Making a Medieval Murderer: The Exoneration of Gilles de Rais

Gillesderais1835

Gilles de Rais. Éloi Firmin Féron, 1835. 

You may have heard the story of Bluebeard—a woman marries a wealthy nobleman with a string of wives who had died under mysterious circumstances only to find said deceased wives congealing in an armoire. It’s a tale as old as time…or something. Variations have been told over the years, and a few real-life murderers have taken inspiration from it. What you might not realize, however, is that the Bluebeard of legend is said to be based on a controversial historical figure—the infamous Gilles de Rais (1404-40).

As the story goes, Gilles de Rais’ crimes were unspeakable. Rather than murdering a series of wives, he was ultimately convicted of sexually assaulting and ritualistically murdering up to 150 boys in his descent into the occult. He was accused of heresy, alchemy, sodomy, sorcery, and murdering countless—and unidentified—women and children. You know, in addition to the 100, 150, or 600 boys, depending on who you ask.

His crimes were so horrific and almost cartoonishly exaggerated, you have to wonder if they were even possible. Where did he find the time, how did he get away with it for so long, and who would ever do such a thing?

What does the history say?

Gilles de Rais fought in the Hundred Years’ War, where he distinguished himself as a courageous fighter. He was given the honor of guarding Joan of Arc by the dauphin in 1429. As her personal bodyguard, he fought alongside her in many of the most significant battles of her life. He helped to life the Siege of Orléans and earned the position of Marshal of France, the country’s highest military distinction.

When Joan of Arc died in 1431, de Rais was devastated. She had been a dear friend to him, and he believed in her wholeheartedly. In his grief, he retired to his estate and threw himself into religion and the preservation of Joan’s memory. Although his estate was one of the richest in France, he burned through his money at an alarming rate, employing armies of servants and soldiers and commissioning works of music and literature in honor of her.

In 1433, he funded the construction of the Chapel of Holy Innocents. The chapel featured a boys’ choir personally chosen by de Rais, a fact that many have pointed to as an early hint of the alleged crimes to come, but this is consistent with the enthusiastic attention to detail he applied to all of his projects.

In 1435, he financed a play he wrote himself about the Siege of Orléans, and it almost bankrupted him. More than six hundred elaborate costumes were made for the 140 actors with speaking parts and 500 extras; each costume was worn only once, discarded, and sewn all over again for each performance. He also provided unlimited food and drink to all of the spectators in attendance.

The play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, marks another turning point in his life. Not only was it regarded as fiscally irresponsible, but it amounted to the unofficial canonization of a woman who had been burned as a heretic.

To hear many tell it, this is when his descent into the occult truly began, but the only evidence we have of anything even remotely related is his interest in alchemy, which he later confessed to publically. Crucially, alchemy itself was not a crime unless it was accomplished with the devil’s aid; de Rais had not attempted to invoke any demons, he’d only read a book. This was not enough to seize his estates, however, and a far more serious crime had to be invented.

He was arrested in 1440 after kidnapping a priest over a minor dispute. Up until 1789, torture was considered a valid way to extract reliable testimony in France, and it was under these circumstances that de Rais confessed. Although the confession read by clerics at his execution named unspeakable crimes in lurid detail, his actual private confession was no more than a short verbal agreement to the charge of dabbling in alchemy. He was simultaneously hanged and burned alive on October 26th, 1440 in Nantes.

By all accounts, de Rais was oddly calm as he faced an execution not unlike that of his beloved Joan of Arc, who he could not save in spite of his best efforts. After his death, he was hailed as model of penitence, and a three-day fast was observed in his honor. Bizarrely, until the mid-sixteenth century, the people of Nantes marked the anniversary of his execution by whipping their children.

Exoneration 

In 1992, biographer Gilbert Proteau argued that de Rais was innocent in Gilles de Rais ou la Gueule de Loup and called for a retrial.

Proteau was not the first to notice the evidence against de Rais didn’t hold up. As early as 1443, there had been attempts to clear his name. While the evidence of his guilt was mainly limited to rumors, questionable witness testimonies, and the confession extracted under torture, there was one very good reason to want de Rais out of the way.

