The Maréchal de Retz—3: The Sentence and Execution
The Adjourned Trial—The Marshal Confesses—The Case Handed Over to the Ecclesiastical Tribunal—Prompt Steps Taken by the Bishop—The Sentence—Ratified by the Secular Court—The Execution.
ON the 24th October the trial of the Maréchal de Retz was resumed. The prisoner entered in a Carmelite habit, knelt and prayed in silence before the examination began. Then he ran his eye over the court, and the sight of the rack, windlass, and cords made a slight shudder run through him.
“Messire Gilles de Laval,” began the president; “you appear before me now for the second time to answer to a certain requisition read by M. le Lieutenant du Procureur de Nantes.”
“I shall answer frankly, monseigneur,” said the prisoner calmly; “but I reserve the right of appeal to the benign intervention of the very venerated majesty of the King of France, of whom I am, or have been, chamberlain and marshal, as may be proved by my letters patent duly enregistered in the parliament at Paris—”
“This is no affair of the King of France,” interrupted Pierre de l’Hospital; “if you were chamberlain and marshal of his Majesty, you are also vassal of his grace the Duke of Brittany.”
“I do not deny it; but, on the contrary, I trust to his Grace of Brittany to allow me to retire to a convent of Carmelites, there to repent me of my sins.”
“That is as may be; will you confess, or must I send you to the rack?”
“Torture me not!” exclaimed Gilles de Retz “I will confess all. Tell me first, what have Henriet and Pontou said?”
“They have confessed. M. le Lieutenant du Procureur shall read you their allegations.”
“Not so,” said the lieutenant, who continued to show favour to the accused; “I pronounce them false, unless Messire de Retz confirms them by oath, which God forbid!”
Pierre de l’Hospital made a motion of anger to check this scandalous pleading in favour of the accused, and then nodded to the clerk to read the evidence.
The Sire do Retz, on hearing that his servants had made such explicit avowals of their acts, remained motionless, as though thunderstruck. He saw that it was in vain for him to equivocate, and that he would have to confess all.
“What have you to say?” asked the president, when the confessions of Henriet and Pontou had been read.
“Say what befits you, my lord,” interrupted the lieutenant du procureur, as though to indicate to the accused the line he was to take: “are not these abominable lies and calumnies trumped up to ruin you?”
“Alas, no!” replied the Sire do Retz; and his face was pale as death: “Henriet and Pontou have spoken the truth. God has loosened their tongues.”
“My lord! relieve yourself of the burden of your crimes by acknowledging them at once,” said M. do l’Hospital earnestly.
“Messires!” said the prisoner, after a moment’s silence: “it is quite true that I have robbed mothers of their little ones; and that I have killed their children, or caused them to be killed, either by cutting their throats with daggers or knives, or by chopping off their heads with cleavers; or else I have had their skulls broken by hammers or sticks; sometimes I had their limbs hewn off one after another; at other times I have ripped them open, that I might examine their entrails and hearts; I have occasionally strangled them or put them to a slow death; and when the children were dead I had their bodies burned and reduced to ashes.”
“When did you begin your execrable practices?” asked Pierre de l’Hospital, staggered by the frankness of these horrible avowals: “the evil one must have possessed you.”
“It came to me from myself—no doubt at the instigation of the devil: but still these acts of cruelty afforded me incomparable delight. The desire to commit these atrocities came upon me eight years ago. I left court to go to Chantoncé, that I might claim the property of my grandfather, deceased. In the library of the castle I found a Latin book—Suetonius, I believe—full of accounts of the cruelties of the Roman Emperors. I read the charming history of Tiberius, Caracalla, and other Cæsars, and the pleasure they took in watching the agonies of tortured children. Thereupon I resolved to imitate and surpass these same Cæsars, and that very night I began to do so. For some while I confided my secret to no one, but afterwards I communicated it to my cousin, Gilles de Sillé, then to Master Roger de Briqueville, next in succession to Henriet, Pontou, Rossignol, and Robin.” He then confirmed all the accounts given by his two servants. He confessed to about one hundred and twenty murders in a single year.
“An average of eight hundred in less than seven years!” exclaimed Pierre de l’Hospital, with a cry of pain: “Ah! messire, you were possessed! ”
His confession was too explicit and circumstantial for the Lieutenant du Procureur to say another word in his defence; but he pleaded that the case should be made over to the ecclesiastical court, as there were confessions of invocations of the devil and of witchcraft mixed up with those of murder. Pierre de l’Hospital saw that the object of the lieutenant was to gain time for Mme. de Retz to make a fresh attempt to obtain a pardon; however he was unable to resist, so he consented that the case should be transferred to the bishop’s court.
But the bishop was not a man to let the matter slip, and there and then a sergeant of the bishop summoned Gilles de Laval, Sire do Retz, to appear forthwith before the ecclesiastical tribunal. The marshal was staggered by this unexpected citation, and he did not think of appealing against it to the president; he merely signed his readiness to follow, and he was at once conducted into the ecclesiastical court assembled hurriedly to try him.
This new trial lasted only a few hours.
The marshal, now thoroughly cowed, made no attempt to defend himself, but he endeavoured to bribe the bishop into leniency, by promises of the surrender of all his lands and goods to the Church, and begged to be allowed to retire into the Carmelite monastery at Nantes.
His request was peremptorily refused, and sentence of death was pronounced against him.
On the 25th October , the ecclesiastical court having pronounced judgment, the sentence was transmitted to the secular court, which had now no pretext upon which to withhold ratification.
