The Dark Knight

A com­rade-in-arms of Joan of Arc hor­ri­fied France when he was re­vealed to be a se­rial child killer, but did Gilles de Rais re­ally do it?

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Cather­ine Cur­zon

The truth about Giles de

Rais re­vealed, the French aris­to­crat whose mur­der­ous ram­page may have in­spired the le­gend of Blue­beard

Gilles de Rais was a man of means. Born into the House of Mont­morency-laval, he re­ceived rich re­wards and kingly favours for his dis­tin­guished mil­i­tary ser­vice. He was also sup­pos­edly a blood­thirsty 15th cen­tury se­rial killer, re­spon­si­ble for the ab­duc­tion, tor­ture and mur­der of hun­dreds of chil­dren. In a storm of oc­cultism, alchemy and Satanic wor­ship, the rep­u­ta­tion and priv­i­leged life of the once cel­e­brated French noble was des­tined to come to a bru­tal and shud­der­ing halt.

Born in 1404, Gilles de Rais was or­phaned at a young age. He mar­ried into a vast for­tune but he wasn’t con­tent to sit back. In­stead, Rais de­ter­mined to prove him­self on the battlefield. He soon be­came a cel­e­brated and feared war­rior, famed for his brav­ery and nerve, as well as his strate­gic brain and loy­alty to France. Rais en­joyed an un­blem­ished record and when the Dauphin of France needed some­one to fight along­side Joan of Arc in her cru­sade against the English, Rais was the ob­vi­ous can­di­date.

As Joan’s rep­u­ta­tion soared so too did that of Rais and he dis­tin­guished him­self dur­ing the Hun­dred Years’ War. He was at Joan’s side through­out the de­ci­sive Siege of Or­léans in 1428-9 and pro­vided her with vi­tal strate­gic in­sights that turned the tide against the English who had dom­i­nated the Hun­dred Years’ War since Agin­court in 1415. For his part in that de­ci­sive vic­tory Rais was ap­pointed a Mar­shal of France and when Joan went to her death in 1431 her com­rade’s star shined brighter than ever.

Baron de Rais was the model of piety. He con­structed a mag­nif­i­cent place of wor­ship named the Chapel of the In­no­cents. Fill­ing its choir stalls with boys whom he au­di­tioned and se­lected per­son­ally, he en­ter­tained his sub­jects with a mag­nif­i­cent play that he had penned, telling the story of the Siege of Or­léans. He squan­dered his money on hun­dreds of cos­tumes that were worn once, de­stroyed and made afresh for ev­ery per­for­mance. Those lucky enough to be in the au­di­ence were treated to un­lim­ited lav­ish re­fresh­ments too, with the bill footed by Rais.

That life­style didn’t en­dear him to other mem­bers of his fam­ily and as Rais grew older, his cof­fers grew de­pleted. He set ex­trav­a­gance aside to con­cen­trate on sal­va­tion, but whilst oth­ers looked to heaven, Gilles de Rais had other ideas. Rais ploughed his re­main­ing for­tune into the em­ploy­ment of al­chemists and sor­cer­ers in the vain hope that they might be able to con­jure up some cash.

Later, his ser­vants claimed that Rais had suc­ceeded in rais­ing a de­mon dur­ing one of their un­speak­able rites.

The hellish vis­i­tor promised the baron that a for­tune would be his on one con­di­tion – he must sup­ply in­no­cent blood to com­plete the cer­e­mony. Be­yond the walls of Rais’ cas­tles peo­ple were be­gin­ning to talk.

By day the lands around his im­mense es­tates were much like any other. By night, how­ever, if ru­mours were to be­lieved, then those lands be­came the play­ground for

“Ser­vants claimed that Rais suc­ceeded in rais­ing a de­mon”

dev­il­ish forces and none was more dev­il­ish than Gilles de Rais. He and a priest named François Pre­lati held Satanic cer­e­monies in Rais’ homes. Un­holy rites and the black­est en­chant­ments were per­formed to sate the in­hu­man lusts of the wealthy mar­shal. Some­thing very rot­ten in­deed was lurk­ing in the lands of Gilles de Rais.

