Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, 1404-1440: Gilles et Jeanne

Gilles et Jeanne.  Sounds like a Truffaut film.  The Jeanne in question is Joan of Arc, and the two did in fact work together, fought side by side for France, and both were vilified by and tried by Ecclesiastical courts.  Joan of Arc became a saint. Gilles became the template for Bluebeard.

We all have our bad days.

So what was the back story here, what got him to his ugly end?  You wouldn’t necessarily come to it by a look at his early years.   He was born in 1404, son of minor aristocrat who had fought for the King of France in the earlier stages of the Hundred Years War.   Gilles spoke Latin and illuminated manuscripts.   He was raised by his grandfather, an ambitious man who married Gilles off well, that is to say, to a girl whose family could increase the Monmorency-Laval estates. 

In the civil war that was the Hundred Years war,  Gilles came down on the side of Charles VII, the Dauphin who needed to be crowned to at Chinon to become official.  Gilles had been proving himself a brave and resourceful soldier for some time when Joan of Arc appeared on the scene.  She had it on heavenly authority that Charles, and not Henry, backed by England and Burgundy and crowned in Paris, was the rightful King of France.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the oddity of her station, he seemed willing to rally his small band of men to her banner both at the battle of Patay and at the Siege at Orleans.   For outstanding bravery in the face of danger, he was permitted to add the royal arms, the fleur de lys, to his own banner.  With no record, we can only guess at his reaction to her trial and execution.  Some say that he dropped her like a cold hearted highschool football player, others that he was genuinely distraught by the whole affair

So what was that all about, anyway?  The current received story is that it was a kangaroo court established to execute the girl for being too good in the fighting game.   It’s a good story, but there is always more than one version of the Truth.   The English Truth was that they were faced with a young woman who heard voices and who had turned the tide of unbroken English victories. Now since God was obviously on the side of the English (all those miraculous victories e.g. Agincourt, Crecy), such a sudden turnabout can only have been the work of the Devil.  Stands to reason.

With Joan executed and his grandfather dead, Gilles hung up his sword and returned to his estates.  What is a still young man of wealth and taste, able to indulge whatever vice or folly that struck his fancy, put his energies into? One line suggests debauchery.  The other points to a lengthy stage production about Joan and the siege of Chinon Le Mistère du Siège d’Orléans that he may have written (or co-written) and certainly had produced.

The whole enterprise involved hundreds of extras in extravagant costume and the best of contemporary special effects.  A Heaven’s Gate of the fifteenth century. Better, since all who attended were given free food and drink.  It was the least he could do for his saintly commander, wouldn’t you have loved to have seen it?

His estranged brother apparently did not.  Thought him quite mad, in fact.  Well, wasteful at least, and in an age when a person could die at any time and leave their estate to the still living, this was something of a concern.  As he sold off more land and chattel to finance his disgraceful (or, to his defenders, his generous-to-the-poor) lifestyle, the brother appealed to the king to order the brakes put on, which the king duly ordered – it was no benefit to the throne to have the cream of the social crop make public spectacles of themselves.   The man had been singled out for Royal Favor, dammit, he can’t go about playing silly buggers, even if he did mortgage the farm to supply the king with an army.

The story turns sinister.   De Rais is said to have taken an interest in the dark arts.  He wanted power and was allegedly fast talked into black magic to get it.  Rites involved body parts of children.  Stories began to circulate.  Children began to disappear.  Rumors were whispered, accusations flew.  His brother (who had succeeded in getting the king to prevent further sale of property) had moved into his estate at Champtoce.  Nothing incriminating in the estate in question, but Gilles worried that castle Machecoul might be next, and sent his men to destroy the remains of forty children lying about there.

So it is alleged. What is more certain is that he was on the outs with certain churchmen who had financial interests in his property.  With a band of wastrels,  Gilles, the wealthy ex-soldier, kidnapped a priest at high mass to convince the priest’s brother to back off.  The priest was soon released unharmed, but the incident was neither forgiven nor forgotten.

People were brought in for questioning, under torture to make sure they gave the right answers. What sorts of crimes would suffice to grab the attention of a jury already horribly familiar with the sickening excesses of the Hundred Years War?   We’re talking war crimes  fully on a par with the worst the twentieth century show, so any misdeeds laid at the feet of Gilles de Rais must of necessity be very grotesque indeed.

Murder, of course, that’s a given.  Make the murder of children.  Throw in some rape and sodomy too, in service to his need to commune with the Devil.  That should do the trick. No children or corpses found on his property? Details. We’ll sort it out in court.

He confessed without any actual torture, which say something either about him, the torture proposed, or both.  Or to the fact that his accusers had threatened to excommunicate him if he balked, which for a man of demonstrated faith was a fate worse than death.  He gave him.

The court pronounced him guilty and hanged him, which might have been some kind of mercy given what happened to Joan.  The remainder of his estate passed on to various different interests, some clerical, some familial, some entrepreneurial (among them Jean V Duke of Brittany).

And as true crime is a better sell than reclamation of slander, the reputation has stuck, at least in the anglophone world. In France, Charles VII himself condemned the trial two years later. In 1992, a group of French academics and government officials conferred over the case and after due consideration, recommended the guilty verdict be reversed.

Cold comfort, but better than nothing.

And of course the argument still goes on and balance is probably not in the cards at this late date.

Gilbert Prouteau,  Gilles de Rais, ou, La gueule du loup


2 thoughts on “Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, 1404-1440: Gilles et Jeanne

  1. Absolutely spot on. Jean de Malestroit was unwaveringly pro-English and Jean V was often inclined that way. Gilles was a French war hero tried and executed in Brittany. The Bishop of Nantes and the Duke of Brittany, as you say, had a financial interest in destroying him; but they also had a political one. Joan of Arc had been smeared as a heretic, but it did not stick; she was revered almost as a saint in Orléans and elsewhere. To smear Gilles, they had to up the ante. Even so, the people of Nantes wept and fasted after his death and his expiatory monument was visited by expectant mothers to ensure a plentiful supply of milk.

    Very refreshing to encounter another Anglophone who has read Prouteau. He died on August 2nd this year, twenty years after his Gilles de Rais biography shook things up to the point where Gilles was acquitted. I have tried to interest the BBC in making a programme about what must be one of the worst miscarriages of justice in history, but they have no interest in doing that. Insufficient name recognition, they say. Dumbing down, I say.

  2. “Insufficient name recognition”? Yikes. Granted, I try to aim at small targets, but the Joan connection alone should draw in the punters, and this post was more of a “have we heard the whole story?” sort of thing. Perhaps the History Channel might be interested? I mean to say, there’s only so much WWII stuff they can do, surely.

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