Hidden away inside his fortresses, Gilles de Rais senses the threat of the ecclesiastic and civil enquiries. But he is in a quandary for, surprisingly, at the height of his deliriums, he denies being in the total power of the Evil One; he is dual: one part infernal, one part calling God to help his soul…
On 13 September 1440, after some hesitations and prodded by the Bishop of Nantes, the Duke de Bretagne [Brittany] decides to arrest Gilles de Rais in his Machecoul Castle. He sends twenty archers, led by Captain Labbe, to Machecoul.
When the archers are announced, Gilles de Rais does not seek to resist. He has the drawbridge lowered and says:
“The moment has come to render account to God.”
His cousin and accomplice, Pierre de Sille, points out that there are only twenty archers, and that they, themselves, have many soldiers. Gilles answers:
“If there were only one, I would deliver myself to his mercy.”
His cousin insists that they defend themselves. Gilles replies:
“I forbid you to harm one hair of these people. For my astrologist told me that I was destined to become a monk in some abbey. And the one who is at the head of this little troop of archers is called Labbe [The abbot]. That is a sign. It is by Labbe that I will come back with my whole soul to God.”
He willingly surrenders himself. And has gold pieces distributed to the men who have come to arrest him.
He is taken to Nantes Prison. But he is treated with great respect. He is given an apartment to lodge his organ on wheels, his musicians, his Archdeacon, two bards, two choir boys, some valets. His table remains magnificent. Except for liberty, he is refused nothing.
Duke Jean de Bretagne delays judging him. Should such a trial be held for a Field-Marshal of France?
As for Gilles, too strong a character to have any consideration for the laws of men, settling only with himself the affairs of his destiny, and completely occupied with his salvation, he writes to Duke Jean from his lordly prison, the following astonishing letter:
“Monsieur my cousin and honoured Lord, it is very true that I am a sinner, and of all sinners perhaps the most detestable, having sinned with my body and soul in many, many occurrences. But the truth is also that I have never lacked in my duty toward religion, hearing many Masses, Vespers and Prayers, fasting at the holy times of Lent and at Feast Day vigils, confessing and deploring the said sins that Nature has made me commit and receiving very devoutly the blood of Our Lord at least once a year. I beg of you, Monsieur my cousin, that you give me licence to retire into a convent, to live there good and exemplary life. I do not care which convent you will assign to me for home. But I want all my goods, chattels and real estate, rents and acquisitions, lands, castles, fields, privileges, to be distributed into the hands of the poor who are Jesus Christ’s own limbs on this Earth. I desire also that, with my money, there be founded at Machecoul, Tiffauges and other places, Masses and Anniversaries in memory of certain mistreated children, for which I feel a bitter displeasure. While awaiting your glorious clemency, I call myself in all earthly humility, Brother Gilles, already Carmelite by intention.”
This contrition, which appears extravagant to us, is sincere. But is it the threat of a distribution of the enormous possessions which he still owns, “into the hands of the poor”? The Duke de Bretagne hesitates no longer. The trial opens.
On 11 October 1440, Gilles appears before Pierre de L’Hospital and the civil and ecclesiastic judges. He is dressed in white, decorated with all his lordly and military insignia, ornaments of knighthood, gold chains around his neck, jewels.
He is hardly in front of his judges when, without a glance at the crowd, straight and proud, he says:
“Messieurs, I beg you to rapidly judge my case and send me away in haste, for I am in a great hurry to consecrate myself to the service of God who has forgiven me my sins.”
To which it is replied that it is good and helpful to think of the salvation of one’s soul, but that this trial was to decide on the salvation of his body.
“I have fully confided in my confessor. He permitted me to approach the sacrements. Therefore, I am absolved and purified.”
He is told that the justice of men is not that of God, and is asked to swear on a book of Gospels and to declare the truth.
“Nenni. Witnesses are held, under oath, to declare what they know. The accused is not at all held to the oath.”
He is then informed that the accused can be obliged to it by torture.
“All the accusations retained against me are calumnious.”
He is asked if all the witnesses who are complaining of having lost their children have all lied under oath.
“Assuredly, if they accuse me of having lost them, myself. They didn’t give them to me to look after!”
For two days, he arrogantly denies everything. But on the evening of the second day, he learns that the Bishop is excommunicating him. He crumbles. He begs that the sentence be delayed. He cannot live a minute in a sacrilegious state. His life doesn’t matter to him, but his salvation does. If God is given back to him, he will tell the truth. He begins a terrible confession in his cell. And it is another man who now appears.
It is raining. Day has not yet dawned. In the side roads filled with dead leaves, through the pastures waving in the wind, the villagers are on their way. At dawn, the rumbling crowd invades the streets of Nantes, and climbs towards the ducal palace where the trial is being held. No-one wants to miss the last hearing, the confessions, the condemnation.
To be continued.