The hor­ri­fy­ing story be­gan to un­ravel when an ado­les­cent boy with the sur­name Jeudon was sent to Rais’ home at Machecoul car­ry­ing a mes­sage from the baron’s cousins, Roger de Briqueville and Gilles de Sillé. Young Jeudon dis­ap­peared, seem­ingly swal­lowed up by the cas­tle it­self. He was the first of in­nu­mer­able chil­dren to van­ish from the area. Many of them worked as pages in the house­holds of no­bles, but their dis­ap­pear­ances – if no­ticed at all, by their aris­to­cratic mas­ters – were chalked up as ru­n­aways.

The die was cast when Rais took a priest hostage dur­ing an ar­gu­ment in 1440. The priest was the brother of the trea­surer of Brit­tany and Rais hoped that he could ne­go­ti­ate a ran­som, en­sur­ing that his debts would be writ­ten off in re­turn for the priest’s safe re­turn.

In­stead, Jean de Male­stroit, Bishop of Nantes, or­dered an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rais’ out­ra­geous be­hav­iour and sud­denly found him­self deal­ing not just with a rogue noble, but with a bona fide mass mur­derer.

Male­stroit turned his ev­i­dence over to the sec­u­lar law­mak­ers and they gath­ered state­ments from ter­ri­fied wit­nesses and fam­i­lies, griev­ing for chil­dren whom had dis­ap­peared into the yawn­ing dark­ness of Gilles de Rais’ cas­tles. For all his chapels and hero­ism, it seemed that there

“Jeudon dis­ap­peared, seem­ingly swal­lowed up by the cas­tle it­self”

was noth­ing the baron en­joyed more than de­prav­ity and ter­ror, all of it cul­mi­nat­ing in a spree of child killings.

Gilles de Rais and his ser­vants, Éti­enne Cor­ril­laut (aka Poitou) and Hen­riet, were ar­rested and charged ini­tially with the kid­nap of the priest, a charge that was even­tu­ally amended to mur­der, heresy and sodomy.

At first Rais re­fused to en­ter a plea but when he was threat­ened with tor­ture and ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion – the lat­ter a more ter­ri­fy­ing prospect for him than ex­e­cu­tion – Rais and his ser­vants con­fessed to the charges. From those con­fes­sions a pic­ture of sick­en­ing de­prav­ity and vi­o­lence emerged. As word of the trial spread even more wit­nesses came for­ward to claim that their chil­dren had gone to Rais seek­ing food or work, never to be seen again. Afraid of reper­cus­sions and with nei­ther money nor sta­tus to raise charges against the wealthy and cel­e­brated Mar­shal of France, they hadn’t dared to speak out against him be­fore. Soon the ar­rested men were fall­ing over them­selves to con­fess, hop­ing to es­cape the threat of tor­ture. They told of the hor­rific fate that met the ab­ducted chil­dren when they were in­vited into the lav­ish home of Gilles de Rais.treated as hon­oured guests, the in­no­cent young­sters were, al­legedly, first given a suit of fine clothes then treated to a mag­nif­i­cent feast that in­cluded lav­ish serv­ings of hipocras, an ex­cep­tion­ally strong liquor. Once the chil­dren were in a tor­por they were taken by Rais and his co-con­spir­a­tors, one of whom was the very cousin who had em­ployed young Jeudon.

The chil­dren were sub­jected to a hor­ri­fy­ing sex­ual as­sault be­fore they were mur­dered, usu­ally by de­cap­i­ta­tion, though on oc­ca­sion Rais broke their neck in­stead. Rais him­self ad­mit­ted that, once the chil­dren were dead, he sub­jected them to fur­ther sex­ual abuse be­fore he dis­em­bow­elled and

“Rais and his co-ac­cused had con­fessed, ev­i­dence or not ”

dis­mem­bered them. He pre­ferred male vic­tims and rev­elled in the act of dis­sec­tion, fas­ci­nated by the in­nards of the chil­dren. Only when he was sated did he burn their re­mains, re­mov­ing all trace of their pres­ence.

