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)

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Les Très Riches Heures de Gilles de Rais

The leather binding is curious,
soft and pale, of no known provenance.

Its silver clasps have tarnished into blackness,
grim as coffin furbishments.

The key is rusted red, like Bluebeard's key
indelibly stained with blood.

Inside, the pigments glow from the page
in formal miniatures: vermilion, gold.

Argent on a ground of sable
a unicorn rampant rears its horn.

Here is a serpent the size of a dog
and there a leopard with human eyes.

A heap of gold transmuting into leaves,
the heart of a child in a jewelled monstrance.

A black stake and a pile of kindling,
the white face of a virgin martyr burning.

A crowd looks on, as blank as playing cards.
The licking flames seem cool, like amber.

A human figure is split down its axis;
half gilded girl, half crowned and bearded male.

A hawk-faced Herod in his purple watches
the scarlet tableau of innocents slaughtered.

There are geometrical fountains of blood.
From the sky, blond angels look down, impassive.

A grey river crawls through a watery landscape;
three gibbets, tenanted, stand framed by fire.

A phoenix in his crimson glory poises
resurgent above a pyre of blackened bone.

Margot K Juby

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