Marshal of France, Companion of Joan of Arc, and All Around Monster
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440), was a French aristocrat from Brittany. He was a respected knight, and a national hero who rose to prominence as Joan of Arc’s chief captain and right-hand man. Then his true nature was revealed, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was an outright monster.
Gilles’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of the oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families in France. From an early age, Gilles seemed to live up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan. By age 15, he had distinguished himself militarily during a series of wars of succession that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. He distinguished himself even more in Anjou, fighting for its duchess against the English in 1427.
By the time Joan of Arc emerged on the scene in 1429 to challenge the English, Gilles de Rais was already one of France’s most celebrated military men, despite his youth. He was assigned to Joan of Arc as one of her guards and fought in several battles at her side. He particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, the lifting of the English siege of Orleans. He then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII, who made Gilles de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements.
Gilles had inherited significant landholdings and estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He married a rich heiress, which matches brought him even more extensive holdings, and made him one of France’s greatest magnates. He retired from the military in 1434, but it soon emerged that he was not as good at managing money as he was at managing men in battle. It did not take him long to dissipate his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king.
Within a year of Gilles’ retirement, he lost most of his lands, and his family secured from the king a decree forbidding him from mortgaging what was left. To raise more cash, Gilles turned to alchemy, hoping to figure out a way to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil.
Another thing he turned to was the serial rape, torture, and murder of children. In 1440, an increasingly erratic Gilles got into a dispute with local church figures, and things escalated until he ended up kidnapping a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation of Gilles, which unearthed some horrific stuff. It turned out that the once celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the hundreds.
His modus operandi was to lure children from peasant or lower class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothing. He would initially put them at their ease, feed and pamper them, before leading them to a bedroom where Gilles and accomplices would seize their victims. As he confessed in his subsequent trial, Gilles got a sadistic kick out of watching their fear, when he explained what was in store for the kid. And what was in store was none too good. Suffice it to say that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation.
The victims and their clothing would then be burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped in a moat. After Gilles confessed to his crimes, he and he and his accomplices were condemned to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.