Eye­wit­nesses claimed to have seen in­nu­mer­able young­sters go­ing into Rais’ cas­tles, with none ever emerg­ing. To add fuel to the fire, the cap­tain of his guard tes­ti­fied that he had per­son­ally wit­nessed ser­vants drag­ging hu­man re­mains from the cel­lars of one cas­tle. When asked why he hadn’t in­ter­vened his an­swer was sim­ple, they were only peas­ants, so why would any­body care?

Rais’ vic­tims ranged in age from as young as six to ap­prox­i­mately 18. Though the ex­act num­ber of vic­tims was never es­tab­lished, it ap­peared to be some­where be­tween 80 and 100, with the first hav­ing been the young­ster known as Jeudon. The high­est es­ti­mates have risen as high as 600, but there is lit­tle to sup­port that fig­ure. In fact, there was lit­tle hard ev­i­dence to sup­port any fig­ure at all. Yet Rais and his co-ac­cused had con­fessed, ev­i­dence or not, and those con­fes­sions shook the land.

The only pos­si­ble sen­tence for such crimes was death. Rais and his co-de­fen­dants were sen­tenced to be si­mul­ta­ne­ously hanged and burned at Nantes, with their ex­e­cu­tion set for 26 Oc­to­ber 1440. In keep­ing with his noble birth, Rais ap­par­ently asked if he could die first be­fore be­ing laid to rest in Nantes in the church of Notre-dames des Carmes. Both of his re­quests were granted.

Gilles de Rais and his former ser­vants were taken to the Ile de Biesse at nine o’clock on the morn­ing of their ex­e­cu­tion, where an enor­mous crowd waited to greet them. Rais showed no fear and ad­dressed the crowd with heart­felt con­tri­tion, ask­ing his co-con­demned to be coura­geous and wel­come

the sal­va­tion that death would bring them. At eleven o’clock, Gilles de Rais was hanged be­fore his body was cut down into the flames. Though Poitou and Hen­riet were con­sumed en­tirely by fire, Rais’ re­mains were seem­ingly re­trieved and taken away for burial.

Yet de­spite his crimes, Gilles de Rais was not vil­i­fied. In­stead his noble birth, twinned with his re­morse­ful­ness and brav­ery as he faced the ex­e­cu­tioner el­e­vated him to the very model of Chris­tian pen­i­tence. A three day fast was held in hon­our of his piety. For decades af­ter his death, the an­niver­sary of the ex­e­cu­tion was com­mem­o­rated by a prac­tice in which par­ents whipped their chil­dren, to im­press upon them the value of re­pen­tance.

In the cen­turies that have passed since Gilles de Rais went to his death, his­to­ri­ans have stud­ied the trial records and the eye­wit­ness ac­counts of the mur­ders, hop­ing to es­tab­lish whether he was truly guilty of the crimes. Al­though his own con­fes­sion sealed his fate, it was ex­tracted un­der threat of tor­ture and ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, so might he have been an in­no­cent man? If so, what rea­son could there pos­si­bly be for fram­ing this cel­e­brated Mar­shal of France?

A pos­si­ble mo­tive might be found in the post­hu­mous fate of Rais’ ex­ten­sive lands. When he was found guilty, they were awarded to the Duke of Brit­tany, whose cousin, Jean de Male­stroit, also hap­pened to be one of the trial judges. Oth­ers have main­tained that he was the vic­tim of a church plot thanks to his as­so­ci­a­tions with Joan of Arc and his kid­nap­ping of the priest. Po­ten­tially, he had en­e­mies in very high places. No phys­i­cal ev­i­dence was ever pre­sented to the courts de­spite the enor­mous num­ber of al­leged vic­tims and with witch tri­als blaz­ing a trail across Europe, Rais had the po­ten­tial mis­for­tune to have been ac­cused at a time when the pitch­forks were out. Some of those who have made a case for his ac­quit­tal more re­cently, in­clud­ing the no­to­ri­ous oc­cultist Aleis­ter Crow­ley, have claimed that Rais might well have prac­tised witch­craft or pa­gan­ism but was not in­volved in any crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity. In­stead, the ar­gu­ment fol­lows, he was sim­ply a mar­tyr to an­cient re­li­gion, a vic­tim of the In­qui­si­tion that swept across the con­ti­nent.

