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Gilles de Rais

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Gilles de Rais, Seigneur and Baron de Retz (1404 – 1440), was a Breton knight, the companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc, and a Marshal of France, but is best known as a prolific serial killer of children. He was born in late 1404 to Guy de Laval and Marie de Craon, but grew up under the tutelage of his maternal grandfather Jean de Craon following the deaths of his parents in 1415. De Rais' fortunes increased substantially with his marriage in 1420 to the wealthy Catherine de Thouars, and gifts of money granted him following the War of the Breton Succession. From 1427 to 1435, Rais served as a commander in the Royal Army, and in 1429 fought beside Joan of Arc in some of the campaigns waged against the English and their Burgundian allies during the Hundred Years War. In 1434–35, he retired from military life, dabbled in the occult, and depleted his wealth by staging an extravagant theatrical spectacle of his own composition.

Sometime between spring 1432 and spring 1433, the first child-murder occurred and was followed by similar crimes. The victims may have numbered in the hundreds. In 1440, Rais reacted violently in a dispute with a clergyman and the Church conducted an investigation in which his crimes were brought to light. At his trial, the parents of missing children in the surrounding area and Rais's own accomplices-in-crime testified against him. The ecclesiastical court excommunicated him and the secular court condemned him, although the Church reversed his excommunication when he confessed and repented shortly before his death. He was executed by hanging at Nantes on 26 October 1440.

Conspiracy theories involving the Church in the death of Rais and speculation regarding witchcraft persecution have been put forth but without considerable support, especially by Aleister Crowley. Rais has had some cultural impact and is one among several candidates believed to be the inspiration for the 1697 fairy tale Bluebeard by Charles Perrault. His life is the subject of several modern novels, and the subject of various rock bands albums and songs.

Early life

Gilles de Rais was born in late 1404 to Guy de Laval-Montmorency and Marie de Craon in the family castle at Machecoul, or, according to other sources, at Champtocé, 35 miles east of Nantes.[1][2] He was an intelligent child, speaking fluent Latin, illuminating manuscripts, and dividing his education between military discipline and moral and intellectual development.[3][4] 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.[5] 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.[6] On 30 November 1420, however, Craon substantially increased his grandson's fortune by marrying him off to Catherine de Thouars of Brittany, heiress of La Vendée and Poitou.[7] Their only child Marie was born in 1429.[8]

Military career

In the years following the Breton War of Succession, sixteen-year-old Gilles took the side of the Montfort Dukes of Brittany against a rival house led by Olivier de Blois, Count of Penthièvre.[9] The Blois faction, who still refused to relinquish their rule over Brittany, had taken the Montfort Duke John V prisoner.[10] Rais was able to secure the Duke's release, and was rewarded with generous land grants which were converted to monetary gifts.[11]

In 1425, Rais was introduced to the court of the Dauphin at Saumur and learned courtly manners while studying the future king Charles VII.[12] In combat at Saint-Lô and Le Mans between 1427 and 1429, Rais was allowed to indulge his taste for violence and carnage.[13] At the battle for the Château of Lude, he climbed the assault ladder and slew the English captain Blackburn.[14] He was young, handsome, and rich with companions-in-arms of his own stripe about him.[15]

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.[16] In 1429, he fought along with Joan of Arc in some of the campaigns waged against the English and their Burgundian allies.[17] He was present with Joan when the Siege of Orléans ended.[18]

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 coronation of Charles VII of France.[19] On the same day, he was officially created a Marshal of France.[17]

Following the Siege of Paris, Rais was granted the right to add 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".[20]

In May 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake; Gilles was not present. He was more than likely engaged in private raids, holding local merchants for ransom, entertaining lavishly, or patronizing the arts. 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.[21]

Private life

In 1434–35, 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),[22] 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, 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 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.[23]

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 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.[24]

Occult involvement

It was during this period that, according to trial testimony given by Rais and his accomplices, he began to experiment with the occult under the direction of a man named Francesco Prelati, who promised de Rais that he could help him regain his squandered fortune by sacrificing children to a demon called "Barron." However, this story may have been encouraged at his trial as an attempt to find an explanation for the crimes he committed.


On 15 May 1440, Rais kidnapped a cleric during a dispute at the Church of Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte.[25][26] The act prompted an investigation by the Bishop of Nantes, during which evidence of de Rais' crimes was uncovered.[25] On July 29, the Bishop released his findings,[27] and subsequently obtained the prosecutorial cooperation of Rais's former protector, Jean V, the Duke of Brittany. Rais and his bodyservants Poitou and Henriet were arrested on 15 September 1440,[28][29] 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.[30]

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,[31] the court canceled a plan to torture him into confessing.[32] Peasants of the neighboring villages had earlier begun to offer up accusations that since their children had entered Rais's 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 Rais's accomplices, was said to be so lurid that the judges ordered the worst portions to be stricken from the record.

The precise number of Rais's 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 6000. 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.[33] On 25 October, Gilles was condemned to death, excommunicated, immediately readmitted to the Church and allowed to make confession.[33] On the same day, the secular court condemned him to be hanged and burned the following day at eleven o‘clock.[33] His request to be buried in the church of the monastery of Notre-Dame des Carmes in Nantes was granted.[34]

On Wednesday 26 October 1440 at nine o‘clock, Gilles and his two accomplices made their way in procession to the place of execution on the Ile de Biesse.[35] There, Gilles addressed the throng of onlookers with contrite piety, and exhorted Henriet and Poitou to die bravely and think only of salvation.[34] Rais’s request to be the first to die had been granted the day before.[33] 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.[34][36] Henriet and Poitou were executed in similar fashion; their bodies however were reduced to ashes in the flames and then scattered.[34][36][note 1][37]

The murders

In his confession Gilles maintained the first assaults on children occurred between spring 1432 and spring 1433.[38] The first murders occurred at Champtocé; however, no account of these murders survives.[39] 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 committed sodomy upon them.[39] Forty bodies were discovered in Machecoul in 1437.[39]

The first documented case of child-snatching and murder concerns a boy of about twelve years old called Jeudon, an apprentice to the furrier Guillaume Hilairet.[40] Gilles de Sillé and Roger de Briqueville, both cousins of de Rais, 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.[40] In Gilles’s trial, the events were testified to by Hillairet and his wife, Jean Jeudon and his wife, and five others from Machecoul. There is no evidence linking Gilles de Rais to this kidnapping, but he was charged with the boy’s death.

In his 1971 biography of 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."[40]

Gilles' bodyservant Etienne Corrillaut, known as Poitou, was an accomplice in many of the crimes and testified that Rais hanged his victim 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 slain by his cousin Gilles de Sillé, Poitou or another bodyservant called Henriet.[41] The victims were killed by either decapitation, cutting their throats, dismemberment, or by breaking their necks with a stick. A short, thick, double-edged sword called a braquemard was kept at hand for the murders.[41] Poitou further testified that Rais sometimes committed his vices on 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."[41]

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...”[42]

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.[42] The last recorded murder was the son of Eonnet de Villeblanche and his wife Macée. Poitou paid twenty sous to have a page's doublet made for the victim who was then assaulted, murdered, and incinerated in August 1440.[43]


Some believe that Gilles de Rais was framed for murder and heresy by elements within the Church as part of an ecclesiastic plot to expropriate his lands. This theory is considered doubtful by most historians, since the Church itself stood little chance of acquiring the properties. Title to the lands was ultimately transferred to the Duke of Brittany, who in turn divided them among his nobles. Moreover, the guilty verdict was based on the detailed eyewitness accounts of his confederates and the testimony of his victims' parents.[44]

Anthropologist Margaret Murray and occultist Aleister Crowley are among those who have questioned the account of the ecclesiastic and secular authorities involved in the case. Murray, in her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (pp. 173–74), speculated that Rais was a witch and adherent of a fertility cult centered on the Roman goddess, Diana. According to Murray, "Gilles de Rais was tried and executed as a witch and, in the same way, much that is mysterious in this trial can also be explained by the Dianic Cult."[45]

Many historians reject Murray's theory.[46][47][48][49][50][51] Norman Cohn[52][53] argues that her theory does not agree with what is known of de Rais's crimes and trial. Historians generally do not regard Rais as a martyr to an antiquated religion; recent scholars tend to view Rais as a pious Catholic who descended into crime and depravity.[54][55][56]

Cultural references

In literature, Gilles de Rais (under the name Gilles de Retz) is the villain in the 1899 novel The Black Douglas by S.R. Crockett. The novels The Life and Death of my Lord Gilles de Rais by Robert Nye and Le Bas by Joris-Karl Huysmans are among the works which retell the Rais legend. The novel Gilles & Jeanne by Michel Tournier covers his campaigning with Joan of Arc. This relationship partly informs David Rudkin's play The Triumph of Death. Rais's worship of Baron, and that creature itself, form the backdrop to Shaun Hutson's 1991 novel Renegades. Rais has been cited as the inspiration for Charles Perrault's fairy tale Bluebeard.

In music, Swiss avant-garde metal band Celtic Frost based their 1984 song "Into the Crypt of Rays" from the Morbid Tales album on the atrocities committed by Rais, and Belgian black metal band Ancient Rites based their 1994 song "Morbid Glory (Gilles de Rais 1404-1440)" from Diabolic Serenades on the life of Gilles de Rais. American surrealist black/death metal band Sangraal released Unearthly Night, a concept album based on Rais, in 2005. British extreme metal band Cradle of Filth released Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder (subtitled The Life and Crimes of Gilles de Rais), a concept album based on the life of Rais, in 2008. Avant-garde legends The Residents included a narrative about the life of Gilles De Rais on the track The Beards! from their 2006 album River of Crime (Episodes 1–5).

In manga, Gilles de Rais was featured as the cheif antagonist in the comic book Tetragrammaton Labyrinth pitted against the main character who was based on of one of the child victims that whom he had murdered in real life. It was explained that he murdered the children to turn himself into an immortal demon. Later it was revealed that this was to further his plans to resurrect Joan of Arc.

In Castlevania 64 and Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, Gilles de Rais is one of Dracula's closer companions, attempting to resurrect him together with Actrice and Death.


  1. Several years after Rais’s 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.
  1. Benedetti 1971, p. 27,31
  2. Wolf 1980, p. 9
  3. Benedetti 1971, p. 33
  4. Wolf 1980, p. 13
  5. Benedetti 1971, p. 35
  6. Benedetti 1971, pp. 37–38
  7. Wolf 1980, p. 28
  8. Benedetti 1971, pp. 45,102
  9. Wolf 1980, pp. 22,24
  10. Wolf 1980, p. 23
  11. Wolf 1980, p. 26
  12. Wolf 1980, p. 35
  13. Wolf 1980, p. 37
  14. Wolf 1980, pp. 37–38
  15. Wolf 1980, p. 38
  16. Benedetti 1971, pp. 63–64
  17. 17.0 17.1 Benedetti 1971, p. 198
  18. Benedetti 1971, pp. 83–84
  19. Benedetti 1971, p. 93
  20. Benedetti 1971, p. 101
  21. Benedetti 1971, pp. 106,123
  22. Benedetti 1971, p. 123
  23. Benedetti 1971, pp. 128–133
  24. Benedetti 1971, p. 135
  25. 25.0 25.1 Benedetti 1971, p. 168
  26. Wolf 1980, p. 173
  27. Benedetti 1971, p. 169
  28. Benedetti 1971, pp. 176–177
  29. Wolf 1980, p. 178
  30. Benedetti 1971, pp. 177, 179
  31. Benedetti 1971, pp. 182–183
  32. Benedetti 1971, p. 184
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 33.3 Benedetti 1971, p. 189
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 34.3 Benedetti 1971, p. 190
  35. Wolf 1980, p. 213
  36. 36.0 36.1 Wolf 1980, p. 215
  37. Wolf 1980, p. 223
  38. Benedetti 1971, p. 109
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 Benedetti 1971, p. 112
  40. 40.0 40.1 40.2 Benedetti 1971, p. 113
  41. 41.0 41.1 41.2 Benedetti 1971, p. 114
  42. 42.0 42.1 Benedetti 1971, p. 115
  43. Benedetti 1971, p. 171
  44. "Gilles de Rais: The Pious Monster." The Crime Library.
  45. "Historical Association for Joan of Arc Studies."
  46. Trevor-Roper, Hugh. The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 1969.
  47. Russell, Jeffrey. A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans, 1970.
  48. Simpson, Jacqueline. "Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her and Why?." Folklore 105, 1994, pp. 89–96.
  49. Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1991.
  50. Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999
  51. Kitteredge, G. L. Witchcraft in Old and New England. 1951. pp. 275, 421, 565.
  52. Cohn, Norman. Europe's Inner Demons. London: Pimlico, 1973.
  53. Thomas, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971 and 1997, pp. 514–517.
  54. Barett, W.P. The Trial of Joan of Arc. 1932.
  55. Pernoud, Regine and Marie Veronique Clin. Joan of Arc, Her Story. 1966
  56. Meltzer, Françoise. For Fear of the Fire: Joan of Arc and the Limits of Subjectivity. 2001.
  • Benedetti, Jean (1971), Gilles de Rais, New York: Stein and Day, ISBN 978-0-8128-1450-7 
  • Wolf, Leonard (1980), Bluebeard: The Life and Times of Gilles De Rais, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., ISBN 978-0-517-54061-9 

Further reading

  • Bataille, Georges. The Trial of Gilles de Rais. Amok Books. ISBN 978-1-878923-02-8.
  • Bordonove, Georges. Gilles de Rais. Pygmalion. ISBN 978-2-85704-694-3.
  • Cebrián, Juan Antonio. El Mariscal de las Tinieblas. La Verdadera Historia de Barba Azul. Temas de Hoy. ISBN 978-84-8460-497-6 (Spanish).
  • Huysmans, Joris K. La Bas (Down There). Dover. ISBN 978-0-486-22837-2.
  • Hyatte, Reginald. Laughter for the Devil: The Trials of Gilles De Rais, Companion-In-Arms of Joan of Arc (1440). Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. ISBN 978-0-8386-3190-4.
  • Lampo, Hubert. De duivel en de maagd. 207 p., Amsterdam, Meulenhoff, 1988 (11e druk), ISBN 9029004452. (1e druk: ’s-Gravenhage, Stols, 1955).
  • Lampo, Hubert. Le Diable et la Pucelle. 163 p., Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2002, ISBN 2-85939-765-5. (traduction française de De duivel en de maagd).
  • Morgan, Val. The Legend of Gilles De Rais (1404-1440) in the Writings of Huysmans, Bataille, Plancon and Tournier (Studies in French Civilization, 29). Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 978-0-7734-6619-7.
  • Nye, Robert. The Life and Death of My Lord, Gilles de Rais. Time Warner Books. ISBN 978-0-349-10250-4.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Gilles de Rais. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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