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Gilles de Rais, a horrific mystery

Gilles de Rais was a Knight of Brittany, a Marshal of France, Baron of Retz and Lord of a dozen other places in the Western France.

Born Gilles de Montmorency-Laval in 1404-1405 in Machecoul ( Brittany ), he inherited a high-place in the French hierarchy. His patrimony was certainly more important than many princes and princesses at this time and Gilles de Rais’ military skills during the Breton duchy succession war attributed him the favours of the Breton Duke and a place in the Royal court.

Different marriages ( ended by never solved deaths ) considerably increased his fortune and influence. Gilles de Rais acquired a national reputation during the One Hundred Year War where his leadership skills and violence allowed France to win battles. He also was a companion-in-arms of Jeanne d’Arc.

His fortune was a part of the decline he brought to himself after the war. Gilles de Rais had luxurious, even insane, tastes. Golden clothes, hundreds of knight bodyguards, music instruments, gifts to the Kingdom of France and a large retinue, among others, obliged him to sell many possessions. The last great expense he made was a reconstitution of the battle of Orléans that completely ruined him. After that, the Justice made a law that forbids anyone to buy his lands or his castles.

For many years, Gilles de Rais has was passionate by alchemy which may procure him more gold or other precious stones. He bought the service of many great alchemists of his time in order to learn but in vain.. An admiration for the Devil started in these years and yet he still remained very superstitious. Gilles de Rais succeeded in combining occult cults and a very pious attitude.

Emanating from his entourage and peasants, rumours started to intrigued people. It was said that Gilles de Rais enthralled young girls in his castle of Tiffauge and promised to care of the education of young boys. The whole thing consisted to make experiments on the children and use their blood or body parts in occult purposes.

In 1440, helped by armed forces, Gilles de Rais tried to take back one of his old possession in spite of its belonging to the Church. Where after the Church decided to start a procedure of investigation against Gilles de Rais. The Archbishop of Nantes ( Loire-Atlantique region ) called him to trial and he was arrested at his castle of Machecoul. Oddly he is not accused of any satanic practice or murder, but accused of having entered a Church carrying weapons and threatening a man of God, protected by the Duke of Brittany. He did not offer any resistance to his arrest.

However in October 1440, he discovered that he was accused, among others, of murder and witchery. Gilles de Rais is sentenced to stay in the jails of Nantes during the trial, meanwhile the Duke of Brittany sent men to investigate on the field. Henriet and Etienne Corillaut, two servants of Gilles de Rais are also arrested.

The Church and the Justice perfectly organised the trial.. While contesting the accusation against his behaviour in the Church, the number of charges suddenly increased, Gilles de Rais starts to understand that this trial was orchestrated and that there is no escape for him. Facing the charges, Henriet and Etienne confessed being accomplices and minions. Many people testified against Gilles de Rais, also accusing some members of his entourage. Except the nobles, the accused are tortured.

Understanding that he is a non-return situation, Gilles de Rais revolted during the trial. The bishop admonished this behaviour by excommunication. Terrified, he offered his confession if the bishop removed the sanction. Once this was done, Gilles de Rais told everything in front of the entire assembly. It is said that people has been chocked by the details he gave. He confessed things people never heard of.

October 25th, at the end of the trial for the following charges : felony, rape, murder, cruelty, sodomy, witchery, vampirism, paedophilia and necrophilia ; Gilles de Rais is sentenced to be hanged and burned, so are his two valets Henriet and Etienne Corillaut. The tribunal offered him three favours. He asked a procession for the families of the victims, to be executed before his valets and finally he asked not to be entirely burned so that his body could be buried.

Gilles de Rais was buried in Nantes, before the Church was destroyed during the French Revolution three centuries later.
Around fifty skulls have been found in the different castles but one hundred and forty murders were expected in the castles of Machecoul and Tiffauge ( today, some historians think they may have been about 500 killings ). It is also said that some victims may have served Gilles de Rais as slaves, which was a honour and a chance.
Through the centuries ( even the XX century ), the trial was often revised and Gilles de Rais had been many times discharged.
Obviously, we will never learn the truth about what really happened during 1430 years.

Gilles de Montmorency-Laval left an important legacy in France. He is considered as the first French serial killer and some people think the author Charles Perrault took him for an inspiration for his story about Bluebeard. The castle of Tiffauges is a worthwhile destination when visiting the Vendée.
We could have remembered Gilles de Rais as a hero of the One Hundred Year War, we all know him as one of the worst infamous killer of history.

By Alister

Studying at the University of Besaçon, Burgundy Franche-Comté, France