The French Hero Who Gave Rise to the Story of Bluebeard
The legend of Bluebeard, about the serial wife killer, can be traced back to Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440). A nobleman from Brittany, Rais’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of the oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families of France. From an early age, Rais lived 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 that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. Rais distinguished himself even more in Anjou, fighting for its duchess against the English in 1427. He eventually became a national hero, as Joan of Arc’s chief lieutenant and right hand man. Then Rais’ true nature emerged, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was a monster.
When Joan of Arc rose to prominence in 1429 to challenge the English, who had been rampaging throughout France for decades, Gilles de Rais was already a celebrated military man, notwithstanding his youth. He was assigned to Joan of Arc as one of her guards, and fought in several battles at her side. Rais 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 de Rais had inherited huge landholdings and estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He then married a rich heiress, and that fortunate match brought him even more extensive holdings, and made him one of France’s greatest land owners. With so much wealth and property at his disposal, Rais hung up his spurs, sword, and shield, and retired from the military in 1434. However, it soon became clear that while Rais had been extremely good at fighting and managing fighting men in combat, he was simply nowhere near as good at managing money. It did not take him long to dissipate his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king who, unlike Rais, had an entire country that he could tax in order to refill his coffers.
Alchemy, Satanism and True Nature
Within just one year of Rais’ retirement, he had managed to lose most of his lands. Indeed, he was so inept at managing money and his estates, that his family secured a decree from the French king, forbidding Rais from mortgaging what was left of his property. So to raise more cash, Rais fell in with some charlatans, who got him hooked on alchemy – the medieval version of the Nigerian Prince scam. Rais began sinking both his time and whatever money he could get a hold of, to invest in “research” that he was promised would lead to the discovery of a way to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil. That was not the worst of it, however: another thing that Rais turned to was the serial rape, torture, and murder of children.
In 1440, an increasingly erratic Rais de Gilles got into a dispute with local church figures. A hot headed aristocrat, hopped up on machismo and unused to having his wishes denied, Rais escalated things, until he ended up kidnapping a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation, that unearthed some pretty horrific stuff. It turned out that the once celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the dozens. His standard operating procedure had been 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 Rais and his accomplices would seize their victims.
A Grisly Truth
As he confessed in his subsequent trial, Rais got a sadistic kick out of watching his victims’ fear, when he explained just what it was that he had in store for them. What was in store for them was nothing good – but we can skip the gory details. 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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading