is a very old story which appears all over the world in different forms.

Le 3 janvier 1443... le roi de France dénonçait le verdict du tribunal piloté par l'Inquisition.
Charles VII adressait au duc de Bretagne les lettres patentes dénonçant la machination du procès du maréchal: "Indûment condamné", tranche le souverain. Cette démarche a été finalement étouffée par l'Inquisition et les intrigues des grands féodaux. (Gilbert Prouteau)

Two years after the execution the King granted letters of rehabilitation for that 'the said Gilles, unduly and without cause, was condemned and put to death'. (Margaret Murray)

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Wrongly, unduly and without cause

The letters patent from Charles VII to Pierre de l'Hôpital and François I, who had succeeded Jean V as Duke of Brittany, summoning them the Parliament of Paris to account for the wrongful execution of Gilles de Rais. The letters were never acted upon and were probably suppressed for political reasons. Even through the old French, the strength of the language comes across. Reference is made to the "seizure, arrest & detention of [Gilles'] person and refusal and denial of justice, and other wrongs and grievances to be declared more plainly at the [appropriate] time & place, against him and to his prejudice, wrongly, unduly and without reason"; later we read: "The said late Lord de Rais was condemned and put to death by the said de l'Hôpital, unduly and without reason." There is no sitting on the fence; Gilles has been wronged, the King says, and restitution must be made. And indeed, subsequently Gilles' confiscated estates were restored to his daughter, Marie de Rais, an eloquent gesture that seems to be at least a partial rehabilitation.

(Text of the letters patent taken from Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup by Gilbert Prouteau)

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