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)



Gilles de Rais: FAQs

This page gathers together in one place the FAQs that I have been answering on the blog since April 2019. 


Surely there's so much evidence against Gilles de Rais that his guilt is beyond doubt?

Not at all. In fact, the first hint that he may have been unjustly condemned came in January 1443, when the King made a gesture towards acquitting him. Although most of the writers who produced sensationalised versions of his life over the centuries had no interest in questioning the orthodox narrative, there have always been dissenters. In the twentieth century the trial record became easily available, first in 1921 (in a version produced by Fernand Fleuret) and then in 1965 (in Pierre Klossowski's translation). It is no coincidence that these dates marked sudden upswings in revisionist thought. Once it was possible to buy and read a modern French translation of the trial, it became abundantly clear that considerable chicanery took place. Even traditionalist writers were forced to accept that it is undeniable that there was a plot to bring about Gilles' downfall. Their case now rested on the notion that the Duke and the Bishop had conspired against a man who was a dreadful villain, and just happened to own the estates that the Duchy had coveted since before he was born. The many discrepancies and contradictions in the evidence, which had been ignored by biographers, were now exposed, although few bothered to look for them. All existing biographies contain monstrous errors and promulgate non-historical myths such as the veiling of the cross and the illustrated Suetonius.

But what about the bones that were found in some of his castles? 

There were no bones. At several points during the trial, there are claims about human remains – mass cremations at Machecoul, a conduit full of children's bones at Champtocé, a couple of skeletons found at Machecoul. These, however, are unsupported allegations; no forensic evidence was produced in court. In more recent times, there have been several rumours of bones found at one or other of Gilles de Rais' castles, but these always prove to be just that – rumours. The most recent was supposedly located at  La Suze-sur-Sarthe, which was not even part of Gilles' estates.


Well, if Gilles de Rais didn't kill the children, who did?

Nobody did. There is no evidence to indicate that more children than might be expected went missing in his vicinity. The country was in a state of upheaval, with bands of soldiers living off the land, and the years when Gilles was supposedly pursuing his murderous career were a kind of mini Ice Age, with long and bitter winters. The attrition rate would have been high, especially among homeless beggars. Around forty children over eight years in a wide area would not have been an alarming or unusual number. A close examination of the evidence shows that children were going missing from areas he had no reason to visit, from Machecoul when he is recorded as living at Tiffauges, and that many of the children had no link to Gilles or his entourage at all. The attempt to explain this by positing the existence of two or more female procurers ranging the countryside is unconvincing, especially as none of Gilles' friends mentions them, not even Poitou and Henriet.

So was it all a plot by the Church?

Now that the theory of Gilles' innocence has reached a wider audience, it is quite common for internet commentators to blame the Catholic Church. But this popular scapegoat was not responsible in his case, although the ecclesiastical court was certainly weaponised against him. His judge, Jean de Malestroit, was Bishop of Nantes but he plotted against Gilles in his capacity as Chancellor of Brittany. He was a lifelong Anglophile and felt that the Duchy would be more likely to keep its independence if it allied with England rather than with France. Ironically, in 1488 Brittany was handed over to French governance by the Lavals, Gilles' family.

The Church did not profit from Gilles' demise: his estates went to the sons of Jean V.

Did you really translate the trial record yourself? And why do I keep reading that your book was responsible for the 1992 retrial?

This is quite embarrassing. These strange misapprehensions first appeared on an otherwise-impeccable web article that I cannot now find. If there had been a comments section, I would have corrected the errors. There wasn't. I should have contacted the author, and I intended to. I forgot. I didn't think it would make much difference. I, of all people, should have known better:, I'm fully aware of how myths start and how easily they spread. Of course, others picked up on these mistakes. "What I tell you three times is true". Now it's the truth and I have to go round stamping on the pesky errors wherever they pop up.

These are the facts. No, I didn't translate the trial record. I did, however, compare all the French and English translations available, & check them against the Old French and Latin of René Maulde's redacted transcription. As far as I know, I'm the first to do this.

Obviously I had nothing to do with the unofficial retrial. It was twenty-five years before my book was completed! (Yes, the anniversary was kind of deliberate). The prime mover there was the glorious Gilbert Prouteau, and I have written about him often. I feel mortified to have stolen his thunder. However, I can't help feeling that the naughty old enfant terrible would find all this uproariously funny. I picture him cackling "Mort de rire!" and falling off his cloud in his hilarity. Sorry, M. Prouteau...

Some web pages have Gilles de Rais performing sex acts on severed heads. Surely that isn't mentioned in the trial record?

No, it certainly is not! This is one of the silliest of the fantasies that have been circulating recently. I first saw it in 2016, on Twitter, in the rococo form of Gilles biting a hole in the child's neck and using it instead of the more usual orifices. I wondered at the time who could have come up with such a sick notion and why they would think the supposed confessions needed any such embellishment. Later I saw it a few times in its more usual form, with the "hole" where the neck had been severed forming the locus of gratification. Hole?


