Monday, May 27, 2013

Gilles De Rais (1404-1440)

Time has a way of reducing history down to its simplest forms. Looking backward, historical characters are cast in the role of hero or villain, sinner or saint. National heroes attain mythic proportions soon after they pass into the ages. Their foibles and warts are overlooked in favor of their heroic deeds. Likewise, ordinary scalawags become the basis for horrific legends and tall tales. There is little middle ground in history. The neutral historical figure is relegated to second-tier status while the evil and the good enjoy center stage.

But such reductions to either the good or bad side of the balance sheet are inherently unfair and inaccurate. No person, save for perhaps a Stalin or a Mother Theresa, is exclusively a monster or a saint. Everyone has the power to do evil or good, and most practice both to some extent. But ultimately, in the black and white world of history, the notable citizen is assigned immortality in either the pantheon of heroes or the dungeon of the villains.

Gilles de Rais
Gilles de Rais

So it is with one of historys most remarkable convicted murderers, the 15th century French nobleman Gilles de Rais. This soldier fought along side Joan of Arc and served as the equivalent of Frances military chief of staff, and was one of the wealthiest men in France. History tells us that Gilles hid a dark and sinister side for many years, during which he kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of peasant children (mostly young boys) while working with alchemists who used black magic in their attempts to turn base metal into gold.

One of the most powerful men in France, Gilles de Rais was ill-equipped to deal with the awesome right which society had given him. Raised by an equally powerful and even more politically astute grandfather whose main reason for taking on his ward was to increase his own land holdings, Gilles lacked the necessary moral fortitude to rein in his passions and exhibited a political naivete that would ultimately contribute to his downfall.

Gilles confessed (under threat of torture) to being a pedophile and homosexual in a time when either of these two activities could result in the forfeiture of life and property. He was a spendthrift who managed to bring his family to the brink of financial ruin in pursuit of his hedonism. Gilles de Rais was a kingmaker and fearless, cunning soldier whose exploits saved France from utter defeat in the Hundred Years War. However, that same drive led him to murder young boys in search of sexual thrills and to practice black magic in the quest of more wealth to continue his outrageous lifestyle.

But history has assigned Gilles de Rais to the ranks of the sadistic killers, rather than to the roster of national heroes. Most scholars agree that he was a monstrous sexual predator, although there are those who argue that evidence presented at his trial was trumped up and that Gilles was ill-equipped to defend himself against such outrageous charges. No one, they claim, could have gotten away with the shocking crimes de Rais was accused of for as long as he did. He was merely a pawn in a greater game of politics that his intelligence and personality rendered him unable to play.

Who then is the real Gilles de Rais? Was he a psychopathic killer who got sexual pleasure out of the torture and murder of dozens of peasant children? Or was he a simple soldier born into a powerful family who happened to get in the way of others who coveted his lands and authority?

The Childhood of Gilles

The death of Amaury dCraon was the first of three significant losses for 11-year-old Gilles de Rais, for dCraon was his uncle and his grandfather Jeans sole male heir. Gilles mother, the former Marie dCraon had married Guy de Rais, one-time heir of the incredibly wealthy Jeanne la Sage, as a political marriage which merged three wealthy and powerful households. The marriage of Guy and Marie came about after Guy changed his name from Laval to de Rais in order to inherit the properties of Jeanne la Sage the last of the de Rais family - whose marriage to Jean de Parthenay had been annulled because they were too closely related. However, la Sage reneged on the promise to take Guy as her heir and instead gave her inheritance to Catherine de Machecoul, the mother of Jean dCraon, Maries father. To prevent war between Guy de Rais, the Machecoul clan and la Sage, Jean dCraon offered a politically astute compromise his daughters hand in marriage. The marriage of Guy de Rais and Marie dCraon was solely political and financial in nature and there is no mention in the chronicles of whether or not they even liked, let alone loved one another.

Nine months after their marriage, Marie gave birth to her first child, Gilles de Rais. Within two years Marie had given Guy a second son, Rene.

The first years of young Gilles life were nondescript. As the son of one of the wealthiest men in France, he was brought up in what today would seem a cold and loveless way, for in France at the time, the philosophy of child-rearing treated young children as mini-adults and they were expected to act as such. Gilles rarely saw his parents, he was raised by a nurse with only infrequent visits by Guy and Marie, until his seventh year, when he reached the age of reason in French society.

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. He would never be a master of the machiavellian conspiracies and court intrigue that was required of a Frenchman in the 15th century.

Marie de Rais died soon after the Feast of the Epiphany, 1415.

It was shortly before Agincourt that the third death that helped shape Gilles life occurred. His father, Guy, was boar hunting in the woods near one of the familys many castles when the boar turned and gored him to death. Guys demise was a slow one, and he had time to draw up a will and make instructions on how his sons should be nurtured.

There was no love lost between Guy de Rais and Jean d Craon, and de Rais had left instructions in his will that his children should be raised by a cousin, Jean Tournemine de la Junaudaye. Guy made it clear that under no circumstance was Jean d Craon to have a hand in bringing up either Gilles or Rene. Historians have speculated that de Rais wanted his children away from Jean dCraon because he still harbored ill feelings about having to renounce his own family crest in order to inherit Jeanne le Sages property only to have Jean dCraon snatch it for his own family. Others presume that Guy de Rais knew all too intimately what kind of man dCraon was and how his children would be lost if entrusted to him.

The Saint And The Sinner

Having come this far in the story of Gilles de Rais and not encountered a single murder, after sitting through a brief history of the Hundred Years' War (Shakespeare wrote six plays dealing with the subject we have covered in a few thousand words), the reader is asked to indulge in just a little more 15th century politics. For the sake of brevity we will compress the next decade or so into a few paragraphs. For the reader who desires a more in-depth study of the years of Gilles' rise to power, a detailed timeline and bibliography follow this article.

In the throes of insanity, 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 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 Orleans and deliver the throne of France to Charles. This maid was Joan of Arc.

Dressed in white armor with the Dauphin's coat of arms, Joan traveled with a 10,000 man army. Her primary advisor and general was Gilles de Rais. Over time and several pitched battles, Joan and Gilles liberated Orleans and were able to present the Dauphin to Reims, the ancient site of the coronation of French kings. Gilles de Rais, was charged with carrying the holy chrism, or anointing oil, from Paris to Reims for the coronation. The year was 1429 and the child murders would begin in less than two years.

Political intrigue, infighting among the French, and the first of several sales of property by Gilles de Rais marked the next 18 months or so. Gilles had been given the title Marshal of France – in effect becoming the nation's highest-ranking soldier. His bravery and intelligence on the battlefield were widely known and admired, but he demonstrated a lack of skill in the political arena. He made many enemies among the powerful men of France, enemies who were waiting to pounce on him when the rumors of his bloodlust began to circulate.

An artist's rendering of Joan of Arc
An artist's rendering of Joan of Arc
George La Tremoille, the king's chief advisor, viewed Joan of Arc as a threat to his own power. An opportunist of the most ruthless sort, La Tremoille had risen to power after kidnapping and murdering Pierre de Giac in 1427 with the help of Constable de Richemont. Pierre de Giac was the favored advisor of Charles VII, and not only did La Tremoille replace him on the king's council, he replaced him in his bed, by marrying Pierre's widow, Catherine – who was suspected of being an accomplice to her first husband's murder. Shortly after being named Chamberlain of France, La Tremoille turned on Richemont and had him banned from the Court of Charles VII.

Tapestry of Joan of Arc
Tapestry of Joan of Arc
As Joan was more and more triumphant and held in high esteem by the people and their king, La Tremoille saw his own influence wane. He set about rectifying the situation by convincing the king to abandon the siege of Paris, where a young Henry VI had crowned himself king of France and England. Joan disagreed with this decision and her downfall from grace began.

La Tremoille's power peaked in 1430 when Joan of Arc was wounded and captured by the Duke of Burgundy, ally of the English. As the chamberlain negotiated a peace accord with Burgundy, Joan languished in a Burgundian prison. Under the customs of the day, she could easily have been ransomed, but La Tremoille managed to convince Charles VII that this was unwise. Gilles de Rais also abandoned the Maid of Orleans who had contributed so much to his career.
 In the spring of 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at Rouen, thanks in great part to the machinations of La Tremoille. She was considered a heretic for several years, until the fall of La Tremoille and the ascendancy of her supporters to power. Joan was raised to heroic status by the French; she was canonized in the early 20th century and her feast day at the end of May is a national holiday in France.

For all intents and purposes, Gilles' public career ended in early 1432 when Jean d'Craon died. On his deathbed, Jean expressed remorse for his harsh lifestyle and regret for having raised the monster Gilles de Rais. Attempting to make amends to those he had harmed, he gave property and money to his peasants, compensation to those he had robbed and endowments to two hospitals. He left his sword to Rene de Rais and recanted his prideful living. This public snub of Gilles was a message to Jean's survivors about what he thought of his eldest grandchild. At his request, a simple, humble funeral was held for one of France's most cunning and powerful men.

As Gilles' public service ended, his life of debauchery and decadence began. Freed from the shadow of his grandfather, believing to his core that he was exempt from the laws of decency, amoral and still very wealthy, Gilles devoted the rest of his life toward satisfying his demons.

The Murders Begin

With the accord between the English and the French, the Hundred Years War ended and King Charles VII retired to his estates to begin ruling over a country finally at peace. The political wrangling subsided somewhat, and the noblemen were expected to disband their armies and return to their own estates to rebuild and re-accumulate the wealth which had been lost during the war. Gilles, having been allied with both Joan of Arc and La Tremoille, was in a precarious position after the death of his grandfather, even though dCraon and de Rais had quarreled bitterly when Gilles was forced to sell a family estate to pay his private army. When La Tremoille was arrested and banned from court, Gilles returned to Champtoce.

The sedentary lifestyle of a retired war hero was not for Gilles de Rais, a headstrong young man whose only life experience to date had been the glory and carnage of battle. He yearned for excitement and blood, but was forced to become a murderer to fulfill his desires.

If circumstances had changed, Gilles had not Restless activity, killing and violence, coupled with theatrical display had been the conditions of his existence, wrote a biographer, Jean Benedetti. His society had a vested interest in his capacity for violence; under certain circumstances it legitimized and honored it. The psychopathic urgency of his private needs had been concealed by the general brutality of military practice.
At his trial, Gilles told his inquisitors that he killed in cold blood for the first time in the year his grandfather died, either 1432 or 1433. In his confession, Gilles stated that At (Champtoce) he killed children and had them killed in large numbers how many he is uncertain. And he committed with them the sodomitic and unnatural sin Sometime after the death of dCraon, Gilles moved his courtiers to Machecoul, where the murders began in earnest.

Castle of Horrors

As the record-keeping of the 15th century was not as fastidious as we have come to accept in court proceedings, actual dates of the disappearances of children are rough at best. In few cases can dates be assigned, and in many cases even the year is suspect.
The first child-snatching attributed to Gilles de Rais occured, historians believe, sometime in 1432, when Gilles de Sille, a cousin of de Rais, reportedly abducted a young apprentice whom de Sille wanted to carry a message to the castle at Machecoul. The anonymous 12-year-old boy, apprenticed to Guillaume Hilairet, a furrier, was the son of Jean Jeudon. When the boy disappeared and Hilairet sought out the nobleman de Sille, he was told the boy had been kidnapped by thieves in the village of Tiffauges. In Gilles 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 boys death.
In Jean Benedettis biography of Gilles de Rais, he speculates what happened to the youngster:
He 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 taken to an upper room to which only Gilles (de Rais) and his immediate circle was admitted. He was then confronted with the true nature of his situation. The shock thus produced on the boy was probably an initial source of pleasure for Gilles.

An accomplice in many of the crimes, Etienne Corrillaut, known as Poitou, testified that de Rais then raped the boy as he was hanged from a hook by the neck. Before the child died, Gilles took him down, comforted him, repeated the act and either killed him himself or had him slain.

Poitou testified that the child victims were murdered sometimes by decapitating them, sometimes by cutting their throats, sometimes by dismembering them, sometimes by breaking their necks with a stick, and that there was a weapon specifically for their execution, known as a braquemard. A braquemard is a short, thick double-edged sword.

Gilles de Rais rarely left a child alive for more than one evenings pleasure, Poitou claimed. Many times they were dealt mortal wounds before de Rais sodomized them. He would then take his pleasure as the child died. Occasionally, he would perform a sex act with a dead child.

In his own confession, Gilles testified that when the 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 said children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed

Many of the bodies were disposed of through cremation in the chamber of horrors. The fires burned slowly over time so as to minimize the smell, testified Henriet Griart, another co-conspirator. Poitou also claimed the ashes were then dumped in the cesspool or moat.

The Conspirators

As noted previously, the trial of Gilles de Rais revealed that de Rais was not alone in his perversity. In the beginning, he kept the number of conspirators at a minimum, but as time went on and the tally of victims rose, more people both men and women were brought into the butchery.

The first accomplices were de Rais cousins, Gilles de Sille and Roger de Briqueville. Gilles de Sille seems to have been the earliest procurer, bringing both the first and second victims to Machecoul. There is no record in the trial documents of de Sille participating in the sexual aspects of the crimes, but he clearly was a willing partner in their planning and clean up.

The first five disappearances happened rather close together, in about the span of a few weeks, the transcripts show, although the recorded dates are not very reliable. In both the first and second kidnappings, de Sille played a prominent role, including being observed wearing a long mantle and veil over his face talking to second victim, a child of 9.

The vanishing children caused a stir in the village of Machecoul, with concern for a supernatural presence at work. Testimony of one parent, Andre Barbe, revealed that de Rais and his cohorts were at once suspected of participating in the foul play. He adds that nobody dared speak for fear of the men in Lord de Rais chapel, or others of his men; those who complained risked imprisonment, or ill-treatment, should anyone report their complaints. Barbes testimony also revealed that Machecoul has begun to develop a sinister reputation in the area. When he met a man from Saint-Jean-dAngely and tells him he comes from Machecoul, the man recoiled and says they ate little children there.

Benedetti reports that soon children were supplied to Gilles de Rais by a woman known as La Meffraye (the Terror), Perrine Martin, although her role appears more fairy tale than truth: She roamed the countryside, enticing any children she came across wandering or tending animals. An old woman, nicknamed the Terror, kidnapping children sounds like a tale parents tell naughty youngsters. Martin, although not named in the trial transcript, apparently features in the testimony of Guillaume Fouraige: (Madame) Fouraige declared that for a year she had sometimes run into an old woman whom she did not know, wearing a paltry gray dress and black hood: this woman was small; once she had a young boy with her and said that she was going to MachecoulTwo or three days later, the witness saw her returning without the child; she said she had placed him with a good master.

For her role in the crimes, Martin was confined to prison in Nantes, Brittany, where she confessed her sins before she died.

The disappearances caused a commotion in the village and de Sille was forced to concoct a story to placate grieving parents. The children were kidnapped, he admitted, but they were given by order of the king to the English, where they would be trained as pages. Whether this relieved the parents is not recorded, but the disappearances continued.

In addition to the Terror, de Sille and de Briqueville, Poitou and Henriet are later brought into the inner circle of debauchery. Poitou, who was brought to the castle as a victim but spared because of his beauty, confessed to abetting de Rais in the procurement, killing and disposal of the victims.

Black Magic

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 confessed, leading some scholars to doubt the veracity of the reputation history has given him. He 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.

As a companion to Joan of Arc, he was a witness to her miracles. Gilles observed a shift in the wind direction that favored the French during the siege of Orleans that is attributed to Joans prayer for just such an event. He saw the Maid pull a quarrel, or dart, from her shoulder and recover from a wound that would have put the average knight in bed for a month. Gilles witnessed Joan call upon Gods help to lift the siege at Orleans and accomplish in four days what the finest soldiers in France had been unable to do for more than a year. Gilles was present when Joan made fabulous prophecies that came true. Belief in the supernatural was not difficult for Gilles de Rais. This faith spread from the acceptable teachings of the Church to work in alchemy and, according to trial transcripts, necromancy and devil worship.

