God of the Witches 6


It is expedient that one man should die for the people.”–JOHN xi. 50.

THERE is a strong body of evidence to show that in the primitive cult of Western Europe the god was sacrificed. The Christian inquisitors are unanimous on this point, and the direct accounts given at the trials of the witches confirm their statements.

In countries where such sacrifices were offered there were three methods of killing the victim: (1) by fire, the ashes being scattered on the fields or thrown into running water, (2) by shedding of blood so that the blood should actually fall on the ground, (3) by some form of asphyxiation; in this case the body was either dismembered and the fragments buried in the fields, or was burnt and the ashes scattered. The incarnate god was originally the king or chief of the tribe, later his place was taken by a substitute, who was often for a time allowed the status and insignia of royalty. Mock kings, who were put to death at the end of a given term, are a well-known feature of early religions.

The underlying meaning of the sacrifice of the divine victim is that the spirit of God takes up its abode in a human being, usually the king, who thereby becomes the giver of fertility to all his kingdom. When the divine man begins to show signs of age he is put, to death lest the spirit of God should also grow old and weaken like its human container. But until the time of sacrifice arrives no sacrilegious hand may be raised against the incarnate god; for his death, by accident or design, means overwhelming disaster to his people. When, however, the time comes for him to die no hand may be outstretched to save him. In some places the time of death was indicated by signs of approaching age, such as grey hair or loss of teeth; in other places a term of years was fixed, usually either seven or nine. When the changes inevitable to all human customs gradually took place, a substitute could suffer in the king’s stead, dying at the time the king should have died and thus giving the king a further lease of life.

This, put shortly, is the theory and cult of the Dying God. The belief belongs to all parts of the Old World, and survives in Africa into the present century. It was a fundamental dogma of the pre-Christian religion of Europe, believed in and practised as ardently as among the Africans of to-day.

To investigate the subject of the Divine Victim of the Witch-cult it is essential to put aside all preconceived ideas, remembering always that the records were made by the prejudiced pens of monkish chroniclers. The subject must be approached with the same unbiassed mind as though the religion under investigation belonged to ancient Egypt or to modern savages. That the sacrifice was repeatedly consummated within the historic period of our own country and of France depends upon evidence which would be accepted if it were offered in respect of an Oriental or African religion.

There are indications that in England the sacrifice took place every seven years, in Normandy, Scandinavia and France every nine years. In the seven-year cycle King Edmund was stabbed at Pucklechurch in May, 946; in November, 1016, Edmund Ironside was done to death, according to some authorities by a vote of the Witan, and like Rufus the mode of death was by an arrow; in August, 1100, Rufus fell in the New Forest. In all these instances the month is noticeable as being one in which one of the four great Sabbaths was held.

In the nine-year cycle the month is apparently of no importance. Here the evidence is chiefly from France and Scandinavia. A traditional king of Sweden is said to have sacrificed a substitute every nine years until the ninth had been offered up; he died at an advanced age before it was time to sacrifice the tenth. In 792, Osred, king of Northumbria, was put to death. In 1035, Cnut died or was murdered. In 1080, Walchere, bishop of Durham, was slain by the people at the gate of his own church. It is worth noting that he was from Lorraine, Joan of Arc’s country, and that when he was conducted to Winchester to be consecrated, queen Edgitha remarked, “We have here a noble martyr”. In 1431, Joan of Arc perished at the stake; in 1440, Gilles de Rais was hanged. At the intersection of the two cycles, in 1170, Thomas à Becket was murdered at Canterbury.

I now bring forward the evidence for regarding four well-known historical personages as Divine Victims; William Rufus, Thomas à Becket, Joan of Arc, and Gilles de Rais. The Church has canonised two and execrated two, but the records show that in all four cases there are underlying factors suppressed by the Christian chroniclers, which must be sought for in order to explain the otherwise inexplicable events.

William Rufus[1]

In the case of William Rufus it is only by realising that all the factors were not recorded by the Christian chroniclers that any explanation of his character or the events of his life and death can be obtained. Freeman, having no anthropological knowledge, is entirely biassed by the ecclesiastical point of view, and acknowledges himself totally unable to understand the character of Rufus or to explain many of the events of his reign. If, however, it is granted that Rufus was not a Christian but a professed Pagan, his character becomes quite consistent, and his life and death are in keeping with his religion.

By ancestry, Rufus came of a Pagan stock which regarded the king as a deity (or devil, if the Christian phraseology is used). It is recorded that at the end of the tenth century or beginning of the eleventh, the Devil, in the likeness of the Duke of Normandy, came to the Duke’s wife in a wood, and as the result of the union she bore a son who was known as Robert the Devil. There was nothing in Robert’s character to warrant such an appellation if the word had an evil connotation; but if, as I maintain, the Chief or king were regarded as God Incarnate among the Normans, the son of the king would become on accession both king and god. It would be entirely consonant with the usual Christian practice to stigmatise the heathen divinity as the Devil even when in human form, and the belief that the old god was the enemy of the new would account for the use of the epithet. The son of Robert the Devil was William the Conqueror, who married his cousin Matilda, therefore on both his father’s and his mother’s side Rufus descended from a Pagan chief or Devil.

Many of the Red King’s friends and intimates were openly heathen or had merely the thinnest veneer of Christianity. His chief adviser was Randolf Flambard, the son of a Pagan woman, or “witch” as the priestly chroniclers called her.

As regards the character of Rufus, which Freeman acknowledges he cannot estimate, it displays all the Pagan virtues. Rufus was a dutiful son, an able and competent ruler, a faithful friend, a generous enemy, recklessly courageous, lavishly openhanded, and was never known to break his plighted word. The Church accused him of immorality, but unlike his Christian father and his Christian brothers he left no illegitimate children. He had the savagery of his period, but he never killed with that fiendish refinement of cruelty which marked Henry I’s treatment of Conan; but as Henry was, professedly a Christian and always favoured the Church his faults and sins were condoned and glossed over by the monkish historians. Yet Ordericus Vitalis, monk though he was and prejudiced by his Christianity, sums up the character of William II in a manner which shows the king as a great man and a fine ruler: “Rufus was imperious, daring and warlike, and gloried in the pomp of his numerous troops. The king’s memory was very tenacious, and his zeal for good or evil was ardent. Robbers and thieves felt the terrible weight of his power, and his efforts to keep the peace throughout his dominion were unceasing. He so managed his subjects, either by making them partakers of his bounty or curbing them by the terror of his arms, that no one dared whisper a word in opposition to his will.” Rufus compares favourably with any of his contemporaries, more especially with his father and brothers. It is clear therefore that the antagonism he aroused in the priestly chroniclers was due to some cause other than his personal character.

It is customary also to speak with bated breath of the “awful” death of Rufus, but if the account of his death and burial are compared with those of his father the “awfulness” will be found to belong to the passing of the Christian, rather than of the Pagan, king. The monkish writers make much of the fact that Rufus met his death in the New Forest, and affect to regard it as a judgment upon him for destroying for his own pleasure villages and churches, great stress being, of course, laid on the destruction of the churches. But the chroniclers conveniently forgot that it was the Christian Conqueror who made the Forest, and that it was his equally Christian son, Henry I, who strengthened the Conqueror’s game-laws and stringently enforced them. If death in the New Forest were really a judgment of God for the destruction of churches, it was the Conqueror who should have died there and not Rufus.

