10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer... Or the Most Misjudged Man in History
10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer… Or the Most Misjudged Man in History

10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer… Or the Most Misjudged Man in History

Tim Flight - July 30, 2018

10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer… Or the Most Misjudged Man in History
Some say that de Rais had about as much chance of being found innocent as these poor swine, also tried and sentenced in medieval France -Trial of a Sow and Pigs at Lavegny, from The Book of Days by Robert Chambers, London, 1869. Wikimedia Commons

Trial

Gilles de Rais was subjected to two trials. One was by an ecclesiastical court and the other by a secular, both conducted by Jean de Malestroit, who was, conveniently, both Bishop of Nantes and Chancellor to the Duchy of Brittany. After Gilles was read his charges on September 15, de Malestroit assembled a slew of witnesses from all echelons of society. Hearing their testimony, he increased the original charges chiefly related to the seizing of Saint-Etienne-de-Mere-Mortè to 49 indictments for heresy, murder, Sodomy, and paedophilia. On 9th October, Gilles heard the new accusations, and pled not guilty to all charges.

Gilles also refused to swear an oath to the truth of his testimony, despite being threatened four times with excommunication. The court was adjourned twice, after Gilles labelled the judges ‘thieving rogues who took bribes’, and that he ‘would rather be hanged than answer their questions’. On October 13, Gilles was formally excommunicated, and given 48 hours to reconsider his stance. Excommunication was a serious matter: in Catholic theology, it would see the subject condemned irredeemably to the pit of hell. Thus at court on October 15, after tearfully pleading for the excommunication to be lifted, Gilles took the oath.

The court still needed to secure a guilty plea, despite the extensive verbal evidence against Gilles. Thus they threatened him with torture to extract his confession, as was customary in 15th-century France. On October 21, the day he was due to be put in excruciating agony, Gilles suddenly confessed all. He did not hold back on lurid detail, as he noted: ‘I have told you… enough to hang 10, 000 men’. The rest of the trial was perfectly simple. On October 25, Gilles de Rais and his page, Poitou, were convicted of all charges and condemned to death.

10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer… Or the Most Misjudged Man in History
Execution of Gilles de Rais, France, 1530. Blogspot

Execution

As mentioned above, Gilles remained a pious man right up until his death. Thus, when he heard the sentence passed against him, he requested the opportunity to make a confession to a holy man, in order to cleanse his soul as much as possible. His confession to the Carmelite Monk, John Juvenal, is sadly not recorded: Confession was a sacrament in the medieval Catholic Church, and was kept private between confessor and penitent. There is also nothing unusual in Gilles making a confession, as the Church insisted on the need for every Catholic to confess several times a year.

On October 26, just a day after he was sentenced, Gilles left his prison at La Tour Neuve, Nantes, and was accompanied in solemn procession to the place of execution by the Bishop of Nantes and a great crowd chanting prayer and song for his soul. His weeping contrition at the recent trial had secured him this final, theatrical boon. Gilles was first hanged, then thrown into a fire. However, he had successfully petitioned for one last favour from the Church: four noble ladies were allowed to extract his body before it immolated, and place it in a coffin.

Gilles was buried in the church of the Carmelite Monastery at Nantes. Poitou and another accomplice, Henriet, received no such ‘leniency’, and were simply reduced to ashes in the fire. Many later historians have sneered at the Church’s generous treatment of the condemned nobleman, but they were simply adhering to the practices of their day. Gilles had confessed and shown contrition, and thus it was the Church’s mandate to absolve him. As they said in their sentencing, ‘you should be punished and corrected for your salvation, as law and holy canons require’. Regardless, he still died in great pain.

10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer… Or the Most Misjudged Man in History
Bluebeard, a fairy tale character traditionally thought to have been based on de Rais, engraving by Gustave Doré, France, 1862. Wikimedia Commons

Guilty?

These are the facts preserved by history. But was Gilles de Rais an unmitigated monster, or an innocent man crushed by powerful enemies? Officially, he was the latter. In 1992 Gilles’s case was the subject of a retrial at the Court of Cassation, the highest court of appeals in France, and he was acquitted of all charges. However, debate still rages, and it seems that many will never be convinced of Gilles’s innocence. Either way, it is desperately hard to re-examine a case from the 15th century, in which records were made only by those who successfully prosecuted the condemned.

Let’s consider the evidence. Gilles was convicted on entirely on the verbal evidence of others, and no physical exhibits were produced at the trial. Physical evidence was only reported by witnesses, who claimed to have found it at Gilles’s many residences years previously. There is also the matter of the excommunication and torture. The former, to a man as evidently religious as Gilles, was perhaps the worst punishment imaginable. The Bishop lifted the excommunication in exchange for Gilles swearing the oath. As for the threat of torture, this speaks for itself: in modern courts, such evidence would be inadmissible.

The charges against Gilles are also fairly standard for the period. Think of witch-trials: the accused were usually accused of killing children, either by spells or for the concoction of their potions. Heresy and Satanism were often used to convict people, most famously the Knights’ Templar, and these were charges very hard to disprove, let alone the fact that torture was usually used to extract admissions of guilt. Missing children were common in 15th-century France and, as for the witnesses, is it any surprise that the underclass wished to get one over a lord as rich and extravagant as Gilles?

Such people’s testimony could also be bought at a small price. Gilles’s accusers likewise had a great deal to gain from his conviction. He was incredibly rich, and possessed important lands and castles which others coveted. His great expenditure also meant that he was frequently selling lands and castles, and these transactions represented an arbitrary shift in power. In the 1430s, a royal edict was passed at his family’s behest to prevent any further sales of Gilles’s lands. And who spent the most on buying Gilles’s estates? Jean de Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes, the judge at Gilles’s trial. Go figure…

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Bataille, Georges, ed. The Trial of Gilles de Rais. Trans. by Richard Robinson. Los Angeles: Amok, 1990.

Benedetti, Jean. The Real Bluebeard: The Life of Gilles de Rais. Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 2003.

Gabory, Emile. Alias Bluebeard: The Life And Death of Gilles De Raiz. New York: Brewer & Warner, 2008.

Vatomsky, Sonya. “The Modern Movement to Exonerate a Notorious Medieval Serial Killer”. Atlas Obscura.

Wolf, Leonard. Bluebeard: The Life and Crimes of Gilles de Rais. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1980.

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