Alchemy had been outlawed by the Church and the king in the 15th century, but that did not stop believers from searching for the fabled Sorcerers Stone which would enable them to turn lead or iron into gold. Modern chemistry can trace its roots to these early experimenters, who, regardless of their motives, did make some discoveries that benefited humanity. Most of the alchemists, however, were charlatans and con men who used simple sleight-of-hand or more elaborate tricks to fool their unsuspecting marks.

A woodcut of an alchemist and his apprentice mixing a brew (CORBIS)
A woodcut of an alchemist and his apprentice mixing a brew (CORBIS)

The greed of Gilles de Rais made him easy prey for bogus alchemists, and he never seemed to learn that he was being conned. His biographers report two instances where he was taken in by tricksters, each rather humorous. In the first, de Rais favorite priest, Blanchet, introduced him to a goldsmith who had discovered the means to convert silver into gold. Gilles and the alchemist met at a local tavern where de Rais gave the man a silver coin. Gilles left the alchemist alone to practice his craft and upon his return found the chemist intoxicated and unconscious. Apparently all the man could do was turn a florin into a flagon of wine.

The second con cost Gilles a little more money.
 Again Blanchet produced the magician who claimed to able to summon the Devil. One evening, with a sword and dressed in white armor, the magician, Jean de la Riviere, took Gilles and his party into the woods and had them wait in a clearing while he went off to summon Satan. Blanchet later testified that he heard a great clanging, which he believed to be Riviere banging on his armor, and then an ashen-faced and frightened Riviere appeared saying he had seen the devil in the form of a leopard which crept past him into the woods. After this, Blanchet testified, (de Rais, Riviere, and others) went to Pouzauges and indulged in many pleasures and then slept.

Gilles had been convinced of Rivieres sincerity and skill. He was on the hook, and Riviere knew it. The magician told Gilles that he needed some supplies to continue his evocations and Gilles gave him 20 ecus, telling him to return as soon as he could. Of course, Riviere disappeared with his loot and was never seen in those parts again.

Summoning The Devil

Gilles wasnt 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, he was told. But how? He sent his priest Blanchet in search of a man who had control over the netherworld. Blanchet found such a man in Italy, a Frenchman named Francois Prelati. Spinning stories of the fabulous lifestyle that de Rais could provide, Blanchet convinced Prelati to accompany him to the estate of Gilles de Rais.

Prelati was a handsome, 22-year-old conjurer and charlatan who exuded confidence and charm. 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.

Prelati and Blanchet arrived at Tiffauges sometime around the middle of May, 1439, but it is not until the eve of the vernal equinox, Midsummers Night Eve, a time when spirits and mystical forces are particularly active, that Prelati and Gilles get down to the business of summoning a demon. Throughout Europe peasants often celebrated this night by lighting fires in streets and marketplaces. Although the fires were often blessed by priests, the celebration was generally conducted by the laity. Midsummer eve celebrations were a continuance of the Teutonic pagan festivals and fertility rites associated with agriculture at the time of the summer solstice.

This would not be the first time that de Rais attempted to summon the devil for his own purposes, but it would represent the first time he played an active role in the ceremony. In the 15th century, when so many natural events were not understood the way they are in modern times, God played a much more active and visible role in the everyday lives of citizens through rapid changes in the weather, untimely deaths or mysterious coincidences, for example. So it was not unusual that a man who proved his bravery in battle as did Gilles would act like a frightened child at the idea of beckoning a demon. It is unfair to judge Gilles de Rais a coward because he trembled as Prelati prepared his hokum incantations.

Shortly before midnight, Gilles, Prelati, Poitou, Henriet, Blanchet and Gilles de Sille went into the lower hall of the chateau at Tiffauges. There, amid the tapestries, coats of arms and artifacts of war, Prelati drew a large circle on the floor and began tracing crosses, mysterious symbols and signs within it. Gilles de Rais carried with him a large book, leather-bound with a great metal lock. Inside the pages were written in red ink or was it blood? There was a rumor swirling around the village that Lord de Rais was kidnapping children, murdering them and using the blood to write a book of spells and incantations that was filled with the names of many demons under his control (if only! Gilles must have thought).

Ever the showman, Prelati warned his audience that under no circumstances were they to make the Sign of the Cross, no matter how frightened they became. He ordered the four windows of the great hall opened. Then, with the candles burning and the room prepared, the lord of the manor ordered his servants to leave him and Prelati alone. This dismissal must have come as a relief to de Sille, who was terrified of the supernatural and had once jumped out a window of Champtoce when a magician managed to convince the two cousins that a demon was present in the room. The servants waited in Gilles de Rais bedchamber as Prelati went to work.

In addition to the childs blood book, Gilles held in his hand a note he planned to give to Satan when the Dark One appeared. In it, he promised to give Lucifer anything he desired, except his soul and his life, if the Devil would only grant him fabulous wealth. Sometimes kneeling, other times standing, Prelati lead Gilles de Rais through a farcical ceremony to summon the demon Prelati calls Barron. For two hours they pleaded and cajoled Barron to appear, but the demon did not.

Up in Gilles bedroom, the others waited nervously. Once they claimed to have heard the sound of hooves on the roof of the chateau, but shortly after two in the morning, Prelati and de Rais joined the others, disappointed that Barron had snubbed them. The pair said nothing of any hoofed creatures appearing. Fortunately for Prelati, a weather front did appear during the ceremony, bringing with it a significant change in the wind as well as rain and thunder. The sign only served to confirm Gilles confidence in the young man.
Perhaps he was bluffing, as it is unlikely that de Rais had confided in Prelati his perverse sexual habit, but Prelati unfortunately told de Rais that Barron wants a sacrifice of a childs heart, eyes and sex organs. Soon after, Gilles de Rais fulfilled Prelatis gruesome demand. The sacrifice came after Prelati managed to make Barron appear of course, the magician was alone at the time only to have the demon beat him mercilessly. Locked out of the room, de Rais and his cohorts could only listen in horror as Prelati was roughed up. Blanchet, who was clearly a non-believer in sorcery, compared the sound to that of someone hitting a feather bed.

Another time, Prelati, alone again, conjured up a mighty serpent. Terrified, he ran from the room into the waiting arms of Gilles de Rais who also became afraid and fled to his chapel where he grabbed a crucifix that contained a sliver of the True Cross. Returning to the site of the serpents appearance, he was both disappointed and relieved to find it had returned to the netherworld.

The shenanigans went on for more than a year, and ended only when Gilles de Rais was arrested.


Just because Gilles was trying to summon a demon did not mean his bloodlust was ignored. Rather, the debauchery and murder continued unabated. Gilles had several near-misses in terms of being caught, and historians speculate that Rene de Rais and other close family members were quite aware of what Gilles was doing. The relationship between Rene and his brother was strained, but amiable. Rene, who had taken the name of his grandfather, la Suze, was constantly after his brother for his spendthrift ways. As in so many families, Rene and Gilles were opposites in many ways, although Rene was just as brave in battle. He was equally devout and more fiscally conservative.

Rene managed to have the king issue an edict preventing Gilles from selling any of the family estates, and gained control of the chateau at Champtoce. When Gilles learned his brother was moving into Champtoce, he panicked. Rene was clearly acting in an aggressive manner to curtail Gilles' spending and it was only a matter of time before his younger brother moved to have Machecoul taken as well. That would spell doom for de Rais, who took action to cover his tracks. Gilles dispatched Poitou and Henriet to Machecoul and ordered them to burn the bodies of the 40 or so children he had stored in a tower.

They complied, but by then it was almost too late. Some noble friends spied on the two servants as they completed their grisly task. Their reaction was not what one would expect: they ignored what they saw. After all, the victims were only miserable peasant children. "Justice reacted on the occasion of another affair; under certain circumstances justice might have closed its eyes," wrote French historian Georges Bataille.