The first surprising event in the career of Rufus was his reception as king by the English. That the son of the savage Conqueror, who had so recently devastated the land, should be accepted whole-heartedly by the people needs some explanation. The Conqueror’s dying bequest would have had no weight, and Lanfranc was important only in a restricted circle. If however Rufus belonged to the Old Religion his position becomes clear. Lanfranc gained from him a promise to respect the Church during his (Lanfranc’s) lifetime; and it has always been remarked that Rufus not only kept this promise but throughout his life he never interfered with any benefactions which his father had made to Christian foundations. On Lanfranc’s death Rufus was no longer bound by his promise; and, as Freeman puts it, “one aspect of the reign of William Rufus sets him before us as the enemy, almost the persecutor, of the Church in his realm”.

The stories told of Rufus bear all the marks of truth and show him as definitely a Pagan. He jeered openly at Christianity, delighting to set Jews and Christians to discuss the merits of their respective religions; he plundered churches and religious establishments, “have ye not chests full of bones of dead men, but wrought about with gold and silver”, said one of his ministers to the monks who protested that they had no money for the king. Rufus openly declared that neither St. Peter nor any other saint had any influence with God, and he would ask none of them for help. One of the accusations against Rufus was that he had the temerity to disbelieve in the ordeal. When fifty deer-stealers had cleared themselves by this means, Rufus said that God either did not know the deeds of men or else he weighed them in an unfair balance. He was also wroth if anyone ventured to add the usual reserve of God’s will to anything that he (Rufus) undertook or ordered to be undertaken. He had that belief in himself that he would have everything referred to his wisdom and power only. This is quite consistent if Rufus believed himself to be God Incarnate.

Our knowledge of Rufus is obtained chiefly from Christian chroniclers, at whose hands the character of a heathen king would receive scant justice. How far such chronicles may be trusted can be seen by comparing the portrait of Randolf Flambard as drawn by the priestly writers of southern England with that shown by the monks of Durham. In the hands of the southerners he is a monster of wickedness, without a redeeming feature, while the northerners represent him as a meek and holy saint. In England Rufus has been recorded only by those men who also vilified Flambard, but in Normandy his deeds were acclaimed by poets who were not ecclesiastics and who might not even have been Christians. The whole story of Rufus has been presented to the modern reader from the records of his bitter enemies.

The accounts of his death are varied though all agree that he was killed by an arrow shot by one of his own people while he was hunting in the New Forest. It is clear that his death was expected, and the account of his last hours indicates that he knew his time had come. He could not sleep during the previous night, and he ordered lights to be brought into his bed-chamber and made his chamberlains enter and talk with him. All the forenoon of that fatal day he occupied himself with serious business, and how well he did this is shown by the fact that there was no confusion or loss of time in the appointment and crowning of his successor. His business being ended, he went to his dinner, when he ate and drank more than usual. He then began to array himself for his last ride, and while his boots were being laced a smith brought him six new arrows for use with the cross-bow. The king took them joyfully and gave two to Walter Tyrrel, saying significantly, “It is right that the sharpest arrows should be given to him who knows how to deal deadly strokes with them”. There came at this moment a letter from Abbot Serlo urging the king not to go hunting as one of the monks had had a warning dream that such an expedition meant death. Rufus merely laughed and made a sarcastic remark about “snoring monks”, but with his usual lavish generosity sent the dreamer a handsome present in money. He then turned to Tyrrel with another significant remark, “Walter, do thou do justice according to those things which thou hast heard”. Tyrrel answered with equal significance, “So I will, my lord”.

In the Forest the king dismounted and stood with Tyrrel waiting for the deer to pass. The usual story is that the king shot and missed, then Tyrrel loosed his arrow which glanced off the stag’s antlers or off the branch of a tree and pierced the king’s heart. The most vivid account is from William of Malmesbury, who says that it was late in the afternoon, “the sun was now declining, when the king, drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded a stag; and keenly gazing followed it, still running, a long time with his eyes, holding up his hand to keep off the power of the sun’s rays”. Walter then shot at another stag and by mischance the arrow pierced the king. “On receiving the wound the king uttered not a word; but breaking off the shaft of the weapon where it projected from his body, fell upon the wound by which he accelerated his death”. Knighton’s version is also dramatic; and if the words attributed to Rufus are true they convey the idea that the killing was premeditated and that Rufus was aware that his end was at hand. He was shooting at a stag and his bowstring broke; he called to Tyrrel to shoot, but Tyrrel hesitated. Then Rufus burst out, “Draw, draw your bow for the Devil’s sake and let fly your arrow, or it will be the worse for you” (Trahe, trahe arcum ex Parte diaboli, et extende sagittam, alias te poenitebit).

The body, according to the ecclesiastical account, was found by a charcoal burner. It was placed on a rough cart, covered with a poor ragged cloak and conveyed for burial to Winchester. William of Malmesbury makes a great point of the blood dripping to the earth during the whole journey; though this is an actual impossibility the record is consistent with the belief that the blood of the Divine Victim must fall on the ground to fertilise it. Malmesbury notes that Rufus was mourned by few of the nobles and ecclesiastics who attended his funeral, but Ordericus records that the poor, the widows, the mendicants, went out to meet the funeral procession and followed the dead king to his grave. This fact alone shows that to the common people he had been a just ruler and that they knew they had lost a friend, it also suggests that the peasantry were still Pagan and mourned their dead god.

The Norman accounts of the finding and burial of the body were written by poets, not priests. The lamentations of the nobles, who wept and tore their hair, are first described; then follows the making of the bier, which was strewn with flowers and slung between two richly harnessed palfreys. A baron’s mantle was spread on the bier, and on this the king’s body was laid, and another rich mantle was laid over him. With mourning and grief the procession went to Winchester, where they were received by nobles, clergy, bishops and abbots. The next day was the burial, when for him monk and clerk and abbot “bien ont lu et bien chanté“. Never had such a funeral been seen, never had so many masses been sung for any king as for him.

The death of Rufus was expected before it happened, and was known within a few hours in Italy and in more than one place in England. In Belgium Hugh, Abbot of Clugny, was warned the previous night that the king’s life was at an end. On the day of the death Peter de Melvis in Devonshire met a rough common man bearing a bloody dart, who said to him, “With this dart your king was killed to-day”. The same day the Earl of Cornwall, while walking in the woods, met a large black hairy goat carrying the figure of the king. On being questioned the goat replied that he was the Devil taking the king to judgment. Anselm received the news in Italy through a young and splendid man, who told the clerk on guard at Anselm’s door that all dissension between the king and the archbishop was now at an end. A monk, of the Order to which Ordericus Vitalis belonged, had a vision very early in the morning after the death of Rufus; he was chanting in the church when he beheld through his closed eyes a person holding out a paper on which was written, “King William is dead”; when he opened his eyes the person had vanished.

Though the stories are slightly childish they all suggest that the death was expected, and the news was probably signalled from one place to another. The most suggestive of the stories is that of the black goat, when it is remembered that this was the form in which the ancient god (in Christian parlance, the Devil) was wont to appear in France.

In the entire history of Rufus, more particularly in the stories of his death, it is clear that the whole truth is not given; something is kept back. If, however, Rufus was in the eyes of his subjects the God Incarnate, Man Divine, who died for his people, the Christian chroniclers would naturally not record a fact which to them would savour of blasphemy, and the Pagans, being illiterate, made no records.

