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
Engraving of Gilles de Rais, France, 1731. Wikimedia Commons

The Hundred Years’ War

The outbreak of the civil war between the French barons provided Gilles with an unexpected but useful education in warfare. Also in 1420, Gilles was married to Catherine de Thouars, a wealthy heiress from Brittany, increasing again both his wealth and power. After a brief peace between England and France, the Hundred Years’ War broke out again in 1422 when the English King, Henry V, died suddenly. In 1427, Gilles, with five fresh companies of soldiers, had an instant positive impact on French fortunes. Under the tutelage of Guillaume de Jumellière, Gilles blossomed into a brave and fearsome soldier.

He was instrumental in several notable French successes, including Saint-Jean de Mortier and the capture of the castle of Malicorne, but his personal highlight came at the Château de Lude. There he audaciously climbed a siege ladder to the ramparts, and was amongst the first Frenchman to reach the top. There, in full sight of his men below, Gilles killed the famous and feared English Captain, Blackburn, in single combat. This act of heroism destroyed English morale, and secured the château for France. For this brave act, Gilles was rightly hailed a hero by his peers and commanding officers.

Many anti-de Rais biographers, however, look to Gilles’s glory days in the army for evidence of his later crimes. In truth, though Gilles was a strong and ruthless knight, he was no more bloodthirsty than his peers. For although he hanged treacherous Burgundians at Rainfort and Malicorne, this was only with the tacit approval of his superior officers in the French army. Some soldiers thought these executions to be a waste of good ransom money, but perhaps Gilles showed a more laudable spirit in thinking of the good of the country rather than his own pocket, loss of life notwithstanding.

10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer… Or the Most Misjudged Man in History
Joan of Arc, France, c.1485. Wikimedia Commons

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc needs no introduction. But what shocks many who believe Gilles to be guilty of all charges is that this monster was intimately acquainted with the Maid of Orléans, whose brief intervention marked a change in fortune for the French in the Hundred Years’ War. Gilles was likely present when she first met the Dauphin in 1429, and led the army that escorted Joan to Orléans after she received royal permission. Gilles was also in command of the soldiers whose aggressive intervention at the Siege of Orléans, at the behest of Joan, caused an unlikely French victory.

Gilles heroically rescued the tactically-naive Joan at Saint-Loup, a victory that was instrumental in the relief of Orléans, and his bravery and experience were vital to Joan’s success over the next few months. Although, with posterity, Joan gets all the credit, Gilles was not forgotten by his countrymen in 1429. For Gilles was honored with the addition of a royal fleur-de-lis on his coat of arms, and the title Marshal of France, an award for exceptional military achievement. The two were together to see the coronation of Charles VII at Reims, but their success was not to last.

After Joan’s disastrous attack on Paris, when Gilles again saved her, their military association mysteriously ends. She was later captured, and burned at the stake in 1431. There have long been rumors that Gilles was in love with Joan. Inevitably, all blame is attached to the monster, with Joan seen as too pure for any such base thoughts. However, the story seems unlikely. Joan was seen as divinely ordained by God Himself, and for all his (possible) faults, evidence suggests that Gilles was a God-fearing man even until his death. He was also likely a practicing homosexual, despite his marriage.

10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer… Or the Most Misjudged Man in History
A medieval pageant involving dancing wodewoses, from Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, Netherlands, c.1470-72. Luminarium

The Root of All Evil?

At this stage, Gilles’s worst crime was his spendthrift nature. For years, Gilles had been frittering away the fortune that de Craon had helped him to amass, spending large sums on tapestries, artwork, books, his furniture alone amounting to 100, 000 Francs. He had also not scrupled to sell off land when his latest whim demanded it, to de Craon’s horror. But when de Craon died in 1432, Gilles now came into full possession of one of the largest personal fortunes in the land, and began to spend it on a scale that had never been seen before in France.

In 1433, Gilles turned to more ambitious projects, including the construction of the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, near his castle as Machecoul. The Chapel was lavishly built on the scale of a great medieval cathedral, with 30 permanent staff including chaplains and choristers decked in expensive clothing, and solid gold ornaments. The choristers were paid sums entirely in keeping with the Chapel’s appearance. Gilles had a profound love of music, and so used to travel the country accompanied by the staff so that he could hear the choristers’ angelic singing wherever he went. Gilles also ordained himself Dean.

At least the Chapel was permanent. Gilles’s other great project around this time was Le Mistère du Siège d’Orléans (‘the Mystery Play of the Siege of Orléans’), a drama which he sponsored and essentially produced, advising on technical details, costumes, and suchlike. The play was performed in Orléans itself, and the sum he poured into the spectacle equates to tens of millions of dollars in modern currency. Le Mistère had a cast of 140, with 600 walk-on parts, and was 20, 000 lines long. His love of drama aside, it is clear that Gilles was mourning his old friend, Joan.

10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer… Or the Most Misjudged Man in History
Gilles de Retz, le vampire de Bretagne by Louis Charles Bombled, France, 1855. Wikimedia Commons

Murders

Since the aim of this article is to give Gilles a fair hearing, remember that the following three sections are allegations. The first few murders took place in 1433 at his childhood home of Champtocé, but the bulk of Gilles’s murders were committed at Machecoul. The first documented case saw a local boy told to carry a message to Gilles’s castle, never to return. Other murders followed the pattern of children entering Machecoul and never leaving. Sometimes they were sent on an errand, at others lured in with promises of food or diversion, and soon the number of missing local children was noticed.

Rumours circulated that they had been killed by Gilles. But it was not just at Machecoul that children were going missing. At Gilles’s other residences, such as Tiffauges, and places he merely visited, such as Orléans, many children mysteriously disappeared. The children were mostly procured by Gilles’s cousins, Gilles de Sillé and Robert de Briqueville. They were killed, according to confessions at his trial, in a truly cruel and excruciating manner, and it is this detail that raises Gilles above other child serial-killers: they were dismembered, beheaded, had their throats slit, or their necks broken with a special sword.

Over his alleged career as a murderer, Gilles is estimated to have killed between 80 and 200 children. This begs the question: what did he do with the bodies? Some were burned in the great fireplaces of his castles, others apparently concealed in obscure parts of the castles, such as the boys allegedly found stuffed in a pipe at Champtocé. It is not revealed how he disposed of the corpses he wrought at places he was merely visiting, but later confessions revealed that the men were very adept at burning bodies discreetly to minimise the smoke and stench.

10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer… Or the Most Misjudged Man in History
Gilles de Rais is instructed by Satan, engraving by Emile Bayard, France, 1870. Taringa!

Satanism

Like many well-educated men of his time, Gilles had an interest in alchemy. Alchemy, as you are probably aware, was essentially the attempt to turn base metals into gold, and to achieve immortality. In Medieval Europe, alchemy was associated with black magic, since it often involved the use of arcane symbols and processes, and many assumed that the avaricious and all-consuming search for gold must inevitably bring practitioners into contact with Satan. The strange sounds, smells, and equipment found in an alchemist’s laboratory would only have encouraged such Satanic associations. Consequently, the Church had outlawed alchemy by Gilles’s lifetime.

It is thought, paradoxically, that Gilles became interested in alchemy in order to save his soul from inevitable damnation, or at least delay it through immortality. Soon, his interest had turned into an obsession, and de Sillé and de Briqueville began procuring not only children but alchemists for Gilles. The most notorious itinerant alchemist Gilles entertained was François Prelati, a clerk from Tuscany. Prelati impressed Gilles with his fluency in Latin and evidently high level of education. He claimed to have a demonic familiar named Barron, whom he would summon to assist him in his spells and incantations.

Although the alchemical-obsession came about because of Gilles’s murder of children, he did not, apparently, ever sacrifice any children to the devil. He did, however, allegedly use blood and dismembered body parts to assist Prelati in summoning Barron and casting spells. Unintentionally comic court testimony however makes Prelati sound like the archetypal con-man. For instance, Barron never appeared when Gilles was present, since he refused to sell his soul to the devil. And, for a demonic spirit, Barron showed a suspicious interest in mundane things: incredibly, Barron several times demanded that Gilles give Prelati money, and was unquestioningly obeyed.

10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer… Or the Most Misjudged Man in History
The ruined castle of Machecoul, where de Rais is alleged to have murdered and sexually assaulted hundreds of children. DeviantArt

Pedophilia

As well as killing children, Gilles also sexually assaulted them. Gilles’s page, Poitou, later testified under oath to his master’s sexual crimes. ‘He declared that the said Gilles de Rais, in order to practice his libidinous pleasures on the said children, both boys and girls, first took his member in his hand and stroked it until it was erect, then placed it between the thighs of the said boys and girls, rubbing his member on the bellies of the said boys and girls with great delight, vigor, and libidinous pleasure until the sperm was ejaculated on their bellies’.

Sexually assaulting the children was second to murder in terms of the pleasure it brought Gilles. Another accomplice revealed at Gilles’s trial that, ‘he took more pleasure in the murder of the said children, and in seeing their heads and limbs separated from their body, in seeing them die and their blood flow, than in having carnal knowledge of them’. Perhaps the sexual abuse was part of the torture that Gilles inflicted upon the unfortunate minors: rape, after all, had long been used as a terror tactic by medieval armies when putting down rebellions or invading other countries.

Child murder, pedophilia, Satanism. Gilles’s accusers really threw everything at him that they could. But there is one more charge against de Rais that we have not yet mentioned: necrophilia. According to Poitou, ‘Gilles de Rais sometimes committed his vices… after hanging them up… after he had cut, or caused to be cut, the vein in the neck or the throat so that the blood gushed out; and other times it was as they were dying; other times it was after they were dead and their heads had been cut off, while there remained some warmth in their body’.

10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer… Or the Most Misjudged Man in History
Tiffauges Castle, one of de Rais’s residences. Accueil – Conseil départemental de la Vendée

Arrest

As Gilles wasted yet more of his fortune and sold more lands, simultaneously committing the litany of alleged crimes described above, he was increasingly a man under scrutiny. Rich in land though he was, Gilles could not sell his property quickly enough to keep pace with his expenditure, and this made him desperate. Having sold the castle of Saint-Etienne-de-Mere-Mortè, he decided that he needed it back in 1440. To do so, Gilles menaced the key-bearer with a battle-axe, dragging him to the castle to open it up, before finally incarcerating him. Unfortunately, the key-bearer, Jean le Ferron, was a priest.

By interrupting le Ferron in the middle of mass and threatening him, Gilles had committed blasphemy and abused both the church’s right of sanctuary and the benefit of the clergy. And he had stolen a castle, to boot. Unfortunately, Jean, Duke of Brittany, looked covetously upon the possessions of Gilles, and had been waiting for an opportunity to take some of his lands at a bargain price. For his actions, the Duke slapped Gilles with a fine of 50, 000 écus, which he knew he could not afford to pay without selling everything besides his castles at Tiffauges and Pouzauges.

Before Gilles could work out how to pay his fine, the Duke of Brittany’s Chancellor, the Bishop of Nantes, secretly published and circulated a writ of defamation in late July 1440, which detailed the profane allegations against Gilles that had been circulating. On September 15, 1440, the Duke of Brittany sent his captain of arms with 30 men to arrest Gilles. Gilles calmly observed the Duke’s men approach from the castle parapets, heard them state their mission, and allowed himself to be arrested without protest for the various allegations, though he had 200 men garrisoned with him at Machecoul.

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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