Gilles de Laval Baron de Rais (Rays, Rayx or Retz)|
(1404 - October 26, 1440) France
Born in 1404 in the château of Machécoul, the first years of young Gilles' life were nondescript. As a 7-year-old future nobleman, Gilles was trained in the classic arts and humanities, learning to read and recite Latin and Greek, as well as receiving training in military arts and courtly ways. The records show that Gilles was a capable student and expert in martial training, but that as a political being he was unskilled and rough.
Gilles was an intelligent child who read Latin fluently and loved music. But he had a taste for the "forbidden" and secretly devoured Suetonius, with his details of the sexual excesses of the Roman emperors. Since Gilles himself was homosexual, these stories must have encouraged the tendency to sexual fantasy, to which he admitted at his trial.
His father died when he was nine, and his mother immediately married again and abandoned her two children to die two years later. Gilles and his brother René must have felt alone in the world. Gilles' grandfather Jean d' Craon was a scheming, conniving powerful lord whose manipulations and machinations are rivaled by few in history. In 1416, young Gilles and his brother Rene de Rais were delivered to their grandfather's care.
Jean d'Craon's sole educational effort for Gilles was in the art of war. At 14, dressed in the finest armor from Milan, Gilles rode out for the first time as a squire. Although young nobles like Gilles spent hours learning the finer points of sword-fighting, jousting and hand-to-hand combat, there was but one real way for them to learn about combat and that was by taking part in the battles of the Hundred Years War.
He spent his time and money in collecting a fine library, including a copy of Saint Agustine's City of God; but above all he devoted himself to making the religious services held in the chapels of his castles as sumptuous and magnificent as possible. He expended such colossal amounts of money on these spectacular services that even his great wealth was diminished. At the height of his power, Gilles de Rais was the richest noble in Europe, and in 1420 his fortune increased by his marriage to an extremely wealthy heiress.
Charles VI disinherited his son, the Dauphin Charles VII and allowed for negotiation of a peace treaty with England that named Henry V heir to the French throne. The treaty was rejected by many in France who considered the Dauphin to be Prince Regent because of his father's madness. Among the Dauphin's supporters were Jean d'Craon and Gilles de Rais.
This backing of the Dauphin was fortuitous for Gilles, because in 1429 he was with the Prince Regent at Chinon when a young woman hearing voices of the saints convinced Charles VII to give her an army with which she promised to relieve the besieged city of Orléans and deliver the throne of France to Charles. She was Joan of Arc.
Charles VII ordered Gilles to accompany "la pucelle" (the Maid) to Orléans, perhaps because he had noticed that Gilles was fascinated by the girl's boyish figure and peasant vitality. Gilles fought along side Joan of Arc.
Over time and several pitched battles, Joan and Gilles liberated Orléans and were able to present the Dauphin to Reims, the ancient site of the coronation of French kings. Gilles de Rais was so esteemed in the eyes of the court that he was appointed to the post Marshal of France - in effect becoming the nation's highest-ranking soldier - so that he could personally crown King Charles VII of France. Gilles de Rais, was charged with carrying the holy chrism, or anointing oil, from Paris to Riems for the coronation.
Joan was more and more triumphant and held in high esteem by the people and their king. But after her military triumphs, jealous ministers soon undermined Joan of Arc's career, and the king was too weak and self-indulgent to withstand the pressure. In the following year she was captured by the English, and burned at Rouen in 1431 with the Church and most of the french noblemen consent.
For all intents and purposes, Gilles' public career ended in early 1432 when Jean d'Craon died. After the coronation of Charles VII, he retired to his estates, at Machécoul, Malemort, La Suze, Champtoce and Tiffauges. After the years of glory, he seems to have found life unbearably dull. And during the course of the following year, according to his later confession, he started his sexual abuse and murder of boys.
A boy would be lured to the castle on some pretext, and once inside Gilles' chamber, was hung from the ceiling on a rope or chain. But before he had lost consciousness, he was taken down and reassured that Gilles meant him no harm. Then he would be stripped and raped, after which Gilles, or one of his cronies, would cut this throat or decapitate him.
One of these was a youth called Poitou; he was brought to the château and raped, after which Gilles prepared to cut his throat. At this point his cousin, Gilles de Sille, pointed out that Poitou was such a handsome boy that he would make an admirable page. So Poitou was allowed to live, and to become one of Gilles' most trusted retainers.
Gilles was a generous supporter of the Church, building several chapels and one cathedral, as well as endowing them so there would always be clergy to serve his people. As his fortunes turned and Gilles needed money, he was not averse to pawning the gold from his various churches, but that does not imply a lack of faith, merely a lack of funds. The need of Gilles for money made him easy prey for bogus alchemists, and he never seemed to learn that he was being conned.
Gilles wasn't solely interested in alchemy to restore his wealth, he wanted power as well. Harnessing a demon to do his bidding would make him the most powerful man in France. Thus he sent the priest Blanchet in search of a man who had control over the netherworld. Blanchet found such a man in Italy, a Frenchman named François Prelati.
Prelati was a handsome, 22-year-old conjurer and charlatan who exuded confidence and charm - and also, apparently, a homosexual. He was intelligent and clever, fluent in Latin, Italian and French, and Gilles was taken with him at once. The way the 33-year-old Gilles reacted to Prelati is like a young man in love. He could not see that Prelati was playing him for a fool and taking advantage of Gilles' hospitality.
Retired from the military at just 36, and politically impotent, Gilles was like a wounded shark in a feeding frenzy. He had no real allies and no money to pay an army, he was on thin ice in the eyes of the very powerful church and worst of all, his property was coveted by many different camps. Like predators circling a weakened animal, his enemies waited until the right moment to strike. Gilles' days were numbered, and nothing, supernatural or otherwise, could change that.
The end came in 1440, after a Gilles desperately put together a group of men and converged on the church at St. Étienne de Mermorte during High Mass. Breaking into the church, Gilles threatened the priest and hauled the man away. The priest was the brother of the treasurer of Brittany who was charged with occupying a chateau owned by Gilles, which he was forced to sell. Gilles demanded the priest relinquish Brittany's claim on the property.
Although Lord de Rais had allegedly sexually assaulted and murdered at least 30 children, robbed and pillaged the merchants and bourgeois inhabitants of Brittany, Anjou and his own province of Pays de Rais, and dabbled in the forbidden arts of alchemy and black magic, it wasn't until he kidnapped this important priest from inside the church that someone decided that he had gone too far. By entering a church and permitting violence, Gilles had committed sacrilege, a capital offence.
It was no secret that Jean V, duke of Brittany, coveted the lands and estates of Gilles de Rais, and would do whatever was necessary to have them. He formed an alliance with the Bishop of Nantes, Jean de Malestroit, who had been an enemy of de Rais for many years. The deaths of peasant children meant nothing to the duke and the bishop. This wasn't a justice issue to them, it was purely economics.
Malestroit began secretly taking depositions and gathering information about Gilles de Rais. In July 1440 the bishop went public with his findings - he published an incendiary account of interviews with seven commoners who lived in under the rule of Gilles. In the report he asserted that
"Milord Gilles de Rais, knight, lord, and baron, our subject and under our jurisdiction, with certain accomplices, did cut the throats of, kill and heinously massacre many young and innocent boys, that he did practice with these children unnatural lust and the vice of sodomy, often calls up or causes others to practice the dreadful invocation of demons, did sacrifice to and make pacts with the latter, and did perpetrate other enormous crimes within the limits of our jurisdiction..."
Despite the harsh words from the cathedral in Nantes, Gilles remained resolute in his defiance and naïvete. He was the Marshal of France, the king's military chief of staff, and lord of Pays de Rais. No one would dare come to Tiffauges to accuse him of heresy or murder.
In August, the Constable of France, brother of the Duke of Brittany, waited for permission from the secular authorities to arrest Lord de Rais. In a separate inquiry from the ecclesiastical probe, representatives of the king heard much of the same evidence and also prepared documents to arrest de Rais. But it was not until September 14, 1440 that Bishop Malestroit issued the arrest warrant. In a letter to all the priests under his jurisdiction, he ordered them to find Gilles de Rais, arrest him and bring him to Nantes to face an inquisition.
The next day, the Duke of Brittany's men arrived and took Gilles and his servants into custody. He was brought to Nantes, where he first appeared before the secular court to answer for the allegations concerning his attack on the church at St. Etienne. Interestingly, the transcript of this hearing makes absolutely no mention of any murders or supernatural dabbling.
Three days after he was taken into custody Pierre de L'Hopital, chief judge of Brittany began the process by having interviews with the parents and relatives of the lost children.
He and his prosecutor, the friar Jean de Touscheronde, heard the complaints of 10 families whose children had disappeared and who blamed Lord de Rais for the kidnappings. From September 18 through October 8, L'Hopital and the secular prosecutor listened to the plaintive wails of grieving parents who feared their children had fallen into the hands of a monster.
By October 13, the judges had heard enough testimony from the relatives of the victims and formally indicted Lord de Rais on 34 charges of murder, sodomy, heresy and violating the immunity of the church. The indictment claimed 140 children had been the victim of Gilles and his accomplices, over the course of 14 years - the indictment set the date of the first murder at 1426 when in fact it could not occur until at least 1432.
Gilles was at first arrogant and defiant but after six sessions, on Friday, October 21, 1440, he was tortured until he promised to confess "voluntarily and freely" (as the court records states). Everything charged against him he now admitted even though the crimes to which he admitted were unbelievable and quite impossible. To procure additional evidences of his alleged crimes, his servants and alleged accomplices were also tortured. In all, 110 witness (including informers) were heard. Charged with him were his steward Henriet Griard and his page Etiène Corillaut, called Poitou.
The crime of peasant murder, even multiple times, was not as grievous in the eyes of French justice as heresy. If the judges believed he committed the crimes as a sacrifice to Satan, then his life was forfeit. There was still the chance that he could be pardoned for the killings. The judges brought Prelati in to corroborate Gilles' statements, and together they confessed to placing a child's hand, heart and eyes in a vessel in an attempt to summon the demon.
On October 26, 1440, at Nantes, Gilles de Rais was strangled and his body was placed on the pyre with two of his associates, Henri Griart and Poitou. When de Rais was theatrically executed, the children's parents, his judges, and hundreds of spectators, gave way to floods of tears. De Rais was the first to be put to death.
Before he died, he sang the De Profundis in a voice louder than all the rest while standing under the gibbet. He urged his henchmen to "thank God with him for a manifest sign of His love," and to continue praying for a little while longer. He prayed on his knees, and the hundreds of spectators prayed with him.
His corpse was placed on a pyre, but his relatives were allowed to remove his body before the flames reached it, and he was interred in the nearby Carmelite church. His companions were less lucky; they were burned alive. The church where his body lay was destroyed during the French Revolution.
Mysticism, spirituality and religion played important roles in the life of Gilles de Rais. The evidence of his apparent piety is in direct conflict with the homicidal secret life to which he later confessed, leading some scholars to doubt the veracity of the reputation history has given him.
It is important to note here that Gilles was not allowed any testimony in his defense, nor was he given any legal advice or council. The proceedings of the trial were highly irregular, even for trials of heresy. Not one of his 500 servants was summoned to give defensive evidence and his own attendants were tortured and, having testified against Gilles, freed. Some historians have suggested that Gilles was crooked and that the duke and the bishop conspired to seize his lands.
The duke, bishop and inquisitor stood to gain a tremendous fortune by declaring Gilles a heretic, and they subsequently confiscated his property. Forty-seven charges were leveled against Gilles, including conjuration of demons, abuse of clerical privilege, and sexual perversions against children. The invocation of spirits charge was embellished with accusations of human sacrifices.
The fifteenth century chronicler Monstrelet indicated his suspicion of the motives of Gilles trial, noting, "The greater part of the nobles of Brittany, more especially his own kindred, were in utmost grief and confusion at his disgraceful death. Before this event, he was much renowned as a most valiant knight at arms". The Duke of Brittany was so certain of the verdict that he disposed of his own share of Gilles' lands fifteen days before the trial began.
There was also a good reason for the Church and the duke to have fabricated the case against de Rais. He was a secular challenge to their power over the king and his court, and if found guilty the Church stood to seize his lands. No effort was spared in preparing the most damning case: de Rais's servants were tortured until adequate evidence was given against their master. De Rais himself made a full and ready confession-not only to the murder of 140 children, of which he was charged but to the murder of "at least 800" !
Two "rational" reasons were given during his trial for this slaughter. The first was the influence on him of a book, an illustrated copy of Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius, which included graphic descriptions of the mad Emperor Caligula's sadistic excesses. The second was the approach of the Italian alchemist Prelati, who promised the secret of turning iron into gold by black magic rites and sacrifices.
So, does Gilles de Rais belong in the rogues' gallery or with the pantheon of heroes? Consider that his testimony and that of his accomplices was given under threat of torture. Faced with the rack or some other horrific torture, who wouldn't confess to the crimes of which he was accused? By the time he went to trial, he must have known that his life was forfeit. Judges in the 15th century wanted confessions and punishment, not the truth.
But then, what of the complaints of the parents of the missing children? They had no reason to lie, much less lie about a very powerful nobleman. It is unlikely that Gilles killed hundreds of children - he was blamed for the death of one boy who disappeared while on a 60 kilometer walk between his village and Machecoul - but where there is smoke...
The truth about Gilles de Rais will never be known. But two things are clear, his confession was coerced and therefore tainted. The other is that because of his vile reputation, a brave man and stalwart fighter will never get the recognition for his service to his beloved France.
On the contrary, he became the historical basis of the Bluebeard character.