Gilles' fear that Rene was on the march and intended to occupy Machecoul was well-founded and correct. Three weeks after moving into Champtoce, Rene and a cousin Andre de Laval-Loheac occupied Machecoul to prevent Gilles from liquidating any more family property. Gilles de Sille and a servant had been charged with making sure the castle was clear of evidence - the alchemy tools had been destroyed earlier when Louis, the Dauphin, came to visit. It was de Sille's job to clean up the bones and he botched the assignment. Two skeletons were found on the grounds and the captain of the guard interrogated Poitou and Henriet about them. The pair denied knowing anything, which was a lie, and the matter was hushed up. "A wall of silence (was) erected round the family," Benedetti writes. "Besides, if they spoke up, the local peasantry might come forward and tell what they knew and the whole family would be plunged into disgrace."

But time was not on the side of Gilles de Rais. Retired from the military at just 36, politically impotent and clearly mad, 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 brigands and converged on the church at St. Etienne de Mermorte during High Mass. Breaking into the church, wild-eyed and brandishing a double-edged axe, 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 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 an important priest from inside a church that someone decided that he had gone too far.

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. Once again, as it was when the nobles watched de Rais' valets dispose of his Champtoce victims, 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. One can only imagine what he must have thought when he learned of the book of spells written in children's blood or how Gilles enjoyed sitting on the stomachs of dying children and masturbating. Even though his stated purpose was to ruin a political foe, the bishop's stomach must have turned as he heard witness after witness come forward with tales of missing children or suspicious men with their faces covered by black veils prowling the countryside kidnapping innocent shepherd boys.

It was in July 1440 that Malestroit went public with his findings. As bishop of Nantes, he published an incendiary account of interviews with seven commoners who live 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 naivete. He was the Marshal of France, the king's military chief of staff, summoner of demons and lord of Pays de Rais. No one would dare come to Tiffauges to accuse him of heresy or murder. His co-conspirators, however, were not so confident. Gilles de Sille and Roger de Briqueville, having stashed away money for just such a situation, immediately fled Tiffauges and disappeared into history. Poitou, Henriet, Prelati and Blanchet remained in Tiffauges with their master to await their fate. Henriet was so frightened of what the future held that he considered slicing his own throat.

In August, the Constable of France, brother of the Duke of Brittany, seized Tiffauges and waited for permission from the secular authorities to arrest Lord de Rais who remained holed up in the castle at Machecoul. 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 for the gang. 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 at the gates of Machecoul 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 unlike the commoners, Lord de Rais was held in comfortable chambers in Nantes the inquest into Gilles acts began in earnest. Pierre de LHopital, chief judge of Brittany began the process by having interviews with the parents and relatives of the lost children of Machecoul. One mother tells the heartbreaking tale of being coerced by Poitou to turning over her son to him and Lord de Rais who promised to care for and educate the boy. The next day, as the boy and the murderers were preparing to leave, the mother had second thoughts and begged de Rais to return her boy. Gilles did not even acknowledge her presence and rode off with the 10-year-old child. The woman never saw her child again.
LHopital 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, LHopital and the secular prosecutor listened to the plaintive wails of grieving parents who feared their children had fallen into the hands of a monster. During some of the inquest, the ecclesiastical authorities were also present, in the person of the Vicar of the Inquisitor, Jean Blouyn.

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. This last charge was in connection with Gilles robbery and kidnapping at St. Etienne. 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 did not occur until at least 1432. Included in the charges were accusations that Gilles had on several occasions expressed remorse and shame for his acts, once promising to take a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to cleanse his soul. But the killings continued instead.

Standing before the ecclesiastical and secular judges, Gilles was asked to answer to the charges. Instead, he verbally attacked the authorities, calling them ribalds and simoniacs (someone who sells ecclesiastical pardons or indulgences) and asserting that he would rather be hanged by a rope around his neck than respond to such ecclesiastics and judges. Four times the judges asked Gilles to make a plea, and four times he ignored them. Left with no other choice, the Bishop of Nantes excommunicated Gilles de Rais. The hearing adjourned.

