Gilles de Rais, the serial killer who tried to save Joan of Arc

In the fall of 1992 the French Court of Cassation, the highest court for judicial appeals, exonerated a defendant. So far, all normal. The extraordinary thing was that he had been advised by a jury made up of jurists, historians, and psychologists, and that the lucky winner had been hanged five and a half centuries before, for which reason only his memory could be rehabilitated. A totally sinister memory that turned him into one of the most abominable beings on record: Gilles de Rais.

It is possible that many people do not know the name but it occupies a place of dubious honor in the darkest part of history, next to characters like Vlad sod or Erzsébet Bathory, often labeled as bloodthirsty monsters even in times where horror was part of everyday life. Serial murderer, pedophile, infanticide, sadistic torturer, devil worshiper, sodomite and heretic are some of the adjectives with which he has passed down to posterity and which led him to a tragic end, despite his very rancid nobility and his position as Marshal. from France. But some researchers believe that perhaps things were not as said and that is why the new process of which is now twenty-five years old was opened.

If one travels through the north-western part of France, the area bathed by the Loire River, it has, among many other things, two attractions that are usually visited together: the Puy de Fou, an amusement park with a historical setting, and the nearby Tiffauges castle, in the Vendée, where Gilles de Rais settled from 1434, when he fell out of favor after losing his position as marshal.

He was born as Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, heir to the Baronage de Rais, in another castle (that of Champtocé) in 1404. He was still a child when his parents died and he was raised by his grandfather, a violent and despotic man who surely influenced his character. Gilles entered the service of the Duke of Brittany, Juan de Montfort, participating in the War of the Breton Succession, a regional conflict that lasted twenty-three years and pitted various illustrious lineages against each other, with the final victory of the Montforts.

Apparently, Gilles stood out as a warrior, reaching a popularity that allowed him to carry out his first important whims, such as kidnapping his wife, Catherine de Thouarscon, given the opposition of his parents to that marriage. When seven years later her daughter Marie was born to her, Catherine fled with her, they say because of the homosexuality she had discovered in her husband. He, however, did nothing to stop him.

These original episodes have served to establish the classic image of the character, which would later hatch into the presumed degeneration outlined at the beginning. But in between a completely different period must be inserted, that of his social, political and military rise thanks to the Hundred Years War; a dispute that ravaged the country since in 1337 the young English king Edward III claimed his right to the throne of France as grandson of Philip IV the beautifulonce Carlos Capeto passed away without leaving any descendants.

Starting in 1429, Gilles fought alongside Joan of Arc and other prestigious generals against the English and Burgundians in defense of the interests of Charles VII, the Dauphin. He participated very meritoriously in the battles of Jargeau and Patay and became an escort of the Maiden of Orleanswhom he idolized («In her presence and for that brief period of time, I was in the company of God and I killed for God»), obtaining the appointment of Marshal of France with only twenty-four years. Carlos managed to crown himself and put an end to that devastating war, but not without sacrificing some pieces.

19th century reconstruction of Tiffauges Castle/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

One of them was Juana, captured in 1431 and executed by burning on charges of heresy due to the apparent immobility of the monarch who owed her the throne. Gilles did try to free her but he didn’t arrive in time and that chapter would mark her life forever. The other sacrificed piece, the fall from grace of the one who until then had been his protector, the Royal Chamberlain, led to his own; Gilles left the army and retired to the aforementioned castle of Tiffauges. Thus closed the parenthesis of glory and opened a new and macabre -but disputed- stage.

In it, if we pay attention to the chronicles, he practically did not fail to prove any aberration or evil. Enriched by the rewards he received for his military services, he plunged into a life of luxury and extravagance—lavish banquets, spectacular parties, lavish theatrical performances—combining with a somewhat thoughtless generosity, which, at one time, led him to deplete your funds. In the same way, he saw no contradiction in manifesting an exacerbated, almost mystical religiosity (and often caused by listening to sacred music), while he hired all kinds of alchemists, magicians and necromancers to try to make him gold.

With one of them, they say, he had a loving relationship. He was a Florentine sorcerer named Prelatti, who took advantage of his lover’s panic at the devil to manipulate him at her whim through setups, apparently very convincing. He soon gained a bad reputation among one group and the other (alchemy had been prohibited by Carlos VII) and rumors began that he sent his pages to kidnap children to sacrifice them in satanic ceremonies. Suddenly, mass disappearances began to be reported in the region and it was also said that before killing them he raped and tortured his victims, enjoying their suffering.