At one point, de Rais was the wealthiest man in Europe. His wealth has been used to explain his alleged corruption, but it is also a pretty convincing motive. His eccentricity and tendency to hemorrhage money after Joan’s death had caused a serious rift between him and the rest of his family. In 1435, his family petitioned the king to prevent de Rais from selling any more property. Charles VII agreed and issued an edict for de Rais to cease selling property and forbidding any of his subjects to enter into any contract with him. As far as they were concerned, de Rais was running the estate into the ground, and they wanted to keep it intact.

De Rais was not accused of murder until after a dispute with the church of Saint-Etienne-de-Mer-Morte in 1440, which resulted in him kidnapping a priest. Only after he had angered the church was there any investigation, and just two months after the kidnapping, the Bishop of Nantes presented witness testimony accusing de Rais of murder, sodomy, and heresy. Servants claiming to be de Rais’s accomplices testified against him, but no bodies, bones, or other physical evidence was ever found. Crucially, he was prosecuted by the Duke of Brittany, who received all of de Rais’ lands and titles after his death.

Centuries after his torture and execution, the Court of Cassation heard the appeal and fully exonerated de Rais in 1992. Although many French historians have long since accepted his innocence, many English-speaking historians persist in arguing for his guilt.

Fortunately, the movement to clear his name has been steadily picking up momentum, and many of the sources are available online. Since 2010, de Rais’ biographer Margot Juby has been making the case for de Rais in English through the website Gilles de Rais Was Innocent, providing almost a decade’s worth of evidence that the allegations against him were fabricated.

We were delighted to sit down with Juby for a closer look at the facts.

A Conversation with Margot Juby

DSH: We have been given two very different impressions of Gilles de Rais–on one hand, he’s this incredible war hero who fought with Joan of Arc, and on the other, he’s seen as this unspeakably horrible murderer–what do you think he was really like after Joan’s death? How did it affect him?

MJ: Most versions of Gilles’ life offer a very muddled account of his military career. They gloss over it and some even dismiss his heroism as an exaggeration. Too much is known about his part in the siege of Orléans and other battles for this to be viable. He was put in charge of protecting Jehanne, apparently at her own request, and came to her rescue at least twice when she was injured. He was also rewarded by the king for his bravery on several occasions, not least when he was made a Marshal of France at the age of 24. At the same time, he was given the highly unusual honour of a border of fleurs de lys (the royal emblem) on his coat of arms. This distinction was more often given to an exceptionally loyal town than an individual, and he shared it only with Jehanne and none of the other captains. Contemporary chroniclers all agree that he was the preeminent captain of Orléans and the Loire campaign; it was only later writers, after his death, who tried to play down his role.

When Jehanne was on trial for her life in Rouen, Gilles was just across the river in Louviers with an army and in the company of another of her captains, La Hire. Biographers try to explain his presence in occupied Normandy, far from his nearest estate, as some whimsical expedition to buy a horse, which is ludicrous. It is obvious that some rescue attempt was planned; the English knew it and threatened to throw their captive into the river if such an attempt was made. As we know, the plan failed and Jehanne was burned.

We can only guess how Gilles felt. The official story is that he had no particular feelings for Jehanne and yet, paradoxically, was so emotionally shattered by her death that he turned to diabolism and murder. Almost all accounts of his life are reduced to such paradoxes, because the two halves of his life simply do not fit.

After her death, his life fragments. There are plenty of events, but they lack coherence. He still maintains some interest in military matters, but he is no longer really a soldier. He dabbles in theatre, in the Church, and even in alchemy, at least according to his one confession that was not extracted by the threat of torture. He signs bizarre documents, seems to be afraid that his family is plotting his death, disinherits his daughter, compulsively sells properties to meet expenses that are not fully explained. And he constantly gravitates to Orléans, where he was happy and loved.

