Gilles de Rais  

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Fancy portrait of Gilles de Rais (c. 1835)
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Fancy portrait of Gilles de Rais (c. 1835)
Ruin of the Castle of Machecoul of Gilles de Rais
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Ruin of the Castle of Machecoul of Gilles de Rais

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Gilles de Montmorency-Laval (also known as Gilles de Rais) (ca. September 1405 ? – 26 October 1440) was a knight, a leader in the French army and a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc. He is best known by his reputation and conviction as a prolific serial killer of children.

In 1434/1435, he retired from military life, depleted his wealth by staging an extravagant theatrical spectacle of his own composition and dabbled in the occult. After 1432 Gilles engaged in a series of child murders, his victims possibly numbering in the hundreds. The killings came to an end in 1440, when a violent dispute with a clergyman led to an ecclesiastical investigation which brought Gilles' crimes to light. At his trial the parents of missing children in the surrounding area and Gilles' own confederates in crime testified against him. Gilles was condemned to death and hanged at Nantes on 26 October 1440.

Gilles de Rais is believed to be the inspiration for the 1697 fairy tale "Bluebeard" ("Barbebleu") by Charles Perrault. His life is the subject of several modern novels, and referenced in a number of rock bands' albums and songs.

Contents

Early life

Gilles de Rais was probably born in late 1405 to Guy II de Montmorency-Laval and Marie de Craon in the family castle at Champtocé-sur-Loire. He was an intelligent child, speaking fluent Latin, illuminating manuscripts, and dividing his education between military discipline and moral and intellectual development. Following the deaths of his father and mother in 1415, Gilles and his younger brother René de La Suze were placed under the tutelage of Jean de Craon, their maternal grandfather. Jean de Craon was a schemer who attempted to arrange a marriage for twelve-year-old Gilles with four-year-old Jeanne Paynel, one of the richest heiresses in Normandy, and, when the plan failed, attempted unsuccessfully to unite the boy with Béatrice de Rohan, the niece to the Duke of Brittany. On 30 November 1420, however, Craon substantially increased his grandson's fortune by marrying him to Catherine de Thouars of Brittany, heiress of La Vendée and Poitou. Their only child Marie was born in 1429.

Military career

In the decades following the Breton War of Succession (1341–64), the defeated faction led by Olivier de Blois, Count of Penthièvre, continued to plot against the Dukes of the House of Montfort. The Blois faction, who still refused to relinquish their claim to rule over the Duchy of Brittany, had taken Duke John VI prisoner in violation of the Treaty of Guérande (1365). The sixteen-year-old Gilles took the side of the House of Montfort. Rais was able to secure the Duke's release, and was rewarded with generous land grants which were converted to monetary gifts.

In 1425, Rais was introduced to the court of Charles VII at Saumur and learned courtly manners by studying the Dauphin. In combat at Saint-Lô and Le Mans between 1427 and 1429, Gilles was allowed to indulge his taste for violence and carnage. At the battle for the Château of Lude, he climbed the assault ladder and slew the English captain Blackburn. He was young, handsome and rich with companions-in-arms of his own stripe about him.

From 1427 to 1435, Rais served as a commander in the Royal Army, distinguishing himself by displaying reckless bravery on the battlefield during the renewal of the Hundred Years War. In 1429, he fought along with Joan of Arc in some of the campaigns waged against the English and their Burgundian allies. He was present with Joan when the Siege of Orléans ended.

On Sunday 17 July 1429, Gilles was chosen as one of four lords for the honor of bringing the Holy Ampulla from the Abbey of Saint-Remy to Notre-Dame de Reims for the consecration of Charles VII as King of France. On the same day, he was officially created a Marshal of France.

Following the Siege of Orleans, Rais was granted the right to add a border of the royal arms, the fleur-de-lys on an azure ground, to his own. The letters patent authorizing the display cited Gilles’ "high and commendable services", the "great perils and dangers" he had confronted, and "many other brave feats".

In May 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake; Gilles was not present. His grandfather died 15 November 1432, and, in a public gesture to mark his displeasure with Gilles' reckless spending of a carefully amassed fortune, left his sword and his breastplate to Gilles' younger brother René de La Suze.

Private life

In 1434/5, Rais gradually withdrew from military and public life in order to pursue his own interests: the construction of a splendid Chapel of the Holy Innocents (where he officiated in robes of his own design), and the production of a theatrical spectacle called Le Mistère du Siège d'Orléans. The play consisted of more than 20,000 lines of verse, requiring 140 speaking parts and 500 extras. Gilles was almost bankrupt at the time of the production and began selling property as early as 1432 to support his extravagant lifestyle. By March 1433, he had sold all his estates in Poitou (except those of his wife) and all his property in Maine. Only two castles in Anjou, Champtocé-sur-Loire and Ingrandes, remained in his possession. Half of the total sales and mortgages were spent on the production of his play. The spectacle was first performed in Orléans on 8 May 1435. Six hundred costumes were constructed, worn once, discarded, and constructed afresh for subsequent performances. Unlimited supplies of food and drink were made available to spectators at Gilles' expense.

In June 1435, family members gathered to put a curb on Gilles. They appealed to Pope Eugene IV to disavow the Chapel of the Holy Innocents (which he refused to do) and carried their concerns to the king. On 2 July 1435, a royal edict was proclaimed in Orléans, Tours, Angers, Pouzauges, and Champtocé-sur-Loire denouncing Gilles as a spendthrift and forbidding him from selling any further property. No subject of Charles VII was allowed to enter into any contract with him, and those in command of his castles were forbidden to dispose of them. Gilles' credit fell immediately and his creditors pressed upon him. He borrowed heavily, using his objets d'art, manuscripts, books and clothing as security. When he left Orléans in late August or early September 1435, the town was littered with precious objects he was forced to leave behind. The edict did not apply to Brittany, and the family was unable to persuade the Duke of Brittany to enforce it.

Occult involvement

In 1438, according to testimony at his trial from the priest Eustache Blanchet and the cleric François Prelati, de Rais sent out Blanchet to seek individuals who knew alchemy and demon summoning. Blanchet contacted Prelati in Florence and convinced him to take service with his master. Having reviewed the magical books of Prelati and a traveling Breton, de Rais chose to initiate experiments, the first taking place in the lower hall of his castle at Tiffauges, attempting to summon a demon named Barron. De Rais provided a contract with the demon for riches that Prelati was to give to the demon at a later time.

As no demon manifested after three tries, the Marshal grew frustrated with the lack of results. Prelati responded that the demon Barron was angry and required the offering of parts of a child. De Rais provided these remnants in a glass vessel at a future invocation. All of this was to no avail, and the occult experiments left him bitter and with his wealth severely depleted.

Child killer

In his confession, Gilles maintained the first assaults on children occurred between spring 1432 and spring 1433. The first murders occurred at Champtocé-sur-Loire; however, no account of these murders survived. Shortly after, Gilles moved to Machecoul where, as the record of his confession states, he killed, or ordered to be killed, a great but uncertain number of children after he sodomized them. Forty bodies were discovered in Machecoul in 1437.

The first documented case of child-snatching and murder concerns a boy of twelve called Jeudon (first name unknown), an apprentice to the furrier Guillaume Hilairet. Gilles de Rais' cousins, Gilles de Sillé and Roger de Briqueville, asked the furrier to lend them the boy to take a message to Machecoul, and, when Jeudon did not return, the two noblemen told the inquiring furrier that they were ignorant of the boy's whereabouts and suggested he had been carried off by thieves at Tiffauges to be made into a page. In Gilles de Rais' trial, the events were testified to by Hillairet and his wife, the boy's father Jean Jeudon, and five others from Machecoul.

In his 1971 biography of Gilles de Rais, Jean Benedetti tells how the children who fell into Rais's hands were put to death:

[The boy] was pampered and dressed in better clothes than he had ever known. The evening began with a large meal and heavy drinking, particularly hippocras, which acted as a stimulant. The boy was then taken to an upper room to which only Gilles and his immediate circle were admitted. There he was confronted with the true nature of his situation. The shock thus produced on the boy was an initial source of pleasure for Gilles.

Gilles' bodyservant Étienne Corrillaut, known as Poitou, was an accomplice in many of the crimes and testified that his master hung his victims with ropes from a hook to prevent the child from crying out, then masturbated upon the child's belly or thighs. Taking the victim down, Rais comforted the child and assured him he only wanted to play with him. Gilles then either killed the child himself or had the child killed by his cousin Gilles de Sillé, Poitou or another bodyservant called Henriet. The victims were killed by decapitation, cutting of their throats, dismemberment, or breaking of their necks with a stick. A short, thick, double-edged sword called a braquemard was kept at hand for the murders. Poitou further testified that Rais sometimes abused the victims (whether boys or girls) before wounding them and at other times after the victim had been slashed in the throat or decapitated. According to Poitou, Rais disdained the victim's sexual organs, and took "infinitely more pleasure in debauching himself in this manner ... than in using their natural orifice, in the normal manner."

In his own confession, Gilles testified that “when the said children were dead, he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed”[1].

Poitou testified that he and Henriet burned the bodies in the fireplace in Gilles' room. The clothes of the victim were placed into the fire piece by piece so they burned slowly and the smell was minimized. The ashes were then thrown into the cesspit, the moat, or other hiding places. The last recorded murder was of the son of Éonnet de Villeblanche and his wife Macée. Poitou paid 20 sous to have a page's doublet made for the victim, who was then assaulted, murdered, and incinerated in August 1440.

Trial and execution

On 15 May 1440, Rais kidnapped a cleric during a dispute at the Church of Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte. The act prompted an investigation by the Bishop of Nantes, during which evidence of Gilles' crimes was uncovered. On 29 July, the Bishop released his findings, and subsequently obtained the prosecutorial cooperation of Rais's former protector, Jean VI, the Duke of Brittany. Rais and his bodyservants Poitou and Henriet were arrested on 15 September 1440, following a secular investigation which paralleled the findings of the investigation from the Bishop of Nantes. Rais's prosecution would likewise be conducted by both secular and ecclesiastical courts, on charges which included murder, sodomy, and heresy.

The extensive witness testimony convinced the judges that there were adequate grounds for establishing the guilt of the accused. After Rais admitted to the charges on 21 October, the court canceled a plan to torture him into confessing. Peasants of the neighboring villages had earlier begun to offer up accusations that since their children had entered Gilles' castle begging for food they had never been seen again. The transcript, which included testimony from the parents of many of these missing children as well as graphic descriptions of the murders provided by Gilles' accomplices, was said to be so lurid that the judges ordered the worst portions to be stricken from the record.

The precise number of Gilles' victims is not known, as most of the bodies were burned or buried. The number of murders is generally placed between 80 and 200; a few have conjectured numbers upwards of 600. The victims ranged in age from six to eighteen and included both sexes.

On 23 October 1440, the secular court heard the confessions of Poitou and Henriet and condemned them both to death, followed by Gilles' death sentence on 25 October. Gilles was allowed to make confession, and his request to be buried in the church of the monastery of Notre-Dame des Carmes in Nantes was granted.

Execution by hanging and burning was set for Wednesday 26 October. At nine o‘clock, Gilles and his two accomplices made their way in procession to the place of execution on the Ile de Biesse. Gilles is said to have addressed the crowd with contrite piety and exhorted Henriet and Poitou to die bravely and think only of salvation. Gilles' request to be the first to die had been granted the day before. At eleven o'clock the brush at the platform was set afire and Rais was hanged. His body was cut down before being consumed by the flames and claimed by "four ladies of high rank" for burial. Henriet and Poitou were executed in similar fashion but their bodies were reduced to ashes in the flames and then scattered.

Several years after Gilles' death, his daughter Marie had a stone memorial erected at the site of his execution. Over the years, the structure came to be regarded as a holy altar under the protection of Saint Anne. Generations of pregnant women flocked there to pray for an abundance of breast milk. The memorial was destroyed by rioting Jacobins during the French Revolution in the late 18th century.

Question of guilt

Although Gilles de Rais was convicted of murdering many children through his confessions and the detailed eyewitness accounts of his own confederates and victims' parents, doubts have persisted about the court's verdict. Counterarguments are based on the theory de Rais was himself a victim of an ecclesiastic plot or act of revenge by the Catholic Church or French state. Doubts on Gilles de Rais' guilt have long persisted because the Duke of Brittany, who was given the authority to prosecute, received all the titles to Gilles' former lands after his conviction. The Duke then divided the land among his own nobles. Writers such as French professor and secret societies specialist Jean-Pierre Bayard, in his book Plaidoyer pour Gilles de Rais, contend he was a victim of the Inquisition.

