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)



Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Holy Innocents

In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Matthew 2:18 King James Bible Authorized Version

The Chapel of the Holy Innocents has always been a rich source of the mythology that surrounds Gilles de Rais. Why, commentators ask, did Gilles name his private chapel after a group of murdered infants? Was it not a sign of guilt, or defiance? Why, in fact, did he have a private chapel at all, and go to such crazy lengths to ensure that his family could not dissolve it after his death? Surely that was extravagant at best, a bit mad at worst?

To ask these questions is to try and lift Gilles out of his context.

The story of the Massacre of the Innocents is based on a few verses in one gospel, Matthew 2: 16-18, which relates how King Herod attempted to kill his newborn rival as King of the Jews by having all the boy children born at the right time and place put to death: Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. There is no further evidence for this massacre and it is almost certainly folklore.

From about 1400 onwards, the Holy Innocents were very much in vogue all over Europe. The brief account of Herod's massacre of the babies, coupled with the "Rachel weeping" verse from Jeremiah which the evangelist quoted, was widely used in sermons and mystery plays. The motif was particularly affecting in the context of a country embroiled in a seemingly endless war, which may explain its ubiquity. Many churches and chapels were dedicated to the child saints,  including one of the first churches built on the Rive Droite in Paris, and in following suit Gilles was merely indicating that he was a modern and fashionable man even in his spiritual tastes.

And the private chapel? Not as uncommon as you might suppose. The rich liked to have mortuary masses said for the repose of their souls after death. Some achieved this by bequeathing money to churches or monasteries, the wealthier ones founded their own chapels. The fact that Gilles took extreme measures to guarantee the continuation of his chapel merely shows that he had an astute and justifiable distrust for his family.


The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem
by Matteo di Giovanni (c 1430-1495)

Listen to the chillingly beautiful Coventry Carol for a 16th century musical rendering of the Holy Innocents theme

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