Born into an illustrious and wealthy family, accomplished knight and brother-in-arms to Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais, was appointed Marshall of France at the age of just 25 but his meteoric rise was mirrored by a ghastly fall. He is best remembered today as probably one of the most depraved and prolific serial killers in history.
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval was born into a powerful aristocratic family at the Château de Machecoul in eastern Brittany towards the end of 1404, although his place and date of birth cannot be confirmed. He could claim kinship with two of Brittany’s most renowned medieval knights, Bertrand du Guesclin and Olivier de Clisson. His father, Guy II de Laval, Baron of Rais, was doyen of the barons of Brittany and owned extensive lands in Brittany, the Breton Marches and in France. Orphaned at ten years of age, de Rais and his younger brother René, were sent, against the express wishes of their father, to live with their maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon, a wealthy feudal lord and Lieutenant General of the Duchy of Anjou. It seems that de Croan was not a good role model for the young boys; he indulged their whims and tantrums and fostered a conviction that might was right.
The young de Rais seems to have seen his first action at 15 years of age when he joined the de Montfort faction in supporting John V’s position as Duke of Brittany against the rival house of Penthievre and was rewarded for his role in laying siege to the Penthievre castles thus helping secure the release of the kidnapped Duke in 1420. At 16, he kidnapped and married his cousin, Catherine de Thouars of Brittany, heiress of La Vendée and Poitou but the marriage was declared incestuous and annulled. However, a few months later they were absolved and legally married; a union that markedly increased his already substantial landholdings, making him one of the richest men in France.
Political alliances in medieval Brittany were constant only in their inconstancy and in 1426 de Rais seems to have followed John V’s brother, Arthur de Richemont, into the service of Charles VII of France and the following year is placed at the head of an Angevin army. With seven companies of men-at-arms maintained at his own expense, de Rais distinguished himself in the ongoing war against the English, notably recovering the castles of Lude, Rainefort and Malicorne-sur-Sarthe. With the appearance of Joan of Arc, de Rais was charged with ensuring her safety and fought alongside her at the relief of Orleans, the subsequent battles of Jargeau and Patay and was with her when she was injured in the trenches before Paris in September 1429.
The esteem in which de Rais was held is evidenced by his being amongst the favoured nobles chosen to bring the Holy Ampulla to Reims cathedral for the anointment of Charles VII in July 1429; a coronation which saw him honoured with the appointment of Marshall of France, one of the Great Officers of the French crown and a position he could reasonably expect to retain for life. Thus, at the age of just 25, de Rais seemingly had the world at his feet.
The year 1429 also saw the eight year old Henry VI crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey; he was subsequently crowned king of France at Notre-Dame de Paris in 1431. Although the war against the English would continue until the end of 1453, de Rais effectively withdrew from court and campaigning not long after the death of his grandfather in 1432.
Having expended a great deal of money in the service of the French king, a reasonable man might have taken stock of his finances but now in complete control of the family estates whose revenues were estimated at some 800,000 livres and without the moderating influence of his grandfather, de Rais indulged himself and made a point of publicly flaunting most of his excesses.
He maintained a permanent military retinue of 200 knights, along with their attendant squires, grooms, heralds and pages, who accompanied him wherever he went; his arrivals being announced by fanfare. From his private chapel at the Château de Machecoul he founded a chapter of canons and maintained a full choir and music school that was said to be fit for a cathedral and commissioned organs that could be carried on the shoulders of six men, so that he might enjoy music whenever it pleased him; in all, an ecclesiastical entourage of more than 50 people and as many horses. Such grand assemblies were more suited to royal rather than baronial status but these projections of grandeur and prestige were clearly important to de Rais’ image of himself.
Drama was another area of interest to de Rais and he would stage costly spectacles featuring hundreds of actors clad in bespoke armour or in the finest garments adorned with threads of gold and silver; such productions were usually followed by lavish banquets. In the summer of 1435 in Orléans, where his retinue filled every inn in the city, he was said to have spent 80,000 gold crowns while staging a series of elaborate re-enactments of the famous battle and his role in it.
With such enormous expenditure proving unsustainable, de Rais soon found himself having to sell some family treasures, estates and seigneurial rights, usually reserving for himself a right of redemption within six years. However, he spent money faster than he could generate it and he is estimated to have taken under two years to completely exhaust the 200,000 gold crowns he had raised from the sale of half a dozen estates to the Duke of Brittany. By 1436, his family appealed to Charles VII to reign in the profligate baron and while the king acquiesced and ordered that no one should enter into future contract with de Rais, the edicts of the French king held no sway in Brittany. Indeed, the following year the Duke of Brittany paid 100,000 gold crowns for two of de Rais’ most important estates.
