Up until what Leon Daudet called the Stupid Nineteenth Century, although Gilles de Rais was seen as a murderer, he was at least given his due as a military leader. But then a rather Manichean world view took hold: everything was black or white and a man who killed children could not possibly have any redeeming features. Thus Gilles was quietly removed from the history books, to the point where Vita Sackville-West dismisses him in a footnote and Bataille argues that, really, he was not that great a commander. This would be an injustice even if he was guilty, which he was not.
(Illustration by Paul Gillon)
Gilles de Rais began his military career at the age of sixteen in the battle between the Monforts & the Penthièvres - in a breach with his family tradition, he and his grandfather took the side of the kidnapped Jean de Montfort, the Duke of Brittany who was to betray his friendship so spectacularly. He acquitted himself so well that he and his grandfather were singled out for praise and reward by de Montfort.
He first distinguished himself in the war against the English at Lude, where the garrison was commanded by Captain Blackburn, who had sworn to defend it to the death. And so he did: Gilles was among the first to storm the castle, took on Blackburn in single combat & killed him. At that time, Gilles was twenty-two years old.
His part in the siege of Orléans and the Loire campaign was glossed after his disgrace; for example, at Jehanne's rehabilitation trial in 1455, only Dunois mentions him as a leading commander at Orléans. Contemporary chroniclers, however, both French and foreign, tell a different story. He is seen as pre-eminent among the commanders, often at the expense of the others. His name is always linked with Jehanne's at Orléans and a private letter indicates that he was on good terms with her.
Gilles was entrusted with Jehanne's safety at her own request. He took his duties seriously; on both occasions when she was wounded, he hurried to her side, took her to safety, and stayed with her. The reason that he was not present at Compiègne when she was captured was that the King had disbanded the army to pursue peace with England; Jehanne was acting on her own initiative and it may be significant that she fell into enemy hands as soon as her protector was absent.
As we have already seen, it is certain that he and Dunois intended to launch a rescue attempt when they were at Louviers, in occupied Normandy, just across the river from Rouen where Jehanne was imprisoned.
Apart from Jehanne herself, nobody was more covered in glory than Gilles. He was made a Marshal of France in his twenty-fifth year. He was one of the four knights who fetched the Holy Oil from Saint-Rémy to Rheims; some chroniclers of the time give this honour to Gilles alone. He was also, along with Jehanne and her family, given the right to add the French arms, a border of royal fleurs-de-lys, to his armorial bearings; this was a phenomenally rare honour, more often granted to towns than to individuals.
Nor did he, as is popularly supposed, retire to his estates sulking after the capture and death of Jehanne; he continued to campaign for some years after, although apparently with diminishing enthusiasm. As late as 1439 he was still concerned with the struggle against the English, as was apparent when he espoused the cause of the False Pucelle, Jeanne des Armoises, and briefly put her in charge of his troops.
Whatever one chooses to think about the guilt or innocence of Gilles de Rais, dismissing his military achievements is not an option. It is doubtful whether Jehanne's Loire campaign could have succeeded without his strategic genius and reckless courage.