Gilles de Montmorency-Laval (1404–1440), Baron de Rais, was a Breton knight, a leader in the French army, and a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc. He is best known as a prolific serial killer of children. His name was later connected with the story of Bluebeard.
At an early age, Rais distinguished himself militarily, fighting first in the wars of succession to the duchy of Brittany (1420) and then for the duchess of Anjou against the English in 1427. He was assigned to Joan of Arc’s guard and fought several battles at her side, including the relief of Orléans in 1429. He accompanied her to Reims for the consecration of Charles VII, who made him marshal of France. He continued to serve in Joan of Arc’s special guard and was at her side when Paris was attacked. After her capture, he retired to his lands in Brittany.
Rais had inherited extensive domains from both his father and his maternal grandfather (Guy de Laval and Jean de Craon, respectively) and had also married a rich heiress, Catherine de Thouars (1420). He kept a more lavish court than the king, dissipating his wealth on the decoration of his châteaux and the maintenance of a large train of servants, heralds, and priests. He was a munificent patron of music, literature, and pageants, one of which he figured (The Mystery of Orléans). When his family secured a decree from the king in July 1435, restraining him from selling or mortgaging the rest of his lands, he turned to alchemy. He also developed an interest in Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches by invoking the devil. He was later accused of having abducted, tortured, and murdered more than 140 children.
Rais was arrested in September 1440 and brought to trial in Nantes, first before an ecclesiastical tribunal under the direction of the bishop of Nantes and then before a civil court. At first, he refused to plead to the charges, but, when threatened with ex-communication, he recognized the court’s authority and declared himself not guilty.
In 1438, according to testimony at his trial from the priest Eustache Blanchet and the cleric François Prelati, de Rais sent out Blanchet to seek individuals who know alchemy and demon summoning. Blanchet contacted Prelati in Florence and convinced him to take service with his master. Having reviewed the magical books of Prelati and a traveling Breton, de Rais chose to initiate experiments, the first being in the lower hall of his castle at Tiffauges, to summon a demon named Barron. de Rais provided a contract with the demon for riches that Prelati was to give to the demon at a later time. As no demon manifested after three tries, the Marshal grew frustrated with the lack of results. Prelati responded the demon summoned, named Barron, was angry and required the offering of parts of a child. de Rais provided these remnants in a glass vessel at a future invocation. All of this was to no avail, and the occult experiments left him bitter and with a severely depleted wealth.
In his confession, Gilles maintained the first assaults on children occurred between spring 1432 and spring 1433. The first murders occurred at Champtocé-sur-Loire; however, no account of these murders survives. Shortly after, Gilles moved to Machecoul where, as the record of his confession states, he killed, or ordered to be killed, a great but uncertain number of children after he sodomized them. Forty bodies were discovered in Machecoul in 1437.
The first documented case of child-snatching and murder concerns a boy of 12 called Jeudon, an apprentice to the furrier Guillaume Hilairet. Gilles de Rais' cousins, Gilles de Sillé and Roger de Briqueville, asked the furrier to lend them the boy to take a message to Machecoul, and, when Jeudon did not return, the two noblemen told the inquiring furrier that they were ignorant of the boy's whereabouts and suggested he had been carried off by thieves at Tiffauges to be made into a page. In Gilles de Rais' trial, the events were testified to by Hillairet and his wife, Jean Jeudon and his wife, and five others from Machecoul.
In his 1971 biography of Gilles de Rais, Jean Benedetti tells how the children who fell into Rais's hands were put to death:
[The boy] was pampered and dressed in better clothes than he had ever known. The evening began with a large meal and heavy drinking, particularly hippocras, which acted as a stimulant. The boy was then taken to an upper room to which only Gilles and his immediate circle were admitted. There he was confronted with the true nature of his situation. The shock thus produced on the boy was an initial source of pleasure for Gilles.