Eventually, it was a most unusual podcast that helped me to understand where this strange notion had its origins. On Episode 144 of the 13 O'Clock Podcast, Jenny Ashford and Tom Ross puzzle their way through the story of Gilles de Rais, trying and failing to make the evidence cohere, as any intelligent person must. The odd story about the severed heads is mentioned and sourced, as I might have suspected, to Wikipedia, that fount of all ignorance.  At best  the Gilles de Rais page is a jigsaw of fact and fiction. Like all Wiki pages, it is a muddle of repeated and clumsy c&p and slapdash editing by many hands. At one point somebody  had deleted, or simply forgotten to add, the details of the sexual perversion Gilles had been accused of, a jejune if rather confusing form of frottage, in the correct place. The sentence skipped from the severing of heads to the phrase: According to Poitou, Rais disdained the victims' sexual organs, and took "infinitely more pleasure in debauching himself in this manner ... than in using their natural orifice, in the normal manner." The article did mention the perversion Gilles was supposed to have favoured, but earlier on. Anybody skim-reading might easily miss it. Nature abhors a vacuum, so somebody filled the hiatus with something that seemed to make sense. Chinese Whispers took over and a new myth was born.

Do we know for certain that Gilles was homosexual?

We know few things for certain about Gilles de Rais. Everything we are told about his sexual tastes comes from the trial and is automatically suspect. The main charge against him in the ecclesiastical court was heresy. At that time, sodomy and heresy were virtually synonymous. If Gilles was a heretic, he was necessarily a sodomite, and vice versa; the two charges went together.

It is important to understand that this particular FAQ would have been incomprehensible in 15th century terms. The word homosexuality, and probably the very concept of same-sex preference, is anachronistic. The word used was sodomy, which, to the Church, meant any sexual act which was not open to procreation. Bestiality was also sodomy, and even marital sex was sinful unless it was vaginal and no contraception was used.  In all its forms, sodomy was regarded as a hideous crime against nature,  worse than murder, since it had the potential to spread and wipe out the human race.

There is an indication in the Acts of Indictment (#39) of exactly how seriously this offence was taken: unpunished “crimes against nature” would lead to divine retribution in the form of natural disasters, earthquakes, famines and plagues. This was probably an allusion to a remark by the Emperor Justinian, via the fire and brimstone that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah. No community would wish to risk incurring the wrath of the deity, and there had recently been a widespread famine, affecting much of Europe, for which Gilles' apparent crimes were a most convenient scapegoat.

Gilles' accusers were in no way interested in whether or not he was primarily attracted to men; the idea would never have crossed their minds. Their sole concern was to accuse him of acts of sodomy. Since his alleged victims were (mostly) male, (mostly) pre-pubertal and all assaulted in a manner that avoided penetration, they certainly succeeded in their aim.

Nothing in the trial indicates that Gilles was what we would now call homosexual. He may have been, or he may not. There are certainly few women mentioned in accounts of his life, but one might say that of most men of the period. One of his closest comrades, however, was one of history's most famous androgynes, and this has certainly influenced how we see him...

I heard that he was in love with Joan of Arc and went mad when she died? 

This is an appealing myth, beloved by fiction writers and bandes dessinées, and leapt on with indecent enthusiasm by the band Cradle of Filth. There is no evidence whatsoever of any relationship between the two other than that of close comrades, and given Jehanne's commitment to her virginity, none was likely. Gilles was charged with looking after her, probably at her own request. He went to her rescue at Orléans and Paris and it is indisputable that he and La Hire planned to try and liberate her from prison while she was on trial. Beyond these sparse facts, everything is speculation or fiction.

Why would Jean V have gone to such trouble to frame him? Gilles was broke and had already sold the Duke the two border castles he particularly coveted. 

Gilles had what we would nowadays call cash-flow problems, but he was far from bankrupt. In fact, in return for Champtocé and Ingrandes, Jean V returned the entire Barony of Rais to him (incidentally indicating how valuable those particular castles were to the Duchy). However, a clause in the contract meant that Gilles could buy them back at any time within the next six years for the price he sold them for. Modern historians dismiss this because Gilles could never have afforded to do that; however, we know that the Duke had spies in his household, and would have been informed that, in late 1439, Prelati claimed to be close to finding the Philosopher's Stone. If Gilles could turn base metals to gold, he could certainly buy back those estates.

There is also the consideration that Jean V was breaking the law; the Duke of Brittany was not permitted to enter into property deals with his vassals. For this reason he often used straw men as a cover for these illicit deals; Geoffroy Le Ferron, for instance, was acting as his proxy when he bought St-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte. Jean V's claim on the estates he had bought was precarious. In fact, a protracted series of court cases after Gilles, the Duke and the Bishop were dead saw all the disputed estates restored to the Rais family.

