Unusually today, I am celebrating someone’s death. Gilles de Rais was executed on this day in 1440 and, if the charges brought against him were true, the world was a better place for it. He was accused and found guilty of torturing and killing perhaps over a hundred children between 1431 and 1440. No one knows how many. I have no desire to go into the nature of these crimes, and beyond a certain point, I cannot do so, as many of the details were so shocking that they were stricken from the record.
What I can do is take a look at his increasingly odd behaviour that led up to the point where he thought it would be okay to lure children into his castle and murder them. De Rais was born into a wealthy family. His parents both died when he was ten and he was raised by his maternal grandfather. He inherited a great deal of wealth and acquired more through his marriage to Catherine de Thouars in 1420.
De Rais was a soldier who fought bravely alongside Joan of Arc and seems to have saved her life more than once. He was recognised for his valour following the siege of Orleans in 1429. He even officiated at the coronation of King Charles VII. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 and, although he wasn’t present, he seems to have gone a bit wrong after that. The following year his grandfather died, leaving the sword and breastplate that should have gone to Gilles to his younger brother René. It was a protest against Gilles’s profligate spending of his fortune. It didn’t stop him because the year after that, he’d sold most of his property and was down to his last two castles.
By 1434 he had left the army to pursue his own interests. He built a Chapel of Holy Innocents, where he officiated wearing robes of his own design. He also poured a lot of his financial resources into a mystery play about the Siege of Orleans. The play had 140 speaking parts and required 400 extras. He also provided unlimited food and drink for his audience and lavish costumes that were worn once, discarded and made anew for subsequent performances. His family became increasingly concerned about his spending habits and gained a royal edict that forbade him from selling any more property and anyone else from doing business with him.
In 1435 he fled to Brittany and by 1438, according to witnesses at his trial, he had become involved with the occult. He was trying to use alchemy to summon a demon in the hope that it could restore his wealth. When the demon failed to appear, he was asked for, and happily provided, the body parts of a child as a sacrifice. He was arrested and tried in 1440 after he kidnapped and imprisoned a cleric. He was sentenced to be hanged and the burned along with two of his servants, but spared the burning part at the last moment.
His daughter Marie built a memorial on the site of his execution, which oddly became a place of pilgrimage for pregnant mothers who wished to pray for an abundance of breast milk. There have been efforts in recent years to exonerate Gilles de Rais and many have suggested that the charges were made up by his enemies. I am very wary of absolving anyone who may have been guilty of such horrific crimes. I also think it’s as well to be circumspect when looking at people who are apparently very public spirited, dress flamboyantly and enjoy the company of children.
The crimes of Gilles de Rais are often thought to be the inspiration behind the story of Bluebeard, a man who murders not children, but his wives and hides their bodies in a cellar for his subsequent wives to discover. Quite when or why it was decided that murdering wives was less of a problem than murdering children isn’t clear. It seems the same to me. It’s an extremely bloodthirsty story and it’s heroine is rather a passive character who is eventually rescued by her brothers. If you’re looking for a heroine with a bit more about her, have a look at Fitcher’s Bird, which clearly has the same roots as Bluebeard. She fools her murdering magician husband, rescues her sisters, escapes in disguise and lures him to his death with a decorated skull.