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10 Facts about Gilles de Rais: French War Hero or First Serial Killer
Over their long history, the French have had their share of monsters, such as the serial sex offender Marquis de Sade, mass guillotiner and witch hunter Maximilien de Robespierre, WWII traitor Maréchal Pétain, and, more recently, Pierre Chanal, who murdered seventeen boys. Yet one that isn’t discussed much is Gilles de Rais, which may be due to both the controversial nature of his alleged actions and the argument between two opposing factions over his guilt or innocence for them.
So settle in as we scrutinize Gilles de Rais’ case from his childhood to his execution and let you decide—was he guilty or innocent of being one of the world’s first psychotic super serial killers?
10 Gilles de Rais’s Family Culture
Gilles de Rais was born in the family castle at Champtocé-sur-Loire, to parents Guy II de Montmorency-Laval and Marie de Craon in 1404. Gilles was an intelligent child, fluent in Latin, and divided his attentions between military discipline and intellectual and moral advancement by consuming manuscripts. After his parents both passed away in 1415 (his father in a hunting accident), he and his brother René de La Suze were sent to their mother’s grandfather, Jean de Craon, for tutoring.
It turned out that Jean de Craon was a major schemer who quickly tried to get the twelve-year-old Gilles married off to a four-year-old girl named Jeanne Paynel—whose mother “just happened” to be one of the wealthiest heiresses in France. Despite his first plan being doomed to fail, which it did, he tried the same ploy again, this time failing to target the Duke of Brittany’s niece for his grandson’s bride no less.
Being quite the tenacious scheme artist that he was, Craon tried again for a third time. As they say, the third time’s the charm because, on November 30, 1420, he succeeded in marrying young Gilles off to Catherine de Thouars of Brittany, who “just happened” to be the heiress of La Vendée and Poitou.
9 The Ultimate French Childhood
In 15th-century France, the ultimate childhood began by being born into a fabled existence to incredibly wealthy parents with much, much wealthier and well-connected families. Such is the case with Gilles de Rais. His mother, the former Marie Craon, had married his father, Guy de Rais, who, at the time, was the heir to the exceedingly rich Jeanne la Sage. Though this purely strategically planned marriage was engineered exclusively to merge three powerful and wealthy families.
Guy and Marie did not get married until Guy changed his name from Laval to de Rais strictly for the purpose of inheriting the estate of Jeanne la Sage, who was the last heiress of the de Rais family. However, la Sage reneged on the promise to make Guy her heir and instead gave her inheritance to Catherine de Machecoul, the mother of Jean Craon, Marie’s father. To prevent a major feud between Guy, the la Sages, and the Machecouls, the ever-so-astute Jean Craon proposed a marriage between Guy and Marie. It was done, and the de Raises inherited la Sage’s holdings.
Gilles would lose both parents in 1415, but his life afterward was rather non-eventful, but being the son and heir of a distinguished and rich nobleman had its perks. While as young as seven, as a distinguished child, he was treated as a young adult as all children of his class were. Gilles didn’t see his parents much but was an excellent student by all accounts, excelling in subjects such as the humanities and classic art, along with training in courtly ways and the military arts.
8 His Part in France’s Hundred Years’ War
The fact that the French finally won the Hundred Years’ War against her despised mortal English enemies is common knowledge, right along with the fact that during the siege of Orleans in 1429, it was the iconic Joan of Arc entering the conflagration that ended up both saving the city and winning the war for France. The English had retreated only ten days after inserting herself into the siege. Within two months, under Joan’s tutelage, Charles VII was on his way to Reims for his coronation as the King of France.
The king she helped gain his throne twenty-five years later had almost completely rid France of English occupation, except for the sole port city of Calais. Still, the war was effectively over and lost by the English, who also lost her once vast holdings on the continent. What is much less known or taught is that Joan of Arc had a “shadow” at her side during the siege of Orleans, who was a seasoned military officer that King Charles had personally assigned to Joan as her bodyguard when he gave her command of his forces.
That veteran officer was none other than a member of the respected Laval family of Brittany, Baron Gilles de Rais, who shadowed the famous commander during the siege and was one of her staunchest supporters. While best known for being beside Joan of Arc at Orleans, the remainder of his life was rife with “shadowy” behavior and accusations of wrongdoings that would eventually ruin his life.
