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?
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
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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