The date of Rufus’s death, August 2nd, seems significant; it is always emphatically called “the morrow of Lammas”. Lammas, the 1st of August, was one of the four great Festivals of the Old Religion and there is evidence to show that it was on the great Sabbaths only that the human sacrifice was offered. If then my theory is correct Rufus died as the Divine Victim in the seven-year cycle.

Thomas à Becket[2]

The death of Thomas à Becket presents many features which are explicable only by the theory that he also was the substitute for a Divine King. The relative position of King and Archbishop from Saxon times onward was so peculiar that it suggests a closer connection between the two offices than appears at first sight. The most remarkable instances are Edwy and Dunstan, William the Conqueror and Lanfranc, Rufus and Anselm, Henry II and Becket. The quarrels between king and archbishop were not always politico -religious, there was often a strong personal element; such bitter quarrels never occurred with the Archbishop of York, whose importance in the North was as great as that of Canterbury in the South. In the dissensions between Rufus and Anselm as well as in the disputes between Henry and Becket most of the bishops sided with the king. It is possible that, as wherever there had been a flamen of the Pagan religion a bishopric had been founded and an archbishop had replaced an arch-flamen, the duties of the arch-flamen of Canterbury descended to his Christian successor. If this were so, was perhaps one of those duties that the arch-flamen should act as the substitute for the king when a royal victim was required?

Though there is as yet no actual proof of this theory, certain facts go to support it. Dunstan’s behaviour to Edwy was that of the mock king to the real king, as can be seen in innumerable instances where the mock king’s actions are recorded. The stories of Dunstan’s magical powers show that he was regarded by the people as having more than mortal qualities. He died on February 2nd, one of the four great quarterly Sabbaths. William I was not called upon for sacrifice, therefore Lanfranc’s relations with the king were friendly; but it should be noted that the appointment to the see was entirely in the king’s hands, and that Lanfranc accepted the post as a king’s man. The bitter quarrels between Rufus and Anselm seem to owe their point to personal feeling. If the Pagan Rufus were prepared to fulfil the old custom of sacrifice, he might naturally desire a substitute. Anselm’s persistent appeal to the Pope, though at first he had been content to accept his high position from Rufus, may mean that he refused to be the victim, perhaps from want of personal courage or because he would not consent to a Pagan custom, which in the end Rufus had to fulfil in his own person.

With Henry II and Becket there was the same conflict. Like Anselm, Becket was not supported by the greater number of his fellow-bishops, and like Anselm, also, he was driven out of the country by the king. But Henry was a sterner and more ruthless man than Rufus; and when Becket continued obstinate his kinsfolk were stripped of their possessions and driven into exile and Henry used all the means in his power to force Becket to surrender, and succeeded in the end. The last time that the two met was in Normandy, and when the archbishop mounted his horse to leave the king held the stirrup for him. This humility was not in accordance with Henry’s character, but if Becket had consented to be the Divine Victim the real king would then, according to custom, be subordinate for the time being to the mock king.

That Becket was regarded as a Divine Victim is seen in the comparisons between his death and that of Christ, which are found in all the contemporary biographies, comparisons quite impossible if the death of the archbishop were simply murder. The monk, William of Canterbury, who was actually an eye-witness of the scene in Canterbury Cathedral, forces the parallel to an extraordinary extent: “As the Lord, his passion being imminent, approached the place of suffering, so Thomas, aware of coming events, drew near to the place in which he should suffer. They sought to seize, as Jesus, so Thomas, but no one put a hand on him because his hour was not yet come. The Lord went in triumphal procession before His passion, Thomas before his. The Lord suffered after supper, and Thomas suffered after supper. The Lord for three days was guarded in Jerusalem by the Jews, Thomas for some days was guarded in the enclosure of his church. The Lord going to meet those who sought to attack Him, said, ‘I am he whom ye seek’: Thomas to those who sought him, ‘Behold me’. The Lord, ‘If ye seek me, let these depart’; Thomas, ‘Hurt none of those who stand by’. That one there, this one here, was wounded. There four soldiers, here four soldiers. There the sharing of the garments, here of the mules. There the dispersion of the disciples, here the dispersion of the underlings. There the veil was rent, here the sword was broken. The Lord gave forth water and blood unto salvation; Thomas water and blood unto health. The Lord restored the lost world, Thomas recalled to life many lost ones.”

Like Rufus Becket knew that his death was near and that it would be by violence; and, again as in the case of Rufus, monks dreamed of his approaching death. William of Canterbury says in the Vita, “he knew that the sword threatened his head, and the time was at hand for his sacrifice.” This was on the 29th of December, the very day of the martyrdom, when Becket made his last confession to William of Maidstone. It is also noticeable in the quotation given above that it was acknowledged that his time was already fixed “for his hour was not yet come”. The knights’ mocking words at the end seem to indicate that Becket had some claim to royal power.

The whole account of the murder is given by the eye-witness, William of Canterbury, who appears to have been a visitor at the monastery at the time. The scenes are vividly described; the violence of the knights, the perturbation of the frightened monks, their disorganised and ineffective attempts to save their chief, and the determination of Becket to be killed. After the first interview with the knights, the monks gathered round Becket and pushed him through the door though he struggled against them. “Thence gradually he progressed by slow degrees as if voluntarily courting death.” He saw the people assembled as if at a spectacle and asked what it was that they feared, and was told, “Armed men in the cloisters”. At once he tried to force his way out, but was prevented by the monks who urged him to take refuge in the sanctuary of the cathedral. He fairly lost his temper when he saw them trying to bar the door. “Go away,” he said, “cowards! Let the miserable and the blind rave. We command you by virtue of your obedience not to shut the door!” The knights rushed in, and when they hesitated to begin Becket deliberately taunted them as if intending to make them lose control. He then bent his head, stretching out his neck that they might the more conveniently strike with their swords. After the first blow he fell face downwards, as though prostrate in prayer, and in that attitude was despatched. The terrified monks had fled to the altar fearing that every moment would be their last; but the knights had no enmity to them. They broke the arm of the English monk, Edward Grim, who defended Becket to the last, and another priest, who ran out evidently with some wild idea of giving help, was half stunned by a blow on the head with the flat of a sword, otherwise the flustered crowd at the altar received no hurt. The knights cried out mockingly, when the murder was consummated, “He wished to be king, he wished to be more than king, just let him be king.”

The account continues with a description of the appearance of Becket’s body after death. “He did not seem to be dead, but by the vivid colour, the closed eyes and mouth, to be asleep. The limbs did not throb, no rigor of the body, no discharge issuing from the mouth or nostrils, nor was anything of the kind seen throughout the night by the watchers. But the flexibility of the fingers, the peace of the limbs, the cheerfulness and graciousness of the face, declared him a glorified man, even if his life and the cause of his passion had been silent.” This condition is not in accordance with the appearance of a body after death by the kind of wounds which killed Becket, but the miraculous condition of the body of a Divine Victim is commented on not only in the case of Becket but in the cases of Rufus and Joan of Arc. The body of Rufus dripped blood all the way to Winchester, though bleeding normally ceases soon after death. Joan’s heart was found unconsumed and full of blood when the ashes were gathered up to be thrown into the river. In all three cases the miraculous element in the body after death is emphasised.