7 Joan of Arc’s and Gilles de Rais’s Relationship
During the world-famous second Hundred Years’ War between England and France, the iconic military genius, Joan of Arc, fought alongside her companion-in-arms, Gilles de Rais, who would, after the end of the war, be appointed by the king as Marshal of France. The youthful knight had fought alongside the legendary commander Joan of Arc and helped bring glory back to France.
By 1429, de Rais was one of only four knights picked for the honor of delivering the Holy Ampulla to the consecration of King Charles VII. Yet the people of France were shocked when, a little over a decade later, the once young and gallant knight, who had done so much for the country, was up on multiple horrendous criminal charges, with his life on the line.
6 For Gilles de Rais, Money Was the Root of His Evil
Even though Gilles de Rais was one of the most powerful people in France, he wasn’t able to cope with the imposing responsibilities that French society had placed on him. Gilles was raised and taught by his grandfather, who wielded more power and was much craftier politically. His only agenda was to add to his already swelled portfolio.
Since de Rais lacked the moral fiber to be an effective politician, he learned little from his grandfather and displayed a political naiveté that would eventually cause his fall from grace. Instead of working on obtaining political goals, as his grandfather would have taught him, de Rais turned into an art shopping junky and started blowing the family fortune in outrageous ways besides buying artwork that could potentially lead him to a much murkier side of 15th-century French society.
5 The Alleged Killings of Gilles de Rais
Later in his life, de Rais grew more and more concerned with religion and personal salvation. For example, in 1433, he financed a church he called the Chapel of the Holy Innocents for “the bliss of his soul.” Ironically, considering the charges he would soon face, the church included an all-boys choir that de Rais had handpicked himself. Gilles also turned to the occult for help with his failing financial situation by employing wizards and alchemists. Meanwhile, the rumors had begun. Children had been reported missing after being in close proximity to one of de Rais’s castles.
In some places, de Rais’s murderous actions were kept secret by the locals, who were reluctant to blow the whistle on the powerful nobleman for fear of reprisal. For example, during the trial, witnesses testified to seeing the de Rais staff burying dozens of bodies at one of his castles in 1437. Gilles was never arrested until 1440 after kidnapping a priest over an issue unrelated to the murders.
Ironically, de Rais’s arrest for murder would have to wait since the transcript of this hearing doesn’t mention them whatsoever. Most scholars agree that this insensitivity to the murdering of young peasant boys wasn’t that big of a deal to the nobles of France since they were, after all, well, poor peasant boys—a very similar attitude that some police forces have been reported as having concerning the disappearances of prostitutes during serial killings today.
4 De Rais’s Alleged Involvement in Satanism
Gilles de Rais had an acute interest in alchemy, as did many noblemen of the era. Many today wrongly assume that alchemy was an attempt to turn lead into gold, but these precursors to our modern chemists were actually searching for immortality and interested in creating the legendary “Philosopher’s Stone.” The practice of alchemy was considered to be black magic in medieval Europe at the time. It was associated with arcane symbolism and processes, which many assumed brought the practitioner into close contact with Satan. As a result, the practice of alchemy was banned by the French Church.
Soon though, de Rais’s interest in alchemy became an obsession, and his staff members, de Briqueville and de Sillé, began securing not only alchemists but also young boys for de Rais as well. The most nefarious alchemist de Rais employed was a clerk from Tuscany named François Prelati, who impressed him with his intelligence and fluent use of Latin. Prelati claimed to be in close contact with a demonic entity named “Barron,” who he would summon to help Guilles in his incantations and spells.
Even though his obsession with the occult resulted from his murderous way, de Rais reportedly never sacrificed any children to Satan. Gilles did, however, supposedly use body parts and blood from his young victims to help Prelati in conjuring the demonic spirit of Barron. Testimony at de Rais’s trial, though, made Prelati look like nothing less than the con artist he was.
In fact, he used the common ploy most con artists of the day used by only conjuring Barron up when de Rais was not in the room, on the pretense that de Rais did not want to sell his soul to Satan. The “demon” Barron also had an unusual penchant for mortal things, such as money, which de Rais would eagerly oblige.