If there was a plot, why was it so elaborate? Why such extravagant accusations?

The main focus of the plot was to obtain Gilles' properties legally. However, political forces were also at play. Jehanne had already been burned – not for witchcraft, as is often supposed, but for heresy. Gilles had been the pre-eminent French captain in her army, he was closely linked to her and apparently tried to save her from her captors. He had also staged, and possibly had a hand in writing, a Mystery play in which this condemned heretic was depicted as a messenger from God. This in itself verged on heresy. He was put on trial in Brittany, an independent Duchy which more often allied with England than France. The Duke had close family ties to the English throne, his mother, Jeanne de Navarre, having remarried Henry IV of England; the Bishop was a lifelong and passionate Anglophile. To smear Gilles was to smear Jehanne, and to assert that Charles VII owed his throne to a pair of heretics and black magicians, one of whom was a perverted murderer. The mud did not stick to the maidenly Jehanne for long but, as we know, the smear campaign against Gilles was infinitely more efficient.

Where did the King come into the plot? Was he jealous of Gilles' showy wealth, too?

This is another recent myth, put about by people who do not understand the complexities of the political situation. The King did what he usually did, and what he did when Jehanne was on trial for her life: nothing. Gilles had served his purpose. The King had established his own army and no longer had to rely on brigands and mercenaries. The likes of Gilles were redundant, and in fact Charles had started to move against the dissolute barons whose soldiery terrorised the countryside, some of whom were rebelling against him. It would have done him no harm to stand back and allow Brittany to make an example of Gilles, indicating that the impunity of the nobles was well and truly over.

It is very important to remember that the plot against Gilles de Rais was nothing to do with the King of France, or, indeed, the Catholic Church. He was tried in Brittany, which was an independent Duchy at that time, and it was the coffers of Brittany which profited from his downfall. Although Gilles' judge, Jean de Malestroit,  was the Bishop of Nantes, he was also Chancellor of Brittany and was acting in that capacity. Malestroit was a lifelong ally of the English; his cousin  the Duke played a cunning game of switching allegiance between France and England, but signed a treaty with the latter halfway through Gilles' trial.

Although the Duchy badly needed Gilles'  money, the plot was as much political as financial, and aimed partly at Charles VII of France. If his two preeminent captains were disgraced and executed for heresy and worse, it implied that he owed his throne to witchcraft and the Devil.

Why is there no single estimate of the number of victims? Was it 120? Or 800? Or some number in between? 

The reason no number is specified is that no number was given in court. Charge 15 of the indictment states only that for the past fourteen years, every year, every month, every day, every night and every hour... [Gilles] took, killed, cut the throats of many children, boys and girls... This would imply a huge number, although only around forty cases are mentioned in court, and many of these are mere sketches with no names or details given. It was J-K Huysmans who first mooted 800 victims, in a novel.

The 1992 retrial was just a publicity stunt, right? After all, no mediaeval historians were involved.

Yes and no. Gilbert Prouteau was a mischief -maker, but he seems to have been sincere. He did no original research, but based his case on the writings of his predecessors, Salomon Reinach and Fernand Fleuret. There was much that was wrong with the retrial – for instance, overtly fictional material from Prouteau's novel was admitted as evidence. Also, it carried no formal weight: it did not officially overturn the verdict of the 1440 trial, as some accounts imply. However, the lack of historians was not particularly a flaw. Few historians have written about Gilles. His first biographer, on whom all subsequent biographies lean heavily, was not a historian. There is no indication that any writer has paid due attention to the contemporary documents since Bossard's day. In order to have a more informed opinion, any historian would have to have specialised in Gilles' period and to have looked closely at the trial record. It is unlikely that such a person existed in 1992; there are precious few even now. Mediaeval historians had nothing to do with creating the myth of Gilles de Rais and nothing to do with this attempt at unravelling it.

You say he was tortured? But he wasn't tortured, he was spared that in return for a confession.

This myth is based on a universal misreading of the trial record. At no point did his judges offer to waive the torture altogether, merely to defer it until the next day if he cooperated. He was given a few hours to think about it, and made his first (out of court) confession that same day. His second (in court) confession was given the next day, in a rare evening sitting. There is every reason to suppose that he was tortured in the morning. That would have been the norm; torture was routinely applied merely to confirm a confession.

Not much more than two years after Gilles de Rais' execution, the King wrote letters  asserting his innocence, using highly emotive language and claiming that he suffered "attentats" - outrages - in prison. Clearly Charles, too, believed that he was put to the Question. 

It is vital to correct this error, since it is often stated that Gilles confessed voluntarily, at the mere threat of torture. This has the double effect of making him seem a coward and his forced confession a spontaneous effusion of guilt.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

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