The ritual beating of the king after the death of his substitute was transformed by the Church into penance for the murder. Here the ritual flagellation was, as is always the case, severe enough to draw blood, so though the king was not killed his blood was shed.

As with Rufus, the death of Becket was known in many places on the same day on which it occurred or within a few hours of the event. At Argentan a voice was heard crying horribly, “Behold, my blood cries from the ground to God more loudly than the blood of righteous Abel who was killed at the beginning of the world”. The very night of the murder the news was known in Jerusalem. The most remarkable story is of a small boy of seven in the remote parts of Devonshire, who announced to the company assembled at dinner that a “very good priest is dead and is just now killed”; though the company laughed and were amused, they heard in seven or eight days that the dreadful tidings were true, and they magnified “God who so wonderfully awakened the spirit of a young and innocent child to reveal this matter at the very hour”. It is interesting to note that the deaths of both Rufus and Becket were miraculously known in Devonshire at the very moment that they occurred. It is suggestive of a preconcerted means of conveying news which was evidently expected.

The miracles performed by the body of Becket began directly after his death, and were a source of enormous profit to his shrine at Canterbury. The miracles are interesting as showing the type of mind which could believe them, a type which belonged even to the educated men who recorded them. Among the miracles are some performed on animals, including a story of a starling which had been taught to speak; being caught by a hawk it called out the name of St. Thomas Becket, and the hawk at once let it escape. William of Canterbury accounts for the sudden miraculous power of Becket by propounding the theory that the older saints, having had their fill of glory, retire in favour of the newer martyrs. The true interest of these stories lies, however, in showing that the ideas and customs of that period cannot be judged by the standards of our own times. Belief in the power of the dead, especially the dead god, was still a living force.

A considerable body of folklore and legend grew up round Becket as it did round Joan of Arc. The murderers of Becket came to a bad end according to popular tradition, and the same untrustworthy authority meted out a like fate to Joan’s judges. In a folk-tale poetic justice invariably overtakes the villains of the piece, but unfortunately the records, where they are obtainable, show that all Becket’s murderers did not die horrible deaths. Hugh de Moreville is known to have become very wealthy, and died fourteen years later quite undramatically.

Joan of Arc

The story of Joan of Arc has been told and re-told many times, usually with a markedly ecclesiastical bias, often with a surprising want of critical acumen and even of historical facts. One of the main sources of our knowledge is the record of her trial before an ecclesiastical court presided over by the bishop of Beauvais and the deputy of the Inquisitor of France.[3] Next in importance is the document of the Rehabilitation.[3] Besides these there are contemporary accounts of her meteoric career, from the time when she sought out Robert de Beaudricourt to inform him of her mission until that day at Compiègne, when she was taken prisoner by the Burgundians (plate XVI).

She came from Lorraine, a district where a century earlier the Synod of Trèves[4] had fulminated against “all kinds of magic, sorcery, witchcraft, auguries, superstitious writings, observings of days and months, prognostics drawn from the flight of birds or similar things, observation of the stars in order to judge of the destiny of persons born under certain constellations, the illusions of women who boast that they ride at night with Diana or with Herodias and a multitude of other women”. A century after Joan’s trial, the inquisitor Nicolas Remy[5] could pride himself on having put to death hundreds of “witches” in that same district. The backwardness of the country in the time of Joan is shown by the survival of the custom of giving the mother’s surname, not the father’s, to the children. Clearly then both in social and religious customs Joan’s native country still kept many of its more primitive ways.

One of the chief accusations against Joan, and one which she could not refute, was that she had dealings with the fairies. Even her godmother, who should have seen that she was brought up as a Christian, was acquainted with the fairies; and the Sieur de Bourlemont, one of the principal land-owners near Domremy, was married to a fairy lady. It was while engaged in religious ceremonies at the Fairy Tree of Bourlemont that Joan first saw the personages whom she called her Voices, and to whom she gave the names of Christian saints. Her description of the Voices shows that they were certainly human beings and the records prove her words beyond a doubt. It is as yet impossible to identify the two women, but there is a strong indication as to the St. Michael, for at her trial Joan stated that St. Michael provided her with her first suit of armour -, later, the honour of having been the donor was claimed by Robert de Beaudricourt and Jean de Metz, both of them men of her own country.

Before accepting her, the Dauphin insisted that she should be examined by a body of learned doctors of the Church in order to ascertain if her mission had in it anything “contrary to the Faith”. Had the whole country been Christian, as we are always led to believe, such an examination would not have been thought of, but if the greater part of the peasantry, especially in out-of-the-way districts like Lorraine, were still Pagan, an examination of the kind was a necessary preliminary precaution for a Christian prince. When Charles appointed her to her high position in the army he told her to choose from his suite the man whom she desired to be her protector in battle. Out of all those courtiers and soldiers she chose Gilles de Rais, the man who nine years afterwards was tried and suffered for his faith as she did. It was at this time that she said to the Dauphin, Make the most of me, for I shall last only one year” significant remark which showed that, like Rufus and Becket and many other Divine Victims, she knew that her end would come at an appointed time.

Her career of victory is too well known to recapitulate here. Only one comment is needed: if she were regarded by the Pagan men-at-arms as God Incarnate her marvellous power over them is accounted for; they would follow where she led in battle, counting it an honour to give their lives in defence of hers. It was the coming of God in person which put heart into the French troops. The records show that in the eyes of the people she was divine. Article III of the Articles of Accusation states this in plain terms: “Item, the said Joan by her inventions has seduced the Catholic people, many in her presence adored her as a saint and adored her also in her absence, commanding in her honour masses and collects in the churches; even more, they declared her the greatest of all the saints after the holy Virgin; they set up images and representations of her in the shrines of the saints, and also carried on their persons her representation in lead or in other metal as they are wont to do for the memorials and representations of saints canonised by the Church; they say everywhere that she is ‘the envoy (nuntia) of God and that she is more angel than woman.” According to the records she raised the dead, the sick were cured of all diseases by the touch of her garments; and as even professed Christians counted her as almost equal to the Virgin it is more than likely that in the eyes of her Pagan followers she was God indeed. An interesting little sidelight is thrown on the popular opinion of her by Dame Margareta La Touroulde, widow of Réné de Bouligny, Councillor and Receiver-General of the King, who stated at the Enquiry for Rehabilitation that Joan had stayed with her at Bourges and that they had often talked together; she had said to Joan that she (Joan) did not fear to go to the assault because she knew quite well that she would not be killed. Though Joan denied that she was in greater security than the soldiers the remark indicates the feeling towards her. Thibauld de Termes, Bailly of Chartres, was of opinion that what she did was more divine than human. Her own opinion of herself is best expressed in her own words when, in the course of her trial, she boasted to her judges that her Voices spoke of her as “Johanna Puella Filia Dei.” Five years after the trial her faithful friend and admirer, Gilles de Rais, wrote and staged in her honour a mystery-play, of the type which is known at the present day as a passion-play. At Orleans the great yearly festival, which seems to have originated in pre-Christian times, was given her name, and is still celebrated as the Fêtes de Yeanne d’Arc.