Gilles' body-servant Étienne Corrillaut, known as Poitou, was an accomplice in many of the crimes and testified that his master hung his victims with ropes from a hook to prevent the child from crying out, then masturbated upon the child's belly or thighs. Taking the victim down, Rais comforted the child and assured him he only wanted to play with him. Gilles then either killed the child himself or had the child killed by his cousin Gilles de Sillé, Poitou or another body-servant called Henriet. The victims were killed by decapitation, cutting of their throats, dismemberment, or breaking of their necks with a stick. A short, thick, double-edged sword called a braquemard was kept at hand for the murders. Poitou further testified that Rais sometimes abused the victims (whether boys or girls) before wounding them and at other times after the victim had been slashed in the throat or decapitated. According to Poitou, Rais disdained the victim's sexual organs, and took "infinitely more pleasure in debauching himself in this manner ... than in using their natural orifice, in the normal manner."
In his own confession, Gilles testified that “when the said children were dead, he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed”.
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.
On 15 May 1440, Rais kidnapped a cleric during a dispute at the Church of Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte. The act prompted an investigation by the Bishop of Nantes, during which evidence of Gilles' crimes was uncovered. On July 29, the Bishop released his findings, 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 following a secular investigation which paralleled the findings of the investigation from the Bishop of Nantes. Rais's prosecution would likewise be conducted by both secular and ecclesiastical courts, on charges which included murder, sodomy, and heresy.
The extensive witness testimony convinced the judges that there were adequate grounds for establishing the guilt of the accused. After Rais admitted to the charges on 21 October, the court canceled a plan to torture him into confessing. Peasants of the neighboring villages had earlier begun to offer up accusations that since their children had entered Gilles' castle begging for food they had never been seen again. The transcript, which included testimony from the parents of many of these missing children as well as graphic descriptions of the murders provided by Gilles' accomplices, was said to be so lurid that the judges ordered the worst portions to be stricken from the record.
The precise number of Gilles' victims is not known, as most of the bodies were burned or buried. The number of murders is generally placed between 80 and 200; a few have conjectured numbers upwards of 600. The victims ranged in age from six to eighteen and included both sexes.
On 23 October 1440, the secular court heard the confessions of Poitou and Henriet and condemned them both to death followed by Gilles' death sentence on 25 October. Gilles was allowed to make a confession and his request to be buried in the church of the monastery of Notre-Dame des Carmes in Nantes was granted.
Execution by hanging and burning was set for Wednesday 26 October. At nine o‘clock, Gilles and his two accomplices made their way in procession to the place of execution on the Ile de Biesse. There, Gilles addressed the throng of onlookers with contrite piety and exhorted Henriet and Poitou to die bravely and think only of salvation. Gilles' request to be the first to die had been granted the day before. At eleven o'clock the brush at the platform was set afire and Rais was hanged on a gibbet above a pyre, but when the fire burned through the rope the body was snatched from the flames by several ladies of his family, who prepared it for burial with their own hands, and it was then interred in the Carmelite church close by. His two associates were also hanged, their bodies being burned and the ashes scattered.
On the spot where Gilles was executed, his daughter erected a monument, to which came to all nursing mothers to pray for an abundance of milk. Here again, is a strong suggestion that he was regarded as the Incarnate God of fertility. Another suggestive fact is the length of time - nine years - which elapsed between the death of Joan and the death of Gilles. This is a usual interval when the Incarnate God is given a time limit.
NOTE: In the title Blood Red, Sister Rose, Thomas Keneally's fictional account of Gilles' and Joan's special relationship, some suggest that there is more truth than speculation. By all historical accounts, the bond between Gilles and Joan was a very close one. She obtained permission from the King to choose whom she would for her escort; her choice at once fell on Gilles, for she would naturally prefer those of her own faith. He held already a high command in the relieving, force, and added the protection of Joan as a special part of his duties. Later on, even after he had reached the high position of Marshal of France, he still continued those duties, remaining with her all day when she was wounded at the assault on Paris. Lon
The Trial of Gilles de Rais
The Black Baron: The Strange Life of Gilles De Rais
Satanic Alchemy: Atrocities Of Gilles de Rais
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