Gilles de Rais

Warning: This account of the life and crimes of Gilles de Rais is not for the squeamish!

It was during the long conflict known as the Hundred Years War that Gilles de Rais was born into a well off French aristocratic family in the year 1404 at Champtocé (Maine -et-Loire) . Tragically, when the boy was only 10 or 11 years old, he was beset by a double tragedy. His mother became ill and died and his father was unfortunately killed when he was gored by a wild boar whilst hunting. During the same year his uncle Amaury was killed fighting the English army in the great Battle of Agincourt which added even more to the vast inheritance awaiting Gilles. This set of misfortunes was to leave Gilles de Rais as the sole heir to the family fortune. Because of his tender age, this fortune was to be controlled by his grandfather: Jean de Craon.

Gilles de Rais portrait in 1835

Gilles de Rais portrait in 1835

Whilst Jean de Craon did look after the financial matters, he didn’t really take much interest in the boy and seemed to want to use him as a political pawn twice trying to marry Gilles into wealthy families without success. His first attempt was Jeanne Paynel of Normandy, but the ruling powers would not sanction Gilles’ betrothal to this four-year-old orphan girl. Next, Jean de Craon set his sights on Beatrice de Rohan of Brittany, the Duke of Brittany’s own niece, but this didn’t work out either. Finally he decided upon on a better match : Catherine de Thouars – Gilles’ cousin! In 1420, with her father away campaigning, in true feudal brigand style, Gilles, the young Lord abducted Catherine and married her in secret. There then followed negotiations with the Pope who at first annulled the union but then backed down for appearances sake and gave his blessing. At first, Catherine’s mother objected to the marriage not wanting Gilles to benefit from her property but after the latter along with his unscrupulous grandfather imprisoned her, threatening to stitch her up inside a sack and throw her into the river, she gave in o their demands. Catherine was to bear him a daughter, Marie, in 1429 and live out much of her life alone at her Castle of Pouzauges.

On reaching his twentieth year, Gilles came into his own estate. The fortune involved was vast in extent, being worth between forty and fifty thousand livres in annual income. It is an unbelievable fact that within 15 or 16 years, Gilles managed to squander the vast fortune embodied in the castles seigniories and lands which his ancestors had gone to such pains to acquire!

Early in his career De Rais fought for control of Brittany on the side of the Montfort house against a rival house led by the count of Penthièvre, Olivier de Blois. He was successful in securing the release of the Duke of Montfort and was rewarded with land grants converted into monetary gifts for him and enjoyed the company of the Dauphin spending much time at court in between fighting engagements. From 1427 to 1435 he was a commander in the French royal army gaining a reputation for bravery on the battlefield at Saint Lo and Le Mans and notably during the capture of Le Lude castle where he climbed the tower and killed the captain of the opposing side, but it was also at this time that signs of a sadistic nature began to show and some said that he appeared to positively revel in the carnage whether it was killing with the sword or trampling men underfoot with his horse but of course in the context of battle this was not frowned upon and only enhanced his reputation as a brave and valiant knight.

Joan of Arc

In 1429, Gilles de Rais was introduced to the young Joan of Arc, a 17-year-old peasant girl who had impressed the Dauphin with her belief that it was her destiny to defeat the English army who at the time were laying siege to the city of Orleans. The Dauphin thought she was mad but nevertheless decided to send her to Orleans with Gilles who found her interesting to say the least. Of course to the amazement of all, Joan went on to defeat the English with Gilles serving alongside her on a number of campaigns. One thing they did have in common was a deep piety and Gilles de Rais did in fact contribute to the building of a number of churches and one Cathedral. Sadly, Joan was eventually charged with heresy and burnt at the stake at Rouen and of course Gilles then had to play down their association even though his fame has grown by association with her. However after Joan’s execution, he was duly appointed Marshal of France and rewarded with further riches and after a few more years of fighting he retired to his estates and a great castle of Machecoul, his family’s castle near the border with Brittany and Tiffauges in the Vendée where he began to spend his large inheritance on lavish entertainment. He even produced a theatrical spectacle called ‘The Mystery of the Siege of Orleans’ in which he played the lead role. Hundreds of actors were employed and the audience treated to food and drink at his expense! Gilles sumptuous lifestyle greatly irritated his brother René who feared that he was squandering the family fortune.

At this time however, a dark sordid truth lurked under the surface of this flamboyant lifestyle. De Rais began to indulge his secret vices procuring a street boy named Poitou who he lured to his chateau, raped and was about to cut his throat when it was pointed out to him that the boy would make a good page so he spared his life and Poitou became one of his minions. Others were not so lucky. De Rais embarked on a premeditated spree of sadistic sex murders and is reputed to have been responsible for the killing of up to 200 children – mainly boys between the ages of six and 18. Typically the victims were blue-eyed and blond haired sometimes being forcibly abducted from the village of Machecoul or the surrounding area. Many of them were taken to a specially built room where they would be tied up and raped before being horribly murdered in various ways including decapitation, and disembowelment. At his trial, De Rais was to admit that he took pleasure from seeing their entrails ripped out! If it seems today incredible that such crimes could go unpunished for years, one has to remember that most of the victims were of very low standing and that as Gillies himself was a nobleman – his actions would be considered beyond question at that time. De Rais also developed a fascination for the occult and as he was beginning to run short of money , he was convinced by a magician called Fontanelle that the forbidden practice of alchemy might be a source of new riches. It is even said that he offered to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the power to make gold and when he was advised by another supposed magician: François Prelati that children’s blood and body parts would have to be offered to the devil, this of course appealed to Rais but all of these nefarious activities failed to yield any treasure.

Meanwhile, René de Ray was now becoming desperate to take control of any remaining family fortune and threatened to march on Machecoul. The Duke of Brittany also greedily had designs on Gilles de Rais’ lands and captured one of his castles but it was after de Rais abducted a priest who was the brother of one of his enemies in the middle of conducting Mass, that the Bishop of Nantes who also had a vested interest in Gillies downfall, instigated an enquiry into his behaviour. The Bishop built up a very strong case against de Rais who was arrested in 15th September 1440 at Machecoul and indicted on 34 counts of murder, abuse of clerical privilege, conjuring up demons and ‘vices against nature’. There were 110 witnesses at the trial including the parents of some of the murdered children who gave evidence against him and the trial garnered much attention throughout the whole country. It is recorded that some of the accounts of the murders were so shocking that the judge ordered parts of the testimonies to be deleted. After a month, under threat of torture, Gilles de Rais confessed to his crimes and was found guilty of murder, sodomy and heresy. To his dying breath, de Rais professed the strength of his faith and denied the charge of devil worship and apparently broke down in tears when threatened with excommunication. He was executed on 26 October 1440 at Nantes by first being garrotted and then his body thrown on a funeral pyre. However, before the fire was lit, his family were allowed to take the body away for burial.

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