In 1439, de Rais sold the Chateau de Saint-Étienne-de-Mermorte to Geoffroy Le Ferron, the Treasurer of Brittany, but by the following year was intent of regaining this estate. However, Le Ferron refused to sell and in May 1440 de Rais resolved to take back the castle by force with a company of about 60 men-at-arms. The un-garrisoned castle was under the care of Le Ferron’s brother, a tonsured cleric, who was at his devotions in the local church when a bellicose and armed de Rais burst in, threatening to take his head if he did not cede the castle. The frightened cleric surrendered the castle to de Rais who thereupon had him clapped in irons and imprisoned in the castle’s dungeon.
Having violated ecclesiastical privilege and encroached on the rights of his sovereign, the Duke of Brittany, de Rais’ world began to unravel. He must have hoped to extricate himself from the inevitable reaction by the Church and Duke by exploiting the jurisdiction of powers; transferring his prisoner from Saint-Étienne-de-Mermorte in the Duke’s territory to his own stronghold at Tiffauges in the Breton Marches outside the Duke’s control. However, the Duke quickly captured the former and his powerful brother, Arthur de Richemont, obligingly besieged the latter thus forcing de Rais to come to terms.
Upon hearing of the fall of Tiffauges towards the end of August, several of de Rais’ closest confederates deserted him and it seems that he either did not hear, or simply did not care, of the investigations that the Bishop of Vannes was making into him, following the sacrilege he committed at Saint-Étienne, as he travelled home to Machecoul from sojourns in Josselin and Vannes.
On 29 July, Jean de Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes and Chancellor of Brittany, issued a declaration stating that he and his commissioners had found that de Rais was publicly defamed for murdering many children, and was guilty of invoking demons with horrid rites, of entering into compacts with them and of other enormities. The seriousness of these allegations eventually prompted enquiries to be made by emissaries of the secular court in the following month.
Confident in their case, on 13 September, the ecclesiastical tribunal sitting in Nantes, indicted de Rais and nine of his followers for murder, sodomy, the invocations of demons, heresy and the offending of Divine Majesty. He was arrested at his castle in Machecoul two days later and, along with four confederates, brought to Nantes where he was housed in an upper chamber of the castle; his confederates being consigned to the dungeon. Proceedings were begun, with an initial focus on heresy, before the ecclesiastical tribunal, over which the Bishop of Nantes and the Inquisitor of the Faith presided; the secular court overseen by Pierre de l’Hôpital, President and Chief Justice of Brittany, would run concurrently. Perhaps de Rais initially thought that he had a reasonable chance of beating the charge of heresy as he paid the trail scant attention until forced to appear on 8 October when all 49 articles of the 15 page bill of indictment were presented to him.
Violating the sanctity of the Church at Saint-Étienne was now the least of his troubles; he was accused of being a “heretic, a relapsed heretic, a magician, a sodomite, a conjuror of evil spirits, a seer, a cutter of the throats of innocents, an apostate, an idolater, having deviated from the faith and being hostile to it, a diviner, and a sorcerer.” De Rais’ air of disdain for the proceedings quickly erupted into rage, he now refused to acknowledge the authority of the court, challenging and insulting the judges declaring that he would rather be hanged by the neck than acknowledge such scoundrels as his judges.
When he next appeared before the court just two days later, de Rais appeared a broken man; he was contrite and resigned. He tearfully asked the judges to forgive his insults, he admitted to the charges levied against him excepting the invocation of demons and begged to be allowed to enter a monastery. Over the next few days, de Rais sat in court and heard the testimonies of distraught parents and other numerous witnesses, even some given by his own confederates including his Italian alchemist and necromancer, Francesco Prelati.
According to his own testimony, de Rais turned his attention to sorcery and alchemy after the death of his grandfather; he sought the philosopher’s stone which would place unlimited wealth and power in his hands and revive his fortune. He devoted large rooms in his castles to the succession of sorcerers and charlatans that he hired from France, Germany and Italy. In May 1438, Prelati was brought to him from Florence but had no more success than his predecessors despite his claims to having a special link to a demon named Barron, whom he had no difficulty in evoking when alone but who stubbornly refused to appear in de Rais’ presence.