Ac­cord­ing to some sources, in 1992, Jean-yves Goëaubris­son­nière, Freema­son Grand Mas­ter of the Grand Lodge of France, or­gan­ised a so-called re­trial of Rais be­fore a court of politi­cians and UN­ESCO ex­perts. It re­turned a ver­dict of not guilty. Crit­ics of the trial have pointed out that no one in­volved in the en­deav­our was a Me­dieval his­to­rian and it did lit­tle to sway those who be­lieved Rais was guilty.

The grisly story of Gilles de Rais has per­sisted in the pub­lic con­scious­ness, serv­ing as one in­spi­ra­tion amongst many for the le­gend of Blue­beard, the most fa­mous sur­viv­ing ver­sion of which was writ­ten by Charles Per­rault in 1697. The story of Blue­beard is that of a fear­some yet im­mensely wealthy no­ble­man whose wives have a nasty habit of dis­ap­pear­ing. He is later found to have mur­dered them and stored their bod­ies in a locked room, which is dis­cov­ered by his new­est bride thanks to a mag­i­cal key. Of course, Blue­beard is even­tu­ally van­quished and the forces of good pre­vail.

No hu­man re­mains were found in Rais’ prop­erty and his vic­tims were chil­dren. There­fore, his role in the story of Blue­beard is a some­what generic one, that of a wealthy and well-con­nected pil­lar of the es­tab­lish­ment who is se­cretly a mon­ster. An­other Brit­tany-based in­spi­ra­tion can be found in the story of Conomor The Cursed, who was haunted by the ghosts of his mur­dered wives. Ul­ti­mately, the ques­tion of Gilles de Rais’ guilt or in­no­cence hangs on who we be­lieve.

If weight is given to the con­fes­sions and eye­wit­ness ac­counts then he was a guilty man. Yet on the other hand, what if those who cried foul were right, and Rais was re­ally the vic­tim, not the per­pe­tra­tor?

The ma­jor­ity of his­to­ri­ans to­day still con­clude that

Gilles de Rais was guilty of the crimes for which he was ex­e­cuted. It’s un­likely now that con­clu­sive ev­i­dence will be found ei­ther way but un­til it is, Gilles de Rais re­mains the bo­gey­man of Me­dieval France, a real Blue­beard who ter­rorised the most in­no­cent of all.

The Mar­shal of France was be­lieved to have sub­jected vic­tims to black magic

A ghoul­ish Vic­to­rian re-imag­in­ing of Gilles’ crimes A man­u­script minia­ture depict­ing Jean de Male­stroit over­see­ing Rais’ trial

Egosug­gested Court ev­i­dence over life by hold­ing do­min­ionRais was and death it­self, emu­late the at­tempt­ing to of his­tory, great tyrants such as CaligulaSadism Were­wolffan­ci­ful One of the mostRais was a claims is that out­landish were­wolf. This of course, never ac­cu­sa­tion, as court made it as far put for­ward The mo­tiveGilles de Rais at the trial ofHe was was sim­ple enough. to sex­ual sadism mo­ti­vated by kill tor­ture and What turned the knight into a se­rial killer?Greedran When Rais’ money a Crown re­fused out and the he re­ally of­fer mort­gage, did a de­mon who his vic­tims to riches? promised himMad­nessand When his friend was of Arc, died, com­rade, JoanRais, de­ranged it pos­si­ble that to mur­der to with grief, turned vent his de­spair?

In ear­lier life, Gilles de Rais fought along­side Joan of Arc at Or­léans

A 16th cen­tury de­pic­tion of Rais’ ex­e­cu­tion Some artists pre­ferred to de­pict Rais as be­ing un­der de­monic in­flu­ence

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