In 1435, to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the liberation of Orléans, Gilles paid for an elaborate mystery play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, to be performed, not just once but repeatedly, over a period of some months. Biographers are puzzled and disturbed by this and cannot work out what it might mean. Was it “discreet propaganda” (Jacques Heers) or “a cry of bruised love” (Gilbert Prouteau)? Whatever it was, it indicated that Jehanne had mattered immensely in his life. It was also a huge political error. It was virtually an unofficial canonisation of an executed heretic. In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that it marks the moment when his family turned against him, and his enemies, some he thought of as his friends, started to plot his downfall.

DSH: What do you think are the most compelling pieces of evidence that Gilles de Rais was innocent?

MJ: What to choose? The case for his innocence is based on countless small details, which build up into an unanswerable refutation of the case for the prosecution. In fact, the evidence presented in court is so feeble that, properly examined, it is the strongest argument for the innocence of Gilles and his fellow accused. It was some 550 years before the first serious attempt at a biography was written, by the Abbé Bossard. The records of the trial were written in manuscript, in Latin and Old French, and there is no sign that anybody looked at them closely apart from René Mauldes, who transcribed them for Bossard. His is a redacted version, since he felt unable to write the sexual details even in the original languages (he had no such problem with the slaughter). Very few biographers since show any sign of having done more than glance at the records, if that. They have built up a cast-iron case, built on lies and half-truths.

The traditional version of the story is that hundreds of children disappeared and were attested to in court by their grieving parents. Gilles and his entourage would pass through a village and leave at least one bereft family in his wake. Charge 15 of the Articles of Accusation is quite explicit: “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…”

Yet there are accounts of only forty or so missing boys, and only a dozen are given a full name. The rest have only a family name and sometimes an age. Several are simply “unknown boy”–there are no girls listed. Apparently there were no known victims between 1434 and 1436, and only one in 1437. Although many people testify in court, few are related to the supposed victims; the crowds of weeping mothers simply did not exist. The complainants allude to the fate of the disappeared children, which they could not possibly have known about. Where several complainants attest to the loss of a child, serious discrepancies appear–this is particularly true of the Hubert and Darel boys. On one occasion, Gilles appears to be in two places at once. Some cases are mere anecdotes–in one case, a man seen looking for his son. All this evidence is hearsay.

Moreover, the links between these disappearances and Gilles or his men are weak. Several take place in parts of the country which he was not known to frequent–a whole string of boys go missing in Machecoul while he is living at Tiffauges. To make up for this problem, we are told that several old women–among them the infamous Perrine Martin, La Meffraye (the Terror), and Tiphaine Branchu–scoured the countryside for handsome boys. These ladies were caught and imprisoned, but we do not have their evidence and we have no idea of their fate, although they apparently confessed and their confessions were conveniently made known to some of the complainants. Unfortunately, nobody told Poitou and Henriet, the only eye witnesses, or Gilles himself; they mention no female procurers.

It is fairly well known that the evidence of Poitou and Henriet shows clear signs of having been extracted by torture. What is less often noticed is that Gilles himself was almost certainly tortured–he was promised that, in return for a confession, his torture would be deferred till the next day, not that it would be waived. Unusually, the next day’s hearing took place in the evening rather than the morning, allowing time for the torture to be applied.

This is merely an indication of how biographers have cherry-picked the evidence to make a coherent narrative out of what is, in fact, a messy and contradictory tangle of hearsay and forced confessions. There is much, much more.

DSH: Although he was fully exonerated in 1992, why do you think so many English-speaking historians and biographers persist in believing he was guilty?

MJ: Several reasons. First, plain bad timing. News travels fast now, but back then there was no internet to spread it. Second, all the documentation was in French, and English-language newspapers only printed short, whimsical accounts. It was a nine-day wonder. It is actually more difficult to find out what happened in 1992 than to tease out the details of early 15th century events, and that, believe me, is difficult enough. You would think that, as the prime mover of the retrial, Gilbert Prouteau would have put all the salient facts in his book. You would be wrong.