Joan was taken prisoner at Compiègne on May 23rd, 1430, by the Burgundian noble, Jean de Luxembourg. Three days later the Greffier of the University of Paris sent a summons under the seal of the Inquisitor to the Duke of Burgundy demanding that Joan should be sent to Paris to be questioned by the ecclesiastical authority. It is possible that the Duke did not reply, at any rate his answer has not survived. Joan was not sent to Paris and remained for six months in Burgundian hands. This is a surprising fact, for at that period to capture in battle a person of high rank meant a great accession of wealth to the lucky captor, whose fortune was often made by the ransom. Joan was rich, thanks to the king’s generosity, Charles owed everything to her and might be expected to feel his indebtedness; Gilles de Rais, her chosen protector, had vast wealth; the city of Orleans, which regarded her as its saviour, was not poor. Yet no trace or tradition remains that any Frenchman offered to ransom or rescue her; she was left to her fate. At the end of six months, when there was still no sign of a French ransom, the Burgundians sold her to the English, and at once the Church, through the Bishop of Beauvais, demanded that ecclesiastical trial which had previously been vainly demanded by the University of Paris.

The trial began on the 9th of January, 1431. The court was composed entirely of priests and monks, presided over by the Bishop of Beauvais and the deputy of the Inquisitor of France. She was tried for her faith as the articles of Accusation make clear. A damning fact was that she had held communication with “evil spirits” at the Fairy Tree; in fact, like John Walsh in Dorsetshire, Bessie Dunlop in Ayrshire, Alesoun Peirson in Fifeshire, and many others, her connection with the fairies was proof positive that she was not of the Church. To the modern mind imbued with the present-day ideas of fairies, such an accusation appears too puerile to be taken seriously, but the proofs that a connection of the kind was considered as a capital offence are too frequent to be disregarded. It must also be remembered that Joan was not the only witch tried for her faith who surprised the court by the quickness of her wit and the shrewd intelligence of her answers. The Witches of Bargarran in Renfrewshire, in 1697, had the same effect on their hearers. “Several of them are persons of singular knowledge and acuteness beyond the level of their station. Margaret Lang did make harangues in her own defence which neither divine nor lawyer could well outdo. Their answers to the trying questions put to them were surprisingly subtle and cautious.”[6]

Though Joan was obviously guided in her answers by someone in the court, it is equally clear that she was being guided to her doom. She acknowledged that “St. Katherine” was often in the court directing her how to reply, and that the saint even succeeded in speaking to her in her room in the prison, presumably through the spy-hole communicating with the next room. In the Rehabilitation, Frére Isambard stated that he was threatened with a ducking because he nudged her and winked at her to indicate how she should reply; the threat so frightened him that he fled to his convent. The priest Loyseleur, who was accused after his death of being an agent provocateur became her adviser. She was often excessively offhand to her judges, treating them consistently with a disrespect unexpected from a Christian towards those in authority in the Church. She often refused to answer a question, saying “Pass that by”. Sometimes she would say that she would answer a question after an interval of time, two days or four days, or even as long as eight days. At the end of the time required her answer would be ready, showing that she was receiving advice from a distance. Maitre Jean Lohier–whose position as a legal or ecclesiastical authority is not defined, he is merely called “a grave Norman clerk”–is reported to have given it as his considered opinion that had Joan been less positive in her statements she could not have been condemned.

There was a strong feeling at the time that she was not burned, but either escaped or was set free. This opinion was openly expressed and does not seem to have been contradicted by any responsible person. Thus in the Chronique de Lorraine it is stated that “the Pucelle was lost at Compiègne, and no one knew what had become of her; many said that the English had captured her, had taken her to Rouen and burned her; others said that some of the army had killed her because she took all the honour of feats of arms to herself.” The Chronique de Metz also discredits the story of the burning, “Then she was sent to the city of Rouen in Normandy, and there was placed on a scaffold and burned in a fire, so it was said, but since then was found to be the contrary”. Jean Chartier says, “She was burnt publicly, or another woman resembling her; concerning which many people have been and still are of diverse opinions.” The author of the Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris states that “many persons who were deceived by her believed firmly that by her holiness she had escaped the fire, and that someone else had been burned and not herself”. It is the same Bourgeois de Paris who speaks of her as “a creature in the form of a woman, who was called the Pucelle. Who she was God knows”. In 1436 at Arles a man called Veyrier quarrelled with another man called Romieu, because Veyrier declared that the Pucelle of France burnt by the English at Rouen was still alive, a statement which Romieu flatly denied.

In all these statements Joan is always styled La Pucelle de France. Even the English call her by the same title. Thus the Duke of Bedford writing officially to the king speaks of “a disciple and limb of the Fiend, called the Pucelle”. The Continuation of the Brut gives her the same title: “At that same Journey was take the wicche of Fraunce that was called the Pushell; and she was take alle armd as a man of armys; and by her crafte and sorserie all the Frensshe men and her company Trystid to have ovyrcome all the Englysshe pepull. But God was lord and maister of that victorie and scomfiture, and so she was take, and brought and kept in hold bi the Kynge and his counseill all tymes at his commaundement and wille”. The English regarded her throughout as a witch and therefore believed very naturally that God had delivered her into their hands as a special mark of divine favour to them.

The title of Pucelle of France is peculiar, its exact significance has never been explained. Joan was first the Pucelle of Orleans, but when she quartered the royal Lilies she became the Pucelle of France. This was clearly a definite title, and possibly showed some special relation to the crown. If the king were still regarded as the Incarnate God whose coven was at this time called his Council, Joan might well be the Maiden of the Coven, such as was found so often in Scotland two centuries later. The title Pucelle has otherwise no meaning as it stands.

The years between the trial at Rouen and the rehabilitation must be considered with great care if any conclusion is to be reached concerning Joan as a historical personage. It is so much the fashion to pour floods of tearful sentiment over her that plain facts are not always welcome, but the contemporary evidence is there and has never been refuted.

In 1436, five years after the trial, the herald-at-arms, Fleur de Lils, and Joan’s brother, Jean du Lys, arrived at Orleans to announce officially to the town that Joan, was still alive.[7] The accounts of the city show that on Sunday, the 6th of August, 1436, Jean du Lys, brother of “Jehane la Pucelle”, was in Orleans carrying letters from his sister to the king. He was fêted by the city; the bills for the feast are still extant, and include twelve fowls, twelve pigeons, two goslings, two leverets, besides a considerable quantity of wine. On the 9th of August came the herald-at-arms, Fleur de Lils, bearing letters from Joan to the city; he received two gold coins for the news he brought. On the 21st Jean du Lys on his way back was given money and wine. On the 25th a messenger with letters from La Pucelle was given refreshments. On the 18th of October the herald-at-arms Cueur de Lils (lequel disoit avoir grant soif) was well entertained for bringing letters from Jehane la Pucelle.

In July, 1439, Joan’s brothers came to Orleans bringing with them the lady whom they claimed to be their sister Joan, now married to the Sieur des Armoises (also spelt Harmoises). The Council of the city of Orleans presented to Jeanne des Armoises 210 livres parisis “pour le bien qu’elle a fait à ladicte ville durant le siège“. She appears to have stayed till September the 4th, about six weeks, during which time she must have met many persons who had known Joan of Arc well both personally and by sight. There was Jaquet Leprestre who had presented Joan of Arc with wine in 1429 and again in 1430, and was now supplying the wine for the banquets to Jeanne des Armoises. There was the draper, Jean Luiller, who in 1429 had furnished her with “de la fine Brucelle vermeille pour faire une robe et une huque.” In this connection it is well to remember that when Pierronne, a Breton woman and one of Joan’s devoted followers, was tried at Paris she declared that God often appeared to her in human form and acted towards her as one friend to another, and that the last time she saw him he was dressed in a long white robe and under it a huque de vermeille. For this blasphemy she was burnt alive, maintaining to the last that she had spoken the truth.