3 Was Gilles de Rais’ a Brutal Psychopath?
The early 15th-century Marshall of France and comrade-in-arms who fought beside the legendary commander Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais, was charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for murdering dozens of young boys. Valerie Ogden, author of the 2014 book Bluebeard, documenting the events surrounding the horrific crimes of Gilles de Rais, argues that de Rais’s actions were set off by both traumatic childhood events and the death of Joan of Arc, which triggered PTSD. Ogden’s sources for her claims are few and far between, though, since her only principal sources were the trial records, with secondary sources written by non-medieval or amateur historians.
Ogden explains that the style of writing used was akin to today’s tabloids, writing things like, “De Briqueville, with his blazing, hungry eyes, felt no affection, loyalty or gratitude to de Rais,” or “The events he witnessed… stoked his smoldering thirst for blood.” In other words, more “pomp” than “circumstance.” The author also stated that de Rais’s alleged homosexuality had a part in his perverse desire for pedophilia and murder. She also pushes aside the theories that de Rais was innocent due to testimony being plagued by false reports, gossip, and his confession, which was given under duress with the threat of torture. One thing is clear, though, de Rais’s accusers benefited greatly from his conviction and subsequent execution.
2 Gilles de Rais’s Arrest
Gilles de Rais had a couple close calls in the past, but nothing turned serious until his family, including his brother, Rene de Rais, became increasingly alarmed at what they were hearing about Gilles. Their relationship was tense but civil; Rene was becoming more concerned with his brother’s selling of the family’s holdings. Worried that Gilles would ruin the family financially and their good reputations, Rene managed to get King Charles to issue a decree preventing him from liquidating the castle at Champtoce and decided to move there himself. Gilles went into a panic when he heard this and knew that due to his spendthrift ways, it would not be long before his brother took over more of their estates, including Machecoul.
Gilles also knew it would be too soon before the forty or more bodies of dead young boys stored in the tower would be discovered, so he sent Henriet and Poitou to Machecoul to clean the horrid mess up. Two noblemen got wind of activity on the estate and went snooping. They saw Henriet and Poitou performing their gory job. But they were completely indifferent to the scene and left—after all, they were just lowly peasant boys being disposed of. After being at Champtoce for three weeks, Rene sent his cousin, Andre de Laval-Loheac, to house-sit at Machecoul in order to keep his brother from moving in. The first thing Andre was told to do was comb the estate for evidence, which he did.
It was Gilles de Sille that de Rais charged with disposing of remains there, but de Sille failed, and Andre found the skeletal remains of two boys—the jig was now up for de Rais—or was it? Henriet and Poitou were interviewed by the captain of the guards, but nothing became of it, yet it would only be a matter of time.
Ironically, his arrest had nothing to do with the remains of dead young peasant boys being found on his property. Gilles was actually hauled in for kidnapping a priest from his own church at St. Etienne de Mermorte over a land dispute during High Mass that got him hauled in for questioning. However, the jig still wasn’t up yet for de Rais since according to the transcripts, the murders were never even mentioned during that inquest.
Meanwhile, it was no secret that Jean the Fifth Duke of Brittany, wanted the estates belonging to Gilles de Rais. So he got together with Jean de Malestroit, the Bishop of Nantes, who started gathering evidence on de Rais. In 1440, Malestroit made his findings public. On September 14, 1440, he issued arrest warrants for all those involved, and the murderous bunch were finally hauled in.
1 Was His Execution Justifiable?
When Gilles de Rais’ servants were interrogated, they openly admitted to kidnapping young boys for de Rais and that he would sit on the boys’ chests while masturbating before raping them and slicing off their heads while wallowing in the gore. Two French clerics testified in court about de Rais’s involvement in alchemy and his obsession with the dark arts and that Gilles had used the children’s body parts in his Satanic rituals. Servants from surrounding villages testified on how their boys had gone missing after panhandling at de Rais’s castle gate. A furrier gave witness to how an apprentice of his was ‘borrowed’ by one of Rais’s cousins but never seen again.
The court’s decision to torture de Rais into a confession wouldn’t be necessary since he confessed on October 21 to all charges filed against him, including sodomy, murder, and heresy. The trial lasted five days, and Gilles de Rais was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death by hanging while being simultaneously burned on October 26, 1440. For some unknown reason, de Rais’s corpse was saved from the flames before being reduced to ash. A fitting end for such a monster, or was he? You decide.