Joan of Arc captured by the Burgundians in Compiegne (Jules Eugène Lenepveu)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Eight years passed with the ball growing little by little and finally there was a confrontation with the Bishop of Nantes over a real estate issue – the sale of one of the castles, which Gilles clumsily managed by arresting and imprisoning one of the buyers to sell it to a better man. bidder- which led to his downfall. On September 15, 1440, the Duke of Brittany ordered his arrest along with his casting court.

The minutes of the trial have been preserved, detailing how Gilles de Rais displayed a cyclothymic temperament, going from aggressiveness to depression, from pleading innocent to assuming his guilt and from bragging about his actions to heartfelt repentance. He accused of the death of a hundred and a half children, whom he would also have subjected to indescribable torment (“in various ways and unheard of perversion” according to George Bataille in his work The real Bluebeard), Gilles was hanged on October 16 of that same year on an island off Nantes and his corpse cremated. The facts ended and the legend began.

But in 1992 the Brittany Tourist Office commissioned a biography of the character to promote the castle of Tiffauges, which had just been incorporated into its tourist offer. The designated writer, Gilbert Proteau, submitted an astonishing paper entitled Gilles de Rais ou la gueule de loup (Gilles de Rais or the Face of the Wolf), in which he concluded that everything about the criminal image of Gilles de Rais was false and proposed a review of the trial. That book unleashed a revisionist current that allowed the case to reach the Court of Cassation and it exonerated the monster.

Tiffauges Castle/Photo: Jibi 44 on Wikimedia Commons

The truth is that many historians and scholars of his figure already doubted the veracity of the events that led him to the scaffold. An example is the English writer Margot K. Juby, who often jokingly describes herself as a “representative of Gilles de Rais” and since 2010 she has published on an open web expressly all the documents you find about it; Obviously, it has gained new impetus in 2017 when the twenty-five years of judicial rehabilitation are celebrated.

For Juby, as for many others, Gilles de Rais was the victim of a kind of conspiracy in which the Crown and the Church participated, to a greater or lesser extent. The fact that he was ruined made him a desirable prey for those who aspired to take away his castles and lands, the last of his heritage. Jean de Malestroit, who was Bishop of Nantes and who initiated the process, was benefited by the death penalty, as was the Duke of Brittany himself. Both shared their properties and saved the debts they had contracted with him. It is not trivial that it was a religious person who initiated the accusation; let us remember that Gilles de Rais was one of the pillars of Joan of Arc, condemned as a heretic, and the strange thing is that he had not been persecuted before her.

Every year in France (and throughout Europe) tens of thousands of children disappeared, never to be heard from by their parents, but in that area only eight were reported and, as far as the defendant was concerned, no mortal remains of the victims were found. ; even if he had burned their bodies, as was said at the trial, it seems highly unlikely that not the slightest trace would have remained. It was said that his sister had found skeletons in one of the castles and that she covered for him. Always the “it is said”, “they say that”, “it is rumored”, but without concrete evidence; not a bone, not a tooth… Only the confusing testimonies of peasants, collaborators (under torture) or his self-confession (induced by the threat of excommunication, which he feared above all).

The medievalist John Hosler also highlights that the process is a sample of common standards of the time that lead to mistrust: sodomy, heresy… He admits that there have always been criminals and that it is difficult to prove the innocence of Gilles de Rais with the trial records. in hand, but thinks maybe you have to read between the lines. Similar things were said in the trial to the Templars who are no longer supported today, and it should be borne in mind that Charles VII reproached the Duke of Brittany for leaving the trial in the hands of the Inquisition; somewhat hypocritical if another argument from historians is followed, that the event was framed in the struggle between royal and feudal authority and that the Gallic monarch took the opportunity to get rid of an overly powerful lord whose host roamed freely in Britain .

All the works carried out on the case since then – and we are talking about more than two hundred – were identical because the source from which they drank, not exactly impartial, was the official version published in 1443; Worse still, most of them did not even resort to it but based themselves on the nineteenth-century work of Paul Lacroix, garnished with characteristic fanciful romanticism: Huysmans, Reinach, Fleuret, Bayard, Bossard, Bataille, Perrault…

However, how could it be otherwise, there are also authors who are critical of Proteau and the decision of the Court of Cassation, such as Oliver Bouzy, who accuse them of a lack of rigour, so that it is impossible to determine the exact facts. Thus, a quarter of a century after his acquittal, Gilles de Rais continues to appear in the media as a bloodthirsty beast; In addition to his life and property, he also lost the battle of propaganda.


The real Bluebeard. The tragedy of Gilles de Rais (Georges Bataille)/Gilles de Rais ou la gueule de loup (Gilbert Proteau)/Blue Beard (Charles Perrault)/Crime and punishment in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age. Mental-historical investigations of basic human problems and social responses (Albrecht Classen and Connie Scarborough)/Wikipedia