Besides the wine-merchant and the draper the family, with whom Joan had lodged while in Orleans, were alive, and must surely have recognised the Dame des Armoises as an impostor if she were one. Still more important is the fact that Joan’s own mother was in Orleans at the time of the visit of Jeanne des Armoises, yet raised no protest. Most significant of all was the discontinuance of the masses said for the repose of Joan’s soul, which had been celebrated in Orleans on the anniversary of the burning at Rouen but after the visit of Jeanne des Armoises they were said no longer. In 1443 Pierre du Lys, Joan’s youngest brother, petitioned the Duke of Orleans for financial help, pointing out how bravely he had fought in company with his sister, Jeanne la Pucelle, “until her absence and since then up to the present time”; which can only mean that he still regarded or feigned to regard the Dame des Armoises as Joan of Arc.[8]

Whether Jeanne des Armoises was an imposter or not cannot be satisfactorily decided, but one fact emerges clearly, which is that Joan’s brothers acknowledged her as their sister and Joan’s mother did no deny her. Yet in 1450 an attempt at Rehabilitation was begun and lapsed. In 1452 the mother claimed ecclesiastical and civil rehabilitation for Joan; Pierre du Lys seems to have joined in the claim, for he was poor and Joan’s wealth had been great. The proceedings dragged on till 1456; in other words, the Sentence of Rehabilitation was not promulgated till twenty-five years after the trial at Rouen. The interesting point is that the relatives, who in 1439 had recognised the Dame des Armoises as the Joan of Arc who had been tried at Rouen, now in 1456 claimed that the same Joan had been put to death by the English in 1431. In both cases money seems to have been the object. The family had made a good thing by exploiting the Dame des Armoises, but they made far more by the exaggeratedly heart-rending details which they collected in order to move the hearts of the judges who presided over the Enquiry for Rehabilitation. The Rehabilitation was for the financial benefit of a family who had already foresworn themselves over the Dame des Armoises.

Most of the judges engaged in the trial at Rouen were dead, and the du Lys family desired that the sentence of excommunication then promulgated should be annulled so that they might inherit the property. In the wildest flights of hatred against the Duke of Bedford and the Earl of Warwick, no one has ever suggested at any time that they desired more than Joan’s death, excommunication was not their affair but was a matter for the Church. The Enquiry for Rehabilitation was instituted in order to lift the ban of the Church and allow the derelict wealth to be safely gathered in by Joan’s sorrowing relations.

In judging the evidence given at the Enquiry it must be remembered that twenty-five years had elapsed since the events and that the witnesses were speaking from memory. A great deal of the evidence was hearsay, the witnesses continually saying, “It was common report”, or “It was generally believed”, or “I heard it said”. Some of them spoke of Joan’s bearing at the trial and then acknowledged that they had never been present in the court but were repeating what someone else had told them. The executioner’s evidence was entirely at secondhand. There were, however, several who spoke from personal knowledge, whose words are therefore of value.

It must be noted that, as in all ecclesiastical trials of the time, the witnesses called were only those who could give evidence on the one side. No one was allowed to speak in favour of the bishop of Beauvais, the deputy-inquisitor, or other learned Churchmen who had conducted the trial at Rouen, no evidence was admitted which would show that they had acted in good faith; allegations were made against them, but they were not there to refute them, and there was no one to represent or defend them. It was an entirely one-sided Enquiry, which was obviously what the du Lys family desired. To have allowed evidence bearing in the slightest degree against Joan would have defeated the object of the Enquiry, which was to rescind the previous ecclesiastical sentence and so restore Joan’s wealth to her mother and brother. The easiest way, and one which in the changed political circumstances was the most desirable and effective, was to charge the judges and witnesses in the original trial with fear of the English and hatred of Charles VII. Yet several of the more reputable witnesses solemnly declared that the court which condemned Joan was not coerced in any way, realising probably that to admit coercion was to belittle the power of the Church to which they owed allegiance. Nicolas Taquil, who had been an assistant notary at the trial, declared that he saw no English in the court during the examinations of Joan with the exception of her guards; and Guillaume Manchon, one of the chief notaries, stated on oath on two separate occasions, that when Joan complained of the conduct of her guards the Earl of Warwick was furious with the men and removed them, giving Joan two other guards who appear to have behaved themselves. The evidence of Thomas de Courcelles, professor of theology and Canon of Paris, is particularly interesting as showing the difficulties which a change of government involved; he had been one of the lesser judges at the Rouen trial and had obviously agreed that Joan was a heretic. He now tried to explain away his previous opinion. He remembered well that he never held that Joan was a heretic except in so far that she pertinaciously maintained that she ought not to submit to the Church, and at the end–as his conscience could bear witness before God–it seemed to him that he said that she was as at first, and that if she were a heretic at the first, that is what she was then; but he never positively declared her to be a heretic.

The reason for Joan’s resumption of male dress is given quite differently by three witnesses, all of whom claimed to have heard it from Joan herself. Martin Ladvenu reported that Joan wore the dress as a protection from insult, a ridiculous statement if the circumstances of her imprisonment are taken into consideration. Jean Massieu declared that the guards took away the woman’s dress and left her only the male costume. Thomas de Courcelles said that he was with the bishop of Beauvais when the news came that she had resumed the male habit. He accompanied the bishop to the castle, where the bishop interrogated her as to the cause of the change of dress. Joan gave the simple explanation that it seemed to her more suitable to wear a man’s dress among men than a woman’s. The enormous importance as to the wearing of the male costume is emphasised by the fact that as soon as it was known in Rouen that Joan was again dressed as a man the inhabitants crowded into the castle courtyard to see her, to the great indignation of the English soldiers who promptly drove them out with hard words and threats of hard blows. This circumstance shows the inaccuracy of Ladvenu’s statement as to Joan’s fear of insult, for it is evident that in the day she could be seen from outside, which would in itself be a protection, and Massieu’s words indicate that, like all her contemporaries, she wore no clothes when in bed.

Ladvenu, Massieu and Isamberd were with her to the end, and two of them claim to have been asked to fetch the cross from the church, while Massieu records the making of a little cross of two bits of stick by an English soldier. All three priests were naturally very insistent that Joan died a good Christian, for the Enquiry was set on foot to prove that point. If she were a Pagan she had been rightly excommunicated; but if she had been a Christian the ban of excommunication would have to be lifted. All the priests speak of the cruelty of the bishop of Beauvais in not permitting her to worship in a church or other shrine, but they appear to have conveniently forgotten that an excommunicated person was not allowed to enter a Christian place of worship. The bishop must have been more kindly than many Inquisitors when he permitted her to “receive the Body of Christ” before her execution, although she was condemned to the fire as “idolator, heretic, apostate, relapsed”. A few days after she was burnt, the Inquisitor of France himself preached about her in Paris, and said that she had left her parents “accompagnée de l’ennemi d’enfer, et depuis vesquit homicide de chrestienté”.[9]

If Joan were a Pagan, and in the eyes of her Pagan followers the substitute for the king and therefore God Incarnate for the time being, much of the obscurity which surrounds her life and death is cleared away. She came from a part of the country so well known to be Pagan that she had to be examined by persons whose own Christianity was beyond question before the king could accept her. To announce her mission she went first to Robert de Beaudricourt, agent in Lorraine for King Réné of Provence, a king whose magical practices would have brought upon him the wrath of the Church but for his high position. Her “Voices” were called by the names most common among witches, and at her trial she spoke of seeing them among the Christians, they themselves unseen This use of the word Christian again shows that Christianity was not universal. The remark should be compared with the statement by Danaeus[10] that “among a great company of men, the Sorcerer only knoweth Satan that is present, when other doe not know him, though they see another man, but who or what he is they know not”. It is also reminiscent of the stories of fairies, who were recognised only by the initiates, when in the company of others.

