Gilles de Rais – violent predator or political victim?
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, more commonly known as Gilles de Rais, was a 15 th century French nobleman, Breton baron, and marshal of France. He was known as an accomplished lieutenant to Joan of Arc during the sieges of Orléans and Paris and experienced significant renown and prestige before his eventual downfall, when he was arrested, and later executed, for Satanism, along with the abduction, rape, mutilation, and murder of more than 150 children. But was he really the monster he was made out to be, or was he the unfortunate victim of political betrayal?
Born in 1404, Gilles de Rais was heir to a family fortune that included several castles in the west of France. In 1420, he married a rich heiress, Catherine de Thouars, and was said to have kept a more lavish estate than the king. In the same year as his marriage, de Rais fought in the wars of succession to the duchy of Brittany, and later, he fought for the Duchess of Anjou against the English in 1427. He became an accomplished lieutenant and was assigned to Joan of Arc’s guard, fighting several battles by her side.
In 1435, Gilles de Rais received a decree from the king, restraining him from selling or mortgaging the rest of his lands. It is said that at this point, de Rais developed an interest in esotericism and sought to gain knowledge, power, and riches, through engaging in various rituals, although the accuracy of this information is debatable.
Gilles de Rais by Éloi Firmin Féron (1835). Image source: Wikipedia
Gilles de Rais’s illustrious military career would soon come to an end. In 1440, Gilles de Rais was arrested following a dispute with a priest during the celebration of mass. The subsequent ecclesiastical investigation supposedly uncovered a dark and brutal side to de Rais and he was accused of torturing, raping, and killing hundreds of children, beginning in 1426.
Gilles de Rais was brought to trial in Nantes, first before an ecclesiastical tribunal under the direction of the bishop of Nantes and then before a civil court. Many witnesses were brought forward to testify against him, including his most loyal servant, Etienne Corrillaut, also known as Poitou.
All manner of graphic and ghastly descriptions emerged during the trials, accusing de Rais of all kinds of despicable acts including dismemberment, decapitation, necrophilia, rape, cannibalism, and Satanism. The extensive witness testimony convinced the judges that there were adequate grounds for establishing his guilt.
The arrest of Gilles de Rais By Lucien Napolean Francois Totain 1838-1900. Image source .
At first de Rais refused to please to the charges, but when threatened with excommunication and torture, he confessed that he was both a paedophile and a murderer. This meant forfeiture of both his property and his life. Gilles de Rais was condemned to death and hanged at Nantes on 26 th October, 1440, as was his servant, Poitou.
The execution of Gilles de Rais. Created circa 1530, this work is maintained by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. Image source: Wikimedia commons.
Although Gilles de Rais was convicted through his own confessions and numerous witness accounts, many doubts have emerged in recent decades about the court's verdict. In 1992, a Vendéen author and historian named Gilbert Prouteau was hired by the Breton tourist board to write a biography about Gilles de Rais. Prouteau sensationally proclaimed that de Rais was innocent and presented a solid case to support the fact that de Rais was a victim of a political betrayal. Although the book, ‘Gilles de Rais ou la Gueule du Loup’ became a bestseller in France, it was never translated into English. Hence, in the English-speaking world, de Rais is still very much presented as a sadistic serial killer, while in France, the belief in de Rais’ innocence has become the prevailing view.
Many scholars now maintain that de Rais was a victim of an ecclesiastic plot or act of revenge by the Catholic Church or French state. Evidence comes not only from the ‘show trial’, in which de Rais was forced to confess under threat of torture, and witness testimony was believed to have been given out of torture, self-interest or spite, but from the fact that the prosecutor, the Duke of Brittany, conveniently received all the titles to de Rais’ former lands after his conviction. The Duke then divided the land among his own nobles.
A blog site set up with the goal of clearing de Rais’ name, writes:
It is now widely accepted that the trial of Gilles de Rais was a miscarriage of justice. He was a great war hero on the French side; his judges were pro-English and had an interest in blackening his name and, possibly, by association, that of Jehanne d'Arc. His confession was obtained under threat of torture and also excommunication, which he dreaded. A close examination of the testimony of his associates, in particular that of Poitou and Henriet, reveals that they are almost identical and were clearly extracted by means of torture. Even the statements of outsiders, alleging the disappearance of children, mostly boil down to hearsay; the very few cases where named children have vanished can be traced back to the testimony of just eight witnesses. There was no physical evidence to back up this testimony, not a body or even a fragment of bone. His judges also stood to gain from his death: in fact, Jean V Duke of Brittany, who enabled his prosecution, disposed of his share of the loot before de Rais was even arrested.
Because French law allows an appeal for rehabilitation even in cases of capital punishment, a unique arbitration court of lawyers, writers, historians and politicians was appointed in 1992 to re-examine the evidence and decide whether there was sufficient evidence to show whether Gilles de Rais might have been framed. The case sensationally resulted in an acquittal, and de Rais was declared innocent .
Nevertheless, as the re-examination of the case took place before the era of the internet, knowledge about his acquittal is not widely known or published and most sites continue to propagate information about what now seem to be entirely fictitious crimes. Unfortunately, the grotesque details surrounding the case appear to have a morbid appeal and sadly, tales of Medieval serial killers are far more attention grabbing than an account of a persons’ innocence. However, the efforts that have been made thus far to re-examine de Rais’ case, provides hope that the true facts surrounding his life and death may one day come to light.
Featured image: Illustration taken from the site of the Musée Pays de Retz, which relates Gilles life - the non-revisionist version - in French. Image source.
Gilles de Rais – Encyclopedia Britannica
Gilles de Rais: Monster or Victim – Crime Library
A vexing, perplexing, vital book: my review of Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup – Gilles de Rais was Innocent
17 June 1992: Rehabilitation of France's Bluebeard – The Guardian