In the early 20th century, Anthropologist Margaret Murray and occultist Aleister Crowley are among those who questioned the involvement of the ecclesiastic and secular authorities in the case. Murray, who propagated the witch-cult hypothesis, speculated in her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe[2] that Gilles de Rais was really a witch and adherent of a fertility cult centered on the pagan goddess, Diana. However, many historians reject Murray's theory. Norman Cohn argues that her theory does not agree with what is known of Gilles' crimes and trial. Historians do not regard Gilles as a martyr to a pre-Christian religion; other scholars tend to view him as a Catholic who descended into crime and depravity.

In France, Le procès inquisitorial de Gilles de Rais, maréchal de France (1921) by Fernand Fleuret, was the first systematic attempt at a rehabilitation of Gilles de Rais, noting that in reality, he was not the first to do so:

Je commencerai donc par diviser les foudres de mes contradicteurs en leur signalant que je ne suis pas le premier impudent qui ait osé douter des crimes du pseudo Barbe-Bleue, ou qui fut simplement frappé de l'étrangeté de la procédure. Il y eut avant moi le roi Charles VII, les PP. Bénédictins, MM. de Voltaire, Charles Lea, Vizetelly, Salomon Reinach, Gabriel Monod et Charles V. Langlois.

Fleuret concludes that de Rais was "la victime innocente d'une des plus abominables machinations judiciaires de l'Histoire."

In 1992, Freemason Jean-Yves Goëau-Brissonnière, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of France, organized a court consisting of former French ministers, parliament members and UNESCO experts to re-examine the source material and evidence available at the medieval trial. The hearing, which concluded Gilles de Rais was not guilty of the crimes, was turned into a documentary called Gilles de Rais ou la Gueule du loup, narrated by Gilbert Prouteau.

Cultural references

  • David Oxley played the part in Otto Preminger's 1957 film version of Shaw's play, Saint Joan.
  • In 1987, the Spanish director Agusti Villaronga directed the film Tras El Cristal, with an original script based on the killings of Gilles de Rais.
  • Vincent Cassel played the part in Luc Besson's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc in 1999.
  • The protagonist Durtal, from Huysmans's Là-bas (1891), conducts intensive research into Gilles de Rais which forms the basis of many of the chapters in the novel.
  • Cradle of Filth's album Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder is centered on the life of Gilles de Rais after Joan of Arc's burning.
  • La Passion de Gilles, opera (French libretto), 1983, music: Philippe Boesmans, libretto: Pierre Mertens based on his 1982 play (same title).
  • Gilles de Rais features as a minor antagonist in the 1999 video-game Castlevania 64, and it's sequel Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness. He, along with another antagonist, Actrise, attempts to revive the main antagonist Dracula, and later, masquerades as Dracula, dissuading the main characters from progressing. In game, he appears as an elderly man with a blue beard. His crimes of murdering children, however, is ascribed to Actrise.
  • Gilles de Rais is featured as one of the antagonists in the 2011 anime Fate/Zero
  • Gilles de Rais is the pseudonym (Gilles de Rais...Child-Murderer) for Ray's character in the episode titled "Live and Let Dine" in Season 4 of the FX series, Archer.
  • Gilles de Rais is featured as a nephilim in the manga and anime series Devils and Realist.
  • Gilles de Rais is mentioned in the crime novel Revelation by C.J. Sansom, whose case is cited as a historic precedent for serial killing
  • The Black Dahlia Murder's song "The Window" on their Ritual album is based on Gilles de Rais, featuring lyrics such as "I sit upon their chests until they cease/Expressionless ejaculating whilst they die"
  • Celtic Frost's debut album Morbid Tales had the song Into the Crypt of Rays, a lyrical recounting of Reis' crimes and punishment.
  • "Classical Scenes of Farwell," a short-story by Jim Shepard, is told from the point of view of one of Gilles de Rais' servants.

Further reading





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