Joan chose for her protector that great soldier who was of her own religion, and who was later tried and executed as a Pagan. She announced that she would last only one year, and during that time she received almost divine honours from the common people, but she was quite aware that at the end of that year she would suffer martyrdom. When the time came for the sacrifice not one of her friends or worshippers stirred a finger to save her. Throughout her trial she spoke of her god as “the King of Heaven” as “my Lord”, or simply as “God”; she never mentioned “Christ” or “our Saviour”, or even “our Lord”. It is only in the Rehabilitation that she is reported to have used the name of Jesus. Many people vouched for her having cried Jhesu with her last breath, but no one, not even the priests, were very near her at the end. Massieu, however, stated that she called on God, St. Michael and St. Katherine; in other words, on the very “saints” with whom she had been in communication since her first encounter with them at the Fairy-Tree of Bourlemont.

She used Christian symbols, such as the cross or the words “Jhesu Maria”, on her letters when they were intended to deceive. She steadfastly refused to say the Lord’s Prayer, a refusal which in later times would have been tantamount to confessing herself a witch. She utterly refused to acknowledge the authority of the Church, though she understood what was meant by the Pope and asked to be taken to him. She declined to take the oath on the Gospels, and after much persuasion and very unwillingly she swore on the Missal. She treated the ecclesiastics who examined her at Poitiers with familiarity; when Pierre Séguin de Séguin, Dean of the Faculty of Theology in the University of Poitiers, asked her what dialect (idioma) her Voices spoke, she answered “A better one than yours”, for he spoke in the Limousin dialect. He then asked her if she believed in God, to which she replied, “More than you do”. At the trial at Rouen she treated her judges with contempt. When asked direct questions regarding her faith, she invariably prevaricated; thus, when asked whether she had ever blasphemed God, she answered that she had never cursed (maledixit) the saints; when pressed to say if she had ever denied God, she would make no other reply than that she had never denied the saints. One remark recorded in the Rehabilitation appears significant; it is in the evidence of Dame Margareta La Touroulde; Joan narrated to her hostess how she had been examined by the clergy at Poitiers, and how she had said to them, “There is more in the books of our Lord than in yours”. With a slight emphasis on the word our, the signification is apparent, otherwise the remark has no meaning.

The wearing of the male costume seems to have had a signification which was clear to the people of her own time though hidden from us. She insisted that she wore it not by the advice of mortal man, and she refused to wear a woman’s dress except by the direct command of God. It is impossible to say why so much stress was laid on her attire, as in itself it has never been a capital crime for a woman to appear as a man. Many a lady dressed as a page and went with her husband or lover to the Crusades, more than one woman was known to have donned armour and given a good account of herself in defending her castle. Yet when Joan discarded her woman’s dress in prison and put on a man’s habit it was the signal for her condemnation. It is possible that the resumption of the dress connoted a resumption of the Old Religion, and that she thereby acknowledged herself a Pagan and the Incarnate God.

Gilles de Rais [11] and [12]

The case of Gilles de Rais is remarkable in that it lends itself, as with Rufus and Joan of Arc, to the cheap claptrap and “purple patches” of a certain type of writer. The most important publications of the trial of Gilles, those which show a realisation of underlying factors, are written by Salomon Reinach and Ludovico Hernandez, both authors being Jews and therefore not swayed by Christian prejudice.

The career of Gilles has been used by the Church in order to pose as the protector of a helpless peasantry oppressed by a brutal overlord; it has also been used by other Christian writers to point a moral; and psychologists have found in it a convenient means of proving or disproving some pet theory. To none of these writers does it seem to occur that the record gives only the evidence for the prosecution. Witnesses for the defence were not admitted and the prisoner had no counsel. As with Joan the court was ecclesiastical and followed the same lines. The accused was pre-judged, and his fate was already decided before he was brought to trial. The strange apathy of Charles VII towards the fate of one of his greatest commanders is as noticeable as when Joan was tried at Rouen.

The chief episode in the career of Gilles was the part he played in the advancement of Charles VII. He was a fine soldier and devoted himself to the cause of the dauphin as whole-heartedly as Joan herself. He was Joan’s chosen protector in battle and he fulfilled his trust faithfully. His rank and military achievements marked him out as one of the foremost soldiers on the French side, and had he not been overshadowed by Joan he must have been credited with having done more than anyone else in bringing about the discomfiture of Charles’ enemies. Yet there never seems to have been any jealousy of Joan, such as might have been expected considering their professional relations. When Charles was crowned at Rheims, Gilles, by right of his high position, was one of the knights sent to bring the sacred ampoule of holy oil for the anointing. During the wars with the English Gilles appears to have been a gallant soldier and a faithful partisan of Charles.

His apathy towards Joan when she was undergoing her trial at Rouen is entirely at variance with his character, and is only explicable if both he and she belonged to the Old Religion and he regarded her as the sacrifice.

In the years that followed the trial of the Pucelle, Gilles kept her memory alive by writing and staging the Mystery-play of the Siege of Orleans, which was acted at Orleans by five hundred actors. He spent his time and money in collecting a fine library, including a copy of St. Augustine’s City of God; but above all he devoted himself to making the religious services held in the chapels of his castles as sumptuous and magnificent as possible. He expended such colossal amounts on these spectacular services that even his great wealth was diminished. It is an open question whether the reason that he resorted to alchemy was to replenish his coffers or whether he was filled with sheer love of science. Even in those days science had a great attraction, and its votaries were not necessarily allured by the desire for gain only.

The act perpetrated by Gilles which brought him under ecclesiastical censure was that he entered a church fully armed, and thence dragged out Jean Le Ferron, a tonsured cleric, whom he loaded with fetters and imprisoned in one of his castles. But when the king was moved to send the Constable de Richemont to besiege the castle, Gilles set his captive at liberty and paid a fine. This was at Whitsuntide, but it was not till September that the Church summoned him to answer for that offence and an accusation of heresy.

The court was composed almost entirely of priests, the sole exception being Pierre de l’Hospital, President of the States of Brittany. As at Joan’s trial the presiding judges were the bishop of the diocese and the deputy of the inquisitor of France. When Gilles consented to appear and refute the charge of heresy, he found that he was accused of sodomy and murder. These were not crimes within the jurisdiction of an ecclesiastical court, and Gilles expressed his opinion in no measured terms. He spoke haughtily and irreverently, calling the priestly judges simoniacs and scoundrels, and saying that he would rather be hanged by the neck with a lace than submit to reply to or appear before such ecclesiastics and judges.

