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)

Monday, 26 October 2015

How I became Gilles de Rais' representative on earth

Gilles de Rais has fascinated me for many years. I first encountered him when I was a teenager, in a book I had just bought, The Devil And All His Works by Dennis Wheatley; I was flicking through it idly and came across a small black-and-white picture of a dark man in armour leaning on a battle-axe. I thought he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. The caption read: “Gilles de Rais, one of the blackest sorcerers in history”. He obviously stuck in my head, because when, a few months later, I read a review of a new book, Gilles de Rais, the Authentic Bluebeard by Jean Benedetti, I immediately ordered a copy, something I had never done before and very seldom do now. I still have the clipping of that review that changed my life: it was headlined The Beast who saved Joan of Arc before he became ‘Bluebeard’.

I was on the cusp of 16 when I started reading Jean Benedetti's biography; I had my birthday while I was reading it. And I read it perfectly straight. I knew about miscarriages of justice, but I assumed that this was History and couldn't be questioned. It  must have happened, just as written. I didn't know about the revisionist viewpoint, because Benedetti doesn't mention that, and I didn't find out about it for many years. But I was sympathetic towards Gilles, because Benedetti was sympathetic; I do sometimes wonder what might have happened if my first encounter had been with a less kind biographer. I read the book, and it stayed with me, and not long after I started to wonder. Benedetti had made it quite plain that there was a plot against Gilles, that his judges had an agenda, and I began to think he might have been framed. This seemed a crazy idea, as far as I knew nobody else felt that way. I was outraged by the thought of such an injustice, because I was sixteen.

I started looking for books about him, which wasn't easy - no Amazon, no internet, just book search companies and ransacking every antiquarian book shop I could find. I still remember the helpful bookseller who sold me a book from his private library, the magical moment when I found a copy of Vizetelly in a small shop next to York Minster, the day when I had a sudden impulse to go back the way I'd come and look in a certain charity shop, where a copy of Frances Winwar's The Saint and the Devil was waiting for me on the bookshelves. What I could never find was Bataille's book, with the trial records in. That was RPND - reprinting, no date - every time I tried to order it. And when I finally did get it, well. It was in French. I  had learned French at school, but back then I "read French" in the same way I danced the polka - I had done it, but not with much success, and didn't fancy trying it again. I had to wait till a rather rickety English translation came out, in the nineties. And then I didn't want to read it, because I'd pretty much convinced myself that Gilles was innocent, but I expected the evidence against him to be overwhelming. I'd only read biographies: that's what I'd been told.

By this time, I knew I wasn't the only person who believed in Gilles' innocence, because some of the biographers addressed that issue, with a great deal of scorn. One November day in 1992 I woke to find that famous, fake picture of Gilles on the front page of my newspaper and the announcement of his retrial, based on Gilbert Prouteau's best-selling  revisionist biography; that was the greatest adrenaline jolt of my life. But there wasn't - and still isn't – a revisionist biography in English, and none of the French ones had been translated. I still had no idea how the evidence could be explained away, because I hadn't yet read the evidence and imagined that it was as I had been told: hordes of grieving parents telling their unimpeachable stories in court.

Now round about the turn of the millennium there was one revisionist website, by Kathleen Lehman; she later took it down, I suspect because trolls or other ne'er-do-wells had put pressure on her. Luckily I'd printed off a just-legible draft copy so I could still refer to it. Ms Lehman said there was no accurate biography of Gilles, that the people who wrote about him were "pseudobiographers". At the time, I thought that was hyperbole. She also strongly  implied that the evidence wasn't as watertight as it was reputed to be. At that point I had to bite the bullet and read the trial record.

I was completely blown away, because the evidence is tissue-thin. The point at which it really came home to me was when I read Poitou and Henriet's testimony before the ecclesiastical court. I knew the argument that the two statements were so similar that they could only have been produced by torture, but there's a difference between knowing something theoretically and experiencing it. The two statements are as near as damn it identical. I knew I'd been right all along. That was when I started my Gilles de Rais was Innocent blog and upped my web presence. I'm shameless, I will call out people who post mindless plagiarised articles about Gilles.

Two years ago I re-read all the books I had about him in English and then took a deep breath and decided to have a go at the Prouteau book that started all the fuss and led to the successful 1992 retrial. Then I tackled Bossard. And every other French book I could get my hands on. At some point I realised that I was researching my own book, which at that time I envisioned as a long essay more than anything. But reading all those biographies made me see that they really are a poor bunch, beset with myths. To cut through the myth, I'd have to write a proper biography.

I'm not a prose writer. I used to write poetry years ago. Short poetry. If the lines have to reach the right hand side of the page, I get uneasy. But the book has slowly taken shape. It started as a bundle of ragtag fragments, now it's a book with bits missing. That's why the blog looks so dead – all my energy is going into the book. I have gone through the account of the trial obsessively, sifting the evidence, pointing up the absurdities and contradictions. I have found unnoticed, damning details that even the revisionist writers failed to notice. When I finally present my evidence, I believe that it will be both persuasive and shocking, since I have gone much further than previous revisionists.

Nobody can prove that Gilles de Rais was innocent, after 500-odd years and with only a couple of corrupted and biased sources to rely on. But I am now one hundred percent certain that he was, and this conviction is sustained by my researches and not by the vague sense of injustice that inspired my adolescent self. I am not arrogant enough to suppose that I will be the one who finally restores Gilles to his proper place in history, but I hope that I am a strong link in the chain that goes back to Reinach and Fleuret, and that I will live to see the next biographer, or the one after, achieve that end. I am proud to be Gilles de Rais' representative on earth.

Margot K Juby 

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