There was some hesitation as to the kind of death the marshal was to suffer. The members of the secular tribunal were not unanimous on this point. The president put it to the vote, and collected the votes himself; then he reseated himself, covered his head, and said in a solemn voice:—
“The court, notwithstanding the quality, dignity, and nobility of the accused, condemns him to be hung and burned. Wherefore I admonish you who are condemned, to ask pardon of God, and grace to die well, in great contrition for having committed the said crimes. And the said sentence shall be carried into execution to-morrow morning between eleven and twelve o’clock.” A similar sentence was pronounced upon Henriet and Pontou.
On the morrow, October 26th, at nine o’clock in the morning, a general procession composed of half the people of Nantes, the clergy and the bishop bearing the blessed Sacrament, left the cathedral and went round the city visiting each of the principal churches, where masses were said for the three under sentence.
At eleven the prisoners were conducted to the place of execution, which was in the meadow of Biesse, on the further side of the Loire.
Three gibbets had been erected, one higher than the others, and beneath each was a pile of faggots, tar, and brushwood.
It was a glorious, breezy day, not a cloud was to be seen in the blue heavens; the Loire rolled silently towards the sea its mighty volumes of turbid water, seeming bright and blue as it reflected the brilliancy and colour of the sky. The poplars shivered and whitened in the fresh air with a pleasant rustle, and the willows flickered and wavered above the stream.
A vast crowd had assembled round the gallows; it was with difficulty that a way was made for the condemned, who came on chanting the De profundis. The spectators of all ages took up the psalm and chanted it with them, so that the surge of the old Gregorian tone might have been heard by the duke and the bishop, who had shut themselves up in the château of Nantes during the hour of execution.
After the close of the psalm, which was terminated by the Requiem æternam instead of the Gloria, the Sire de Retz thanked those who had conducted him, and then embraced Pontou and Henriet, before delivering himself of the following address, or rather sermon:—
“My very dear friends and servants, be strong and courageous against the assaults of the devil, and feel great displeasure and contrition for your ill deeds, without despairing of God’s mercy. Believe with me, that there is no sin, however great, in the world, which God, in his grace and loving kindness, will not pardon, when one asks it of Him with contrition of heart. Remember that the Lord God is always more ready to receive the sinner than is the sinner to ask of Him pardon. Moreover, let us very humbly thank Him for his great love to us in letting us die in full possession of our faculties, and not cutting us off suddenly in the midst of our misdeeds. Let us conceive such a love of God, and such repentance, that we shall not fear death, which is only a little pang, without which we could not see God in his glory. Besides we must desire to be freed from this world, in which is only misery, that we may go to everlasting glory. Let us rejoice rather, for although we have sinned grievously here below, yet we shall be united in Paradise, our souls being parted from our bodies, and we shall be together for ever and ever, if only we endure in our pious and honourable contrition to our last sigh.” (i) Then the marshal, who was to be executed first, left his companions and placed himself in the hands of his executioners. He took off his cap, knelt, kissed a crucifix, and made a pious oration to the crowd much in the style of his address to his friends Pontou and Henriet.
(i) The case of the Sire de Retz is one to make us see the great danger there is in trusting to feelings in matters of religion. “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,” said our Lord. How many hope to go to heaven because they have pious emotions!
Then he commenced reciting the prayers of the dying; the executioner passed the cord round his neck, and adjusted the knot. He mounted a tall stool, erected at the foot of the gallows as a last honour paid to the nobility of the criminal. The pile of firewood was lighted before the executioners had left him.
Pontou and Henriet, who were still on their knees, raised their eyes to their master and cried to him, extending their arms:—
“At this last hour, monseigneur, be a good and valiant soldier of God, and remember the passion of Jesus Christ which wrought our redemption. Farewell, we hope soon to meet in Paradise!
The stool was cast down, and the Sire de Retz dropped. The fire roared up, the flames leaped about him, and enveloped him as be swung.
Suddenly, mingling with the deep booming of the cathedral bell, swelled up the wild unearthly wail of the Dies iræ.
No sound among the crowd, only the growl of the fire, and the solemn strain of the hymn:
Lo, the Book, exactly worded,
Wherein all hath been recorded;
Thence shall judgment be awarded.
When the Judge his seat attaineth,
And each hidden deed arraigneth,
Nothing unavenged remaineth.
What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding?
When the just are mercy needing.
King of Majesty tremendous,
Who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity! then befriend us.
* * * *
Low I kneel, with heart-submission;
See, like ashes, my contrition–
Help me in my last condition!
Ah I that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning,
Man for judgment must prepare him!
Spare, O, God, in mercy spare him!
Lord, who didst our souls redeem,
Grant a blessed requiem!
Six women, veiled, and robed in white, and six Carmelites advanced bearing a coffin.
It was whispered that one of the veiled women was Madame de Retz, and that the others were members of the most illustrious houses of Brittany.
The cord by which the marshal was hung was cut, and he fell into a cradle of iron prepared to receive the corpse. The body was removed before the fire had gained any mastery over it. It was placed in the coffin and the monks and the women transported it to the Carmelite monastery of Nantes, according to the wishes of the deceased.
In the meantime, the sentence had been executed upon Pontou and Henriet; they were hung and burned to dust. Their ashes were cast to the winds; whilst in the Carmelite church of Our Lady were celebrated with pomp the obsequies of the very high, very powerful, very illustrious Seigneur Gilles de Laval, Sire de Retz, late Chamberlain of King Charles VII., and Marshal of France!