The whole case, when examined carefully and without bias, is seen to be an arranged affair. In one of the items of accusation it is stated that “the common opinion, general assertion, true reputation, common memory, and public opinion is that the said Gilles has been and is heretic, sorcerer, sodomite, invocator of evil spirits, diviner, killer of innocents, apostate from the faith, idolator”. The evidence produced was clearly concocted, and the priestly court revelled in the details of the horrors which were described–always in exactly the same words–by the principal witnesses.

It is quite uncertain whether torture were applied or not, but even the possibility of torture does not explain Gilles’ sudden change of front. From the haughty scornful noble he became the humble penitent, confessing the wildest crimes with an intensity of self-abasement and a passionate desire for death which are inexplicable if he were moved only by fear of excommunication or of physical pain. If, however, he knew that he was the destined victim required by the Old Religion as the substitute for his royal master, the motive is quite comprehensible. According to his own confession he killed at least eight hundred children; and when Pierre de l’Hospital–the only layman among the judges–was astounded and incredulous and asked him if what he had confessed were really fact, Gilles replied, “Alas, my lord, you torment yourself and me.” De l’Hospital persisted in his enquiry, “I do not torment myself, but I am greatly astonished at what you have told me and with which I am not satisfied, and therefore I wish and desire to know the real truth from you about the causes of which I have spoken to you many times.” To this Gilles answered, “Truly there was no other cause, aim, or intention than what I have told you, and I have told you greater things than this and enough to have put to death ten thousand men”.

De l’Hospital was evidently suspicious of the truth of Gilles’ confession for he caused him to be confronted with Prelati, but the two men supported each other’s evidence in terms which show that there was collusion. When the examination was over and Prelati was about to depart, Gilles turned to him and said with tears, “Farewell, François, my friend, nevermore shall we meet in this world. I pray God that he will give us good patience and knowledge, and we may be certain that if you have good patience and trust in God we shall meet again in the great joy of Paradise. And I will pray for you”.

At the end of the trial Gilles was excommunicated for the second time as a heretic and apostate, and was relinquished to the secular court presided over by Pierre de l’Hospital. As Gilles merely repeated the bogus confession which he had already made before the ecclesiastical court, there was nothing for the secular court to do but pronounce sentence of death. His two servants, Henriet and Poitou, had already received the same sentence, and Gilles now asked as a favour that they might die with him so that he might comfort and advise them for their salvation to the last moment and could set them an example of how to die. This request was granted, and a further favour was also permitted in allowing Gilles the choice of the church in which to be buried. Gilles then made another petition; he asked that on the day of execution the bishop of Nantes and all the people of the Church would walk in the procession which should conduct him to the gibbet. The whole of Gilles’ attitude towards his own death is inexplicable except on the hypothesis that he died for some cause which is not openly acknowledged. Is it likely that the bishop and all the clergy of Nantes would accompany an excommunicated heretic, a bloodstained criminal such as Gilles had confessed himself to be, merely because he asked them to do so? Such an action needs some other explanation than the usual one of a repentant sinner.

On that October morning, then, the bishop and the clergy of all the churches of Nantes walked in solemn procession conducting the three prisoners to their doom. The townspeople lined the streets or accompanied the procession, weeping and praying for the condemned. As they moved through the streets Gilles spoke all the time to his fellow-sufferers, urging them to be strong and courageous, exhorting them to look to God for pardon of their sins, and telling them that they should not fear the death of this world, which was but a little passing over without which one could not see God in his glory; that they ought greatly to desire to be out of this world, where there was nothing but misery, in order to go into everlasting glory; and that so doing, as soon as their souls were separated from their bodies, they would meet again in glory with God in Paradise. Henriet and Poitou thanked Gilles, saying that the death of this world was very pleasant because of the great desire and confidence that they had in the mercy of God and of going to Paradise with their master. Gilles then knelt and prayed, commending. himself to St. James and St. Michael, especially imploring St. Michael to receive and present his soul to God. Then true to his promise to set an example to his servants he went to his death before them, they encouraging him to die as a brave and valiant knight in the love of God. He was hanged; and when dead his body was dropped on the lighted pyre below; but before it could be burned it was snatched from the flames, coffined and carried at once to the Carmelite church for burial. The two servants were then executed, but the chronicler takes little interest in them, and dismisses them in a few words, “And incontinent were the said Henriet and Poitou hanged and burnt, so that they became powder”.

Five years after Gilles’ death the king issued a royal ordinance annulling Gilles’ debts. In this document no word is breathed of any crimes or offences, mention is made only of the splendid military services which the marshal had rendered at Orleans and Lagny. Ten years after the execution Gilles’ estates were restored to his daughter. No slur appears to have rested on the family of Gilles, his daughter was twice married, both times to men of high rank. As she died without children the estates reverted to Gilles’ younger brother.

Not long after Gilles’ death, his daughter erected a fountain on the spot where her father had been executed. The fountain was dedicated to Sainte Marie de Crée Lait and was much frequented by nursing mothers. On every anniversary of the execution the mothers of Nantes and its neighbourhood beat their children in remembrance of Gilles. These two facts have never yet been explained, yet the first suggests some special power of fertility ascribed to the dead man, differing slightly from the power ordinarily ascribed to the dead. The second is still more remarkable. Ritual beating in commemoration of ritual murder is known in many places, both in ancient and modern times. The maidens of Rome beat each other freely on the anniversary of the death of Romulus, and at the present day in Iraq, on the anniversary of the death of the martyr Hussein, who there ranks as practically divine, flagellants walk in procession beating themselves with iron chains. For Christian examples there was the beating of children on Innocents’ Day in commemoration of the children who were killed as substitutes for the Incarnate God. In the Regnum Papisticum of Thomas Kirchmaier, written in 1553, there are these lines:

“The Parentes when this day appears, doe beate their children all,
(Though nothing they deserve) and servants all to beating fall,
And Monkes do whip eche other well.”

Until 1845 the Whipping Toms plied their whips freely in the streets of Leicester in commemoration of the massacre of the Danes. With these facts in mind the beating of Henry II in commemoration of Becket and the beating of the Breton children in commemoration of Gilles de Rais assume a strange significance, and point to the fact that in both cases we are dealing with a ritual murder in which the substitute for the Divine King was put to death.

As late as the fifteenth century it was no longer possible for the sacrifice to be consummated by fire at the hands of the populace, but the Church could always be moved to act as the public executioner as had been done in the case of Joan. To the Church both Gilles and Joan were idolators and apostates, both were tried for their faith. Joan was condemned because she could not prove herself a Christian, but Gilles’ Christianity was beyond a doubt, and the ordinary laws against vice would have applied with equal force to most of his contemporaries and even to some of his judges. Therefore to ensure his own condemnation he confessed to a series of child-murders which, to anyone who knows the conditions of the country and the period, are absurd and impossible. The evidence offered in proof of the murders was puerile in the extreme, but his bogus confession answered its purpose; Gilles wished to die and he attained his end. His undoubting faith that he would go straight to heaven and the promise of paradise and everlasting glory which he made to his fellow-sufferers are not the mental attitude of an inhuman murderer, but are entirely in keeping with his character as God Incarnate.

Viewed in the light of a Pagan religion the characters and deaths of Rufus, Becket, Joan and Gilles are reasonable and consistent. In each of them the Dying God was incarnate; Rufus died as the actual king, the other three as substitutes in order that their royal masters might live and reign for a further term of years.

FEATURE: Apocrypha

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