Prouteau himself, excellent PR man though he was, is part of the reason the retrial is regarded with some suspicion. He was a naughty boy, and wrote a confusing and occasionally dishonest book. The first time I read it–in French, having naïvely waited some twenty years for somebody to publish it in translation–I was mystified. He wrote a novel, quite overtly, and tagged an account of a preliminary hearing (not the trial itself, which had not yet happened) onto the end. The novel section aped all the errors in the “magisterial” tome by Gilles’ first biographer, the Abbé Bossard, and that was clearly deliberate. Prouteau had done no original research, and the evidence presented in court was taken from the writings of earlier authors, such as Salomon Reinach and Fernand Fleuret. This was well and good, but certain elements from Prouteau’s fiction also crept into the peroration delivered in court. This is worrying, though I feel that behind his obvious mischievousness, he was perfectly sincere in his belief that Gilles de Rais was wrongfully convicted.

The retrial itself was not, as it is often claimed, an official process and the verdict carried no weight in French law. At the time, those who had spoken up in Gilles’ defence had planned to ask for the support of French President François Mitterand to look into the matter and formalise the rehabilitation. As far as I am aware, this was never done.

One final reason why many people refuse to accept that Gilles de Rais was neither a murderer nor Bluebeard: human beings hate to lose their villains. As seen by posterity, Gilles is the perfect model of a villain and his story is packed with excitement–black magic, murder, sexual depravity to rival the Caesars. Who would want to give that up to hear about politics and property transactions?

DSH: What do you make of his confession? Torture was clearly a factor. Do you think this was a case where he would agree to any ideas they suggested, or was it a total fabrication? The things he supposedly confessed to are so outrageously horrible, it would be difficult to dream them up, let alone actually do them. I keep thinking about it and wondering how they got there. It makes me think of the penitential literature of the period–a lot of the things people could confess weren’t things people actually did, they were just these lurid fantasies thought up by bored monks.

MJ: When we talk about a “confession” now, we mean something fairly spontaneous and given in the accused person’s own words. Even those can be suspect if the accused has been subjected to intense interrogation. In 1440, it was very different. This is what Professor Thomas Fudgé wrote in his 2017 book, Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages:

“Confessions in many inquisitorial proceedings relating to heresy or witchcraft are remarkably similar in many parts of Europe. This may be attributed to the nature and standardized questions asked of the defendant or deponent. Leading questions were often asked. In many records there are no specific answers provided, only the single word affirmat meaning the witness has affirmed the point in question. Sometimes a statement of confession written in the first person would be drawn up by the court, which the accused or deponent would be compelled to sign or otherwise affirm.”

Lazy writers will say that Gilles de Rais made two confessions before the ecclesiastical court. The first, made privately in his own quarters, is preceded by the Inquisition rubric that it had been delivered “voluntarily, freely, and without any coercion whatsoever.” We know exactly what this assurance is worth, since he confessed only under the immediate threat of torture. It is short, has little detail, and does not mention murder.

The public one, made in court some thirty-six hours later, is the one usually quoted from, as it is longer, far more circumstantial, and has all the gory details. However, there was an earlier confession, not produced by threats (as far as we know) in which Gilles accepted the truth of the earlier heads of the Acts of Accusation (1-11 and 14, interestingly omitting the two articles that dealt with the qualifications of the Inquisitor Jean Blouyn). This meant he really confessed to nothing, since the accusations only started at Article 15. He did go on to admit–aloud, in public–that he read a book about alchemy and evocations that he obtained in Angers, and that he practised alchemy, though he specifically denied dealing with demons. Now, alchemy was perfectly legal and considered to be a suitable hobby for wealthy men; at least one Pope had written a treatise on it. It only became illegal if the Devil’s aid was invoked, which Gilles denied, or if it was the low form known as arquémie, in which the alchemist attempted to turn base metals to gold. This was clearly what Gilles meant. It was a minor offence, akin to forgery. It was not sufficient to get Gilles executed and his property confiscated; more was required.