Attempts were made to invoke the demons Barron, Beelzebub, Belial and Oriens by means of fire, incense, aloes, myrrh and other aromatics but they refused to appear. After many failed invocations, Prelati eventually suggested making an offering to the demons of the blood and limbs of slain children and de Rais duly provided him with a child’s hand and heart in a glass in another futile attempt to secure his demonic pact for wealth and power. The court noted that de Rais “was never able to see the Devil or speak with him, although he did everything he could, to the point that it was not his fault if he could not see the Devil or speak with him.” Damning though such revelations were, after he and Prelati had corroborated each other’s confessions and were about to part, de Rais embraced his former sorcerer, earnestly hoping that they would, by Divine Grace, meet again in Paradise.
Although the charges brought against him claim that his murderous activities began in 1426, de Rais asserted that his first killings were not committed until after his grandfather’s death towards the end of 1432. He admitted the charges brought against him and that he acted “according to his imagination and ideas … solely for his pleasure and carnal delight.” However, Pierre de L’Hôpital was unsatisfied by this and demanded to know, in open court, why de Rais had killed so many innocents without reason but de Rais would not be drawn and refused to submit to the humiliation of a public confession, saying “Truly, there was no other cause, no other end nor intention, if not what I’ve told you: I’ve told you greater things than this and enough to kill ten thousand men.”
The court considered sanctioning the use of torture to encourage de Rais to offer a complete and frank confession but it was not necessary. Whether he was overwhelmed by the testimonies railed against him or overcome with a genuine desire to confess and secure redemption; whatever the reason, de Rais began to talk at length of his crimes. Only parts of the official record of the ecclesiastical trial have survived the centuries but what remains is harrowing. I will detail only a small proportion here from Georges Bataille’s account, Le Procès de Gilles de Rais (1965), who quotes directly from the official court transcript written in French and Latin:
“… these children had had their throats cut inhumanly, had been killed and finally dismembered and burned, and in other respects shamefully tormented; that the same Gilles de Rais, the accused, had sacrificed the bodies of these children to demons in a damnable fashion; that according to many other reports the said Gilles de Rais had evoked demons and evil spirits and sacrificed to them, and that with the said children, as many boys as girls, sometimes while they were alive, sometimes after they were dead, sometimes as they were dying, had horribly and ignobly committed the sin of sodomy and exercised his lust on the one and the other, disdaining the girls’ natural vessel.”
“… he stated and confessed that to prevent the children from crying out when he intended to have intercourse with them, the said Lord de Rais had a cord put around their necks beforehand and had them suspended about three feet off the ground in a corner of the room, and before they were dead he let them down or had them let down, asking them not to say a word, and he rubbed his penis in his hand, after which he spilled his seed on their belly; that done, he had their throats cut, having their heads separated from their bodies, and occasionally, after they were dead, asked which of these children had the most beautiful heads.”
“… occasionally the said Lord chose little girls, whom he had sex with on their bellies in the same way as he did with the male children, saying that he took greater pleasure in doing so, and had less pain, than if he had enjoyed them in their nature; thereafter these girls were put to death like the male children.”
“… he loved to see the children’s heads cut off after having had sex with them on their bellies, their legs between his own; and sometimes he was on their bellies when the heads were separated from their bodies, other times he cut them behind the neck to make them languish, which he delighted in doing; and while they languished it happened that he had intercourse with them until their death, occasionally after they were dead, while their bodies were still warm; and there was a braquemard with which to cut off their heads; if sometimes the beauty of these children did not conform to his fancy, he cut their heads off himself with a cutlass, whereupon he occasionally had intercourse with them.”
According to his valet, Henriet, de Rais “delighted in looking at their severed heads and showed them to him, the witness, and Étienne Corrillaut …, asking them which of the said heads was the most beautiful of those he was showing them, the head severed at that very moment, or that from the day before, or another from the day before that and he often kissed the head that pleased him most, and delighted in doing so.”
De Rais had boasted to him of taking “greater pleasure in murdering the … children, in seeing their heads and limbs separated, in seeing them languish and seeing their blood, than he did in knowing them carnally … and he gave way to contemplating those who had the most beautiful heads and members and he had their bodies cruelly opened up and delighted at the sight of their internal organs.”
There is no agreed figure for the number of children butchered by, or on the orders of, de Rais although the ecclesiastical indictment stated “one hundred and forty, or more, children, boys and girls” and the civil court spoke of over two hundred victims. However, some historians have argued that the figure could have exceeded 700 while others have even tried to argue that he was innocent. De Rais himself was unable to ascribe an accurate tally but he did not dispute any of the testimonies against him and confessed that “he killed children and had them killed in large numbers – how many he is uncertain”.
For the most part, de Rais’ victims were chosen from amongst the poor urchins who begged for charity around his castles. Often his servants would lure away a boy from his parents with the promise of employment and he even engaged two women who actively procured children for him from the neighbouring countryside. According to the testimony of his servant, when de Rais “was unable to find more children at his convenience, boys and girls on whom to practice his execrable debaucheries, he practiced them on the children in his chapel”, another servant added “but he did not kill them or have them killed, because they kept these things secret.”
At first, the victims’ bodies were dumped in rooms in the towers of whichever castle they met their sad end and witnesses’ spoke of once having to hastily remove the bones of some 40 children from one castle before the new owners arrived to take possession. Subsequently, de Rais had the bodies burned in the fireplace of his chamber and the ashes scattered in the castle’s rubbish pits and moats. The bodies of those children slain while de Rais was travelling were, more often than not, burned or dumped in cesspits.
During his public confession, he spoke of sometimes having wished to renounce his wicked ways and of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem but did not know how to carry out his resolution and returned to his depravity “as a dog returns to its vomit.” De Rais also repeatedly addressed the onlookers, urging parents to strictly instruct their children in the ways of virtue and faith, for it was, he claimed, his unbridled youth that had led him to crime and a shameful end. He implored God’s pardon and that of the parents and friends of the children whom he “so cruelly massacred” asking all to pray for him.
On 25 October, de Rais was summoned for sentencing by the ecclesiastical court; two sentences were read. The first, in the name of both judges (the Bishop of Nantes and the Inquisitor of the Faith), condemned him guilty of “perfidious apostasy as well as of the dreadful invocation of demons”. The second sentence, rendered by the bishop alone as the Inquisition had no cognizance of these offences, judged him guilty “of committing and maliciously perpetrating the crime and unnatural vice of sodomy on children of both sexes”. For these acts and for his sacrilege and violation of the immunities of the Church, de Rais was excommunicated and told he had incurred other lawful punishments. However, before he is sent to hear his fate at the civil court, the judges asked if he wished to be reincorporated into the Church. On his knees, de Rais pleaded tearfully that “he had never known what heresy was, that he did not know that he had lapsed into and committed it” and begged re-admittance to the Church; the judges lifted his excommunication and appointed a confessor for his absolution.
The judges must have been very impressed by de Rais’ seemingly profound contrition as they also allowed his request for his body to be spared the purification of fire and even to choose his place of burial – the auspicious church of the Carmelite convent of Notre-Dame in Nantes. A location that was close to the Duke’s heart and one that benefitted handsomely from the Duke making good on a vow he made in captivity in 1420 to give his weight in gold to the convent once freed. Perhaps even more remarkably, the judges also agreed to de Rais’ request that the Bishop of Nantes and the men of his church arrange a general procession in order to ask God for his salvation.
At the civil court, de Rais was fined 50,000 gold crowns (appropriated in property), for having taken the castle at Saint-Étienne and sentenced to be hanged and burned for his other crimes; the sentence to be carried out on the following day. A day that witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of the city’s clergy, followed by a mob of thousands who had once bayed for his blood, earnestly marching through the streets of Nantes to the field of execution, singing and praying for de Rais’ salvation.
As he and his servants, Henriet and Poitou, had committed the crimes together, de Rais asked that they face death together and that he should die first to show them the example of a good death and so that they would not think he had escaped and thus be cast into despair. Gathered at the gallows, all three expressed profound regret and contrition for their evil deeds and it is recorded that de Rais “made beautiful speeches and prayers to God, recommending his soul to Him”. As they swung from the gallows, the piles of wood were lit under them but when de Rais’ rope was burned through and his body fell, several ladies rushed forward to save it from the flames for burial. Henriet and Poitou’s bodies were allowed to burn and their ashes were scattered to the winds.
Several years after de Rais’ death, his family erected a propitiatory shrine some way from the field of execution which, over time, acquired a reputation for helping mothers produce milk for breastfeeding their children. One of the shrine’s statues was venerated as la Bonne Vierge de Crée-Lait and was often visited by expectant mothers until its destruction during the French Revolution; the remains of the shrine itself were extant until the late 19th century. The Revolution also saw the destruction of de Rais’ tomb but his terrible legend lives on.