Gilles de Rais' trial in Nantes. The Bishop is in the centre on the left.

Is this the same man?  He is unrecognizable.  He is no longer wearing any insignia, jewels, or ermine collar.  He no longer has that air of haughtiness.  He is dressed like a villager.  He has put on the tunic of the people, which is ordinarily of red cloth.  This modesty envelops him in the colour of blood.

He is calm.  In peace.  Almost radiant.  And, however, at the entire disposition of the Duke de Bretagne, who has already taken for himself a good part of his possessions, of the Bishop of Nantes, who owes him too much money to have an impartial mind, of the civil judges, who will punish the crimes, of the ecclesiastical judges, who will punish the sacrileges, and of the People who demands vengeance for the children raped, tortured, their throats slit, their bodies cut into pieces.  He has nothing left, only self-loathing and senseless hope in divine misericord.

He rises:

“There is no-one in the world who knows or is able to understand all that I have done in my life.  There is no-one, on this planet, who is able to do it in this way…”

Then he begins the confession of all his crimes:

“It is very true, my lords, that I have ravished children from their mothers.  These children, I have killed them or had them killed, either by slitting their throats with dagger or knife, or by separating the head from the body with axe, or by breaking the skull with stick or hammer, or by splitting their chest, or by opening their belly.  Sometimes, by attaching them with a cord to an iron hook, other times by burning them…  These diabolical ideas came to me eight years ago.”

He is asked how many children.

“The count would be long, and I recall less their names than their heads before and after death.  In truth, the demon tormented me often.  And I confess to having invoked him many times.  But before doing it, I heard Mass and confessed myself, so that the devil could not bite into my soul.”

How many children?

“Around six twenties each year.”

Which makes nearly a thousand.

He gives so many horrible details, that he stops, exhausted.  In this silence, the old Bishop rises, stretches up on his toes, and puts his mantel over the crucified Christ, to veil it.

Gilles is crying.

The Bishop descends towards him, and places the weeping man’s head on his own shoulder.  Very moved, he says to him:

“Cry.  Cry so that your tears can cleanse the churning charnel house of your soul.”

And Gilles replies through his tears:

“I, who was the instrument of my downfall, may I be, by my repentance, the instrument of my salvation.”

An extraordinary moment, when the crowd of parents also cries over the tragedy of this perdition and this repentance.  When these people, who have Christ in their simple hearts, pass over horror and vengeance, to join misericord.

The Bishop returns to his place.  The trial is drawing to its end.

Before judgement is pronounced, Gilles asks that the Christ be unveiled, and, his eyes fixed on the Saviour’s face, declares in a strong, firm voice:

“My lords, and you, good people who are in this place, hear my last confession and interest yourselves in the salvation of my poor soul as a reward for my admissions.  I have merited an exemplary punishment both by men and by God, which punishment I accept with patience as the expiation of my sins and preparation for eternal life.”

When the sentence is pronounced – cord and fire – he again asks to speak:

“I, detestable sinner, thank God for having had me condemned according to my merits.”

He asks to be executed at the same time as his accomplices so as to be able to exhort them and show them the example of dying well.

“Request accorded, My Lord, and, because of your contrition, I again accord you that, the execution over, your body is to be removed from the fire before it starts to burn, and carried into the church of your choice.”

Gilles again asks to speak.  Extraordinarily, he addresses himself to the clergy, to celebrate the greatness of God who has maintained his soul above the demon.  He invites the auditory to venerate the Holy Church thanks to which, in spite of the Beast, he dies reconciled with his soul.  Extraordinarily, he begs the parents present, who still have children, to raise their progeniture severely, so as to keep it from the idleness and greediness which were his downfall.  And he implores the parents of the victims to pardon him and pray for him.

And what happens next, in this tribunal room, a chapel emptied for the circumstance, is incomprehensible and sublime:  the tribunal and the crowd all fall to their knees with hands joined in prayer, all of them imploring the salvation of this inhuman, torn, repentant soul, who is about to appear before God.


Gilles de Rais' execution in the presence of the parents of his victims.

The following day, at eleven o’clock in the morning, in the prairie of Biesse, on the bank of the Loire, mounted on the gibbet’s estrade, Gilles chants the De Profundis.  The prelates, the executioners and the human tide, respond.  He mounts the ladder, and passes the cord around his neck, himself:

“Good people who are here present to see what will be my end, I remind you that I am your Christian brother.  Therefore, pray for me.  I entreat the fathers and mothers of the children that I have killed, to please forgive me and pray God for me in memory of the Passion of Our Lord.  Do not be more inflexible toward me than God, please!  When my soul leaves my body, may My Lord Saint [the Archangel] Michael receive it and present it to God.”

He kicks the ladder over.  The cord tightens.  He dies.  He is thrown onto the fire, just the time necessary for the flames to lick him.  Then six veiled women, dressed in white, remove him, and place him in a coffin which is carried to the Carmelite convent.

At its passage, people kneel and pray.  At the passage of the remains of a very luxurious demon, so that the soul of a poor sinner can repose in peace.


To be continued.