The other two confessions bear a marked resemblance to those of his valets, Poitou and Henriet. Their confessions were certainly produced under torture and seem to be textbook examples of the leading question followed by affirmation technique of interrogation. It is their testimony that is most often cherry-picked in accounts of the trial; Gilles’ account usually seems confused and lacking in detail, whether the subject is murder or evoking demons. In between the first, private confession and the second, in court, it is certain that torture was applied. He had been promised, in return for confessing, that the torture would be deferred, but not that it would be waived altogether. The second confession was delivered in an evening session; all the others except one, after the interrogation of his friends, had taken place in the morning. It is usually claimed that he confessed at the mere threat of torture, and implied that he was a coward, but this is based on skim-reading the documents.

The confessions themselves are riddled with inconsistencies. It is not even possible to determine exactly what form of sexual assault is described; the accounts given before the ecclesiastical court differ from those given before the civil court. The only eye witnesses, Gilles himself and his two friends, contradict themselves and each other at every turn, and state impossibilities as facts. All the bodies were burned to ashes (a thing that would have been impossible without leaving visible remains). Except, that is for the eighty that were left lying around for several years, unnoticed, and had to be burned in two batches, in mid-summer, without attracting attention. Some of the other cremations took place in a manor house in Nantes with the Duke’s castle at one end of the street & the Bishop’s palace at the other. Or were the bodies taken to Machecoul for burning? The accused men do not agree.

From The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais:

“Gilles is a serial killer without any discernible modus operandi. The children are killed in a number of different ways, sometimes by Gilles himself and sometimes by his henchmen. This is not wholly impossible, but it adds an air of improbability, as if a number of possible tableaux was being presented for the delectation of a shocked audience. Interrogated as to who killed them, [Poitou] responded that occasionally the said Gilles, the accused, killed them by his own hand, occasionally he had them killed by the said Sillé or Henriet or him, the witness, or by anyone among them, together or separately. Interrogated as to the manner, he responded: sometimes beheading or decapitating them, sometimes cutting their throats, sometimes dismembering them, and sometimes breaking their necks with a cudgel: and that there was a sword dedicated to their execution, commonly called a braquemard.”

All of the more lurid parts of these confessions, including the murders as well as the sexual assaults, are related with a detail and a relish that suggest the imaginings of a few frustrated and unworldly celibates vying with each other to appal. The charges are generic: Gilles de Rais was accused of the same crimes that all outsiders were charged with. Witches, Gypsies, Jews, heretics, the Knights Templar…all faced accusations of sodomy, child abduction, murder, dealings with the Devil. All except Gilles de Rais are now almost universally seen as innocent victims.

DSH: If you could tell the people reading this one thing, what would it be?

MJ: Believe nothing you read about Gilles de Rais. The internet thrives on copypasta, and the “facts” that you read will have been taken from unreliable sources, quite probably from fiction. I have seen Gilles described as “Joan of Arc’s serial killer brother” and read descriptions of sexual acts that even his judges never thought to invent. Biographies are not much better, since very few are based on original research. All rely heavily on his original biographer, Bossard, who was not a historian. He took many of his so-called facts from an utterly bogus version of the trial record written in the late 19th century by a sensationalist author called Paul Lacroix.

Much of what we think we know about Gilles was invented by Lacroix, parroted by Bossard, and passed on to other biographers in a process of Chinese whispers. The illustrated Suetonius that supposedly gave Gilles the inspiration for his crimes? Lacroix invented it. The Bishop rising up and veiling the crucifix at the most horrific moment of Gilles’ confession? Lacroix originally, elaborated and improved upon by the Decadent author J-K Huysmans in his novel Là-Bas. Biographies of Gilles de Rais are largely fictional.

Jessica Cale

Margot Juby is a writer and biographer from King’s Lynn, Norfolk. She studied English at Hull, where, as poet Philip Larkin remarked to her some time later, she “got a First and (did) bugger all ever since.” Well, not quite bugger all. After years writing poetry, she decided to revisit a biography on Gilles de Rais she had questioned in school, and hasn’t stopped reading the sources since. Her upcoming book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais, is a labor of love nearly a decade in the making. You can visit her at http://www.gillesderaiswasinnocent.blogspot.com.

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