To commemorate Gilles de Rais Day, here is my attempt to tell the story of Gilles de Rais as a fairy tale. It is deliberately romanticized, but accurate.
Once upon a time there was a boy named Gilles de Rais. He was born in the Black Tower of the castle of Champtocé, the first-born of a wealthy and powerful family. He was destined for great things, but somehow his destiny went awry, as if he had been cursed by a wicked fairy or born under an evil star.
Gilles had all the material possessions he could have wished, but they did not prove a blessing to him. The one gift denied to him was good fortune. He would die at the age of 35, a death of such infamy that the ignorant would later call him Bluebeard.
His father died when he was ten years old, gored by a boar while hunting and brought home on a litter to die. His mother vanished from his life at the same time, possibly dying while giving birth to a second son, René. The two boys would grow up to be bitter enemies.
To complete an unlucky year, Gilles also lost his uncle Amaury, killed at the battle of Azincourt. Amaury de Craon was the only son of his maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon, who now found himself without a male heir. He filled the gap by snapping up the two orphaned brothers into his tender care, defying the last wishes of their father.
Craon was part diplomat, part robber baron, and promptly set about marrying young Gilles into even more money. His first attempts failed and legend later insisted that the first two chosen brides died. The third was Catherine de Thouars, a cousin to Gilles, although not a close one, and the match was banned by the Church on the grounds of consanguinity.
However, Craon was not the man to allow a minor matter like incest to thwart his dynasty-building schemes. He took the direct route to the solution, having the sixteen-year-old girl kidnapped so that Gilles could rape her. After more kidnapping and bribery, and the threat to sew Catherine's mother into a sack and drown her in the river, the pair were able to marry legally. They had one child, a daughter, Marie.
The backdrop to young Gilles' life was not a peaceful one. He had been born in France, but he was also the Baron of Rais, in the Duchy of Brittany. France was torn by the Hundred Years War, and the country north of the Loire was occupied by English troops. Brittany, by means of some able politicking by its Duke, managed to stay out of the war with England but had its own problems in the form of the Breton wars of succession.
Now, Gilles had been trained as a knight, as befitted his noble station, and had his first experience of war at sixteen, in the service of his Duke, who had been imprisoned by a rival. Gilles and his grandfather liberated him and were handsomely rewarded.
As a Baron of Brittany, Gilles might have held aloof from the war with England. But, whether from love of France, or a desire for war and adventure, or simple perverseness, he espoused the cause of the impoverished Dauphin.
At much the same time as Gilles was casting off the black and gold arms of Rais to fight for France, a strange figure appeared at the Dauphin's court in Chinon – a maiden in male attire, astride a horse, