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RAIS (or RETZ), GILLES DE (1404-1440)

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Originally appearing in Volume V22, Page 864 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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RAIS (or RETZ), GILLES DE (1404-1440), marshal of France and the central figure of a 15th-century cause celbbre, whose name is associated with the story of Bluebeard, was the son of Guy de Montmorency-Laval, the adopted son and heir of Jeanne de Rais and of Marie de Craon. He was born at Machecoul in September or October 1404, and, being early left an orphan, was educated by his maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon. Chief among his great possessions was the barony of Rais (erected in the 16th century into the peerage-duchy of Retz), south of the Loire, on the marches of Brittany. He joined the party of the Montforts, supporting Jean V. of Brittany against the rival house of Penthievre. He helped to release Duke John from Olivier de Blois, count of Penthievre, who had taken him prisoner by craft, and was rewarded by extensive grants of land, which were subsequently commuted by the Breton parliament for money payments. In 1420, after other projects of marriage had fallen through, in two cases by the death of the bride, he married Katherine of Thouars, a great heiress in Brittany, La Vendee and Poitou. In 1426 he raised seven companies of men-at-arms, and began active warfare against the English under Artus de Richemont, the newly made . constable of France. He had already built up a military reputation when he was chosen to accompany Joan of Arc to Orleans. He continued to be her special protector, fighting by her side at Orleans, and afterwards at Jargeau and Patay. He had advocated further measures against the English on the Loire before carrying out the coronation of Charles VII. at Reims. On the 17th of July he was made marshal of France at Reims, and after the assault on Paris he was granted the right to bear the arms of France as a border to his shield, a privilege that was, however, never ratified. In the winter he was in Normandy, at Louviers, whether with a view to the release of Joan, then a prisoner at Rouen, cannot be stated. Meanwhile his fortune was disappearing, although he had been one of the richest men in France. He had expended great sums in the king's service, and he maintained a court of knights, squire-a, heralds and priests, more suited to royal than baronial rank. He kept open house, was a munificent patron of literature and of music, and his library contained many valuable works, he himself being a skilled illuminator and binder. He also indulged a passion for the stage. At the chief festivals he gave performances of mysteries and moralities, and it has been asserted that the Mystere de la Passion, acted at Angers in 1420, was staged by him in honour of his own marriage. The original draft of the Mystery of Orleans was probably written under his direction, and contains much detail which may be well accounted for by his intimate acquaintance with the Maid. In his financial difficulties he began to alienate his lands, selling his estates for small sums. These proceedings provided his heirs with material for lawsuits for many years. Among those who profited by his prodigality were the duke of Brittany, and his chancellor, Jean de Malestroit, bishop of Nantes, but in 1436 his kinsfolk appealed to Charles VII., who proclaimed further sales to be illegal. Jean V. refused to acknowledge the king's right to promulgate a decree of this kind in Brittany, and replied by making Gilles de Rais lieutenant of Brittany and by acknowledging him as a brother-in-arms. Gilles hoped to redeem his fortunes by alchemy; he also spent large sums on necromancers, who engaged to raise the devil for his assistance. On the other hand he sought to guarantee himself from evil consequences by extravagant charity and a splendid celebration of the rites of the church. The abominable practices of which he was really guilty seem not to have been suspected by his equals or superiors, though he had many accomplices and his criminality was suspected by the peasantry. His wife finally left him in 1434-35, and may possibly have become acquainted with his doings, and when his brother Rene de la Suze seized Champtoce, all traces of his crimes had not been removed, but family considerations no doubt imposed silence. His servants kidnapped children, generally boys, on his behalf, and these he tortured and murdered. The number of his victims was stated in the ecclesiastical trial to have been 140, and larger figures are quoted. The amazing impunity which he enjoyed was brought to an end in 1440, when he was imprudent enough to come into conflict with the church by an act of violence which involved sacrilege and infringement of clerical immunity. He had sold Saint Etienne de Malemort to the duke of Brittany's treasurer, Geffroi le Ferron. In the course of a quarrel over the delivery of the property to this man's brother, Jean le Ferron, Gilles seized Jean, who was in clerical orders, in church, and imprisoned him. He then proceeded to defy the duke, but was reconciled to him by Richemont. In the autumn, however, he was arrested and cited before the bishop of Nantes on various charges, the chief of which were heresy and murder. With the latter count the ecclesiastical court was incompetent to deal, and on the 8th of October Gilles refused to accept its jurisdiction. Terrified by excommunication, however, he acknowledged the evidence of the witnesses, and by confession he secured absolution. He had been pronounced guilty of apostasy and heresy by the inquisitor, and of vice and sacrilege by the bishop. A detailed confession was extracted by the threat of torture on the 21st of October. A separate and parallel inquiry was made by Pierre de 1'Hbpifal, president of the Breton parliament, by whose sentence he was hanged (not burned alive as is sometimes stated), on the 26th of October 1440, with two of his accomplices. In view of his own repeated confessions it seems impossible to doubt his guilt, but the numerous irregularities of the proceedings, the fact that his necromancer Prelati and other of his chief accomplices went unpunished, taken together with the financial interest of Jean V. in his ruin, have left a certain mystery over a trial, which, with the exception of the process of Joan of Arc, was the most famous in 15th-century France. His name is connected with the tale of Bluebeard (q.v.) in local tradition at Machecoul, Tiffauges, Pornic and Chemere, though the similarity between the two histories is at best vague. The records of the trial are preserved in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, at Nantes and elsewhere. See Eugene Bossard, Gilles de Rais, dit Bathe Bleue (2nd ed., x886), which includes the majority of the documents of the trial published originally by De Maulde; E. A. Vizetelly, Bluebeard (Igo2); H. C. Lea, Irish of the Inquisition (iii. 468, seq.); A. Molinier, Les Sources de l'histoire de France (No. 4185). Huysmans in Ld-bas describes his hero as engaged on a life of Gilles de Rais, and takes the opportunity for a striking picture of the trial.
End of Article: RAIS (or RETZ), GILLES DE (1404-1440)
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Additional information and Comments

It is now very widely supposed 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 boils down to hearsay; the very few cases where named children have vanished can be traced back to the testimony of just eight witnesses, which is not that many to suborn. (I am indebted to the scholar Kathleen Lehman for her painstaking examination of the trial records for this latter point).] In France, the subject of de Rais's possible 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 de loup', argued that Gilles de Rais was not guilty. Moreover, he summoned a Court of Cassation to re-try the case, which sensationally resulted in an acquittal. As of 1992, Gilles de Rais is officially an innocent man! There is even a rumour that he was put forward for canonization recently, but I have been unable to find the source of this story. He was certainly not the basis for Bluebeard, this is a very old story which appears all over the world in different forms. Morbid Morag
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