Two days later, a contrite Gilles appeared again before his judges. Having been denied Communion and the penitential rite and apparently fearing for his immortal soul, Gilles recognized the authority of the court and admitted to having maliciously committed and perpetrated the crimes described in the indictment. A tearful and humbled Gilles asked forgiveness from the court for his verbal outbursts earlier. The vice Inquisitor and bishop absolved him and readmitted him to the Church.

Gilles then went on to admit to many of the crimes he was accused of, except the summoning of demons. He swore upon a Bible and offered to take a test of fire to show his innocence. The prosecutor, however, stood by the accusation and produced Poitou, Henriet, Prelati and Blanchet who each testified to Gilles attempts to conjure up the devil. The testimony of the accomplices was taken over the course of five days, and at the end, the judges asked Gilles what he had to say now. Cooperative but still reticent, Gilles replied he had nothing to add and agreed that the testimony should be published as a warning to heretics.

Torture implement, using a sharp iron bar under the chin
(Torture implement, using a sharp iron bar under the chin)

But the prosecutor was not satisfied with Gilles response and asked that he be allowed to apply torture to force a confession from Lord de Rais. The judges agreed and ordered Gilles to be taken to the dungeon at La Tour Neuve. They hoped that a visit to the torture chamber would loosen Gilles tongue.

Confession and Execution

The judges were correct. Gilles, who undoubtedly used implements of torture during his bloody reign, had no stomach for being on the receiving end of the Inquisitions tool chest and after his visit to La Tour Neuves prison, agreed to answer the questions of the judges. He asked if he could confess in his own chamber, rather than in front of the torture implements in the castles lower hall, and the judges agreed.

The trial of Gilles de Rais (Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris)
The trial of Gilles de Rais (Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris)
In excruciating detail, Gilles confessed before Bishop Jean Pregent and Pierre de LHopital. His signed confession admits that it was given voluntarily, freely and grievously. He told the two judges that he alone was responsible for his actions.

He committed his crimes according to his imagination and idea, without anyones counsel and following his own feelings, solely for his pleasure and carnal delight, and not with any other intention or to any other end, a contemporary transcript of the confession reveals. It is possible that Gilles stressed this point as a last-ditch attempt to save his skin. 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 childs hand, heart and eyes in a vessel in an attempt to summon the demon. After the judges finished with Francois Prelati, Gilles turned to him and in tears wished him well in a most pious way, clearly indicating his fondness for the sorcerer.

Goodbye, Francois, my friend! Gilles said. Never again shall we see each other in this world; I pray that God gives you plenty of patience and understanding, and to be sure, provided you have plenty of patience and trust in God, we shall meet again in the Great Joy of Paradise.

Gilles was correct, he never saw Prelati again. The sorcerer was convicted of his crimes and sentenced to life in prison. He escaped, but returned to his old ways and was caught, tried and convicted again of heresy.

That time he was hanged.

The next morning, Gilles repeated his confession before the ecclesiastical court, in which he admitted that unbridled, he applied himself to whatever pleased him, and pleased himself with every illicit act.

Again, the court excommunicated Gilles, and he fell to the ground pleading, sighing and moaning on his knees to be reincorporated into the Church. The Bishop of Nantes, for the love of God, absolved Gilles of the sentence of excommunication and welcomed him back into the Church, our Mother, and allowed him to participate in the sacraments. Restoring Gilles into the Church would allow him to die with absolution and be buried on sacred ground, the Bishop said as the sentence of death was delivered.

Shortly afterward, the secular court handed down a similar verdict and sentence to Gilles, Poitou and Henriet. They were to be hanged by the neck until dead and their bodies burned to ash. Gilles asked that he be allowed to die first, to set a good example for his servants. The wish was granted.

Gilles de Rais and his coconspirators went to the gallows on October 26, 1440. Prior to his execution, Gilles gave a lengthy sermon to the large crowd gathered for the event on the evils of uncontrolled youth. He admitted his sins to the crowd, exhorted them to raise their children in a strict manner and be faithful to the Church. His sermon has been lost to history, but the records that remain claim it was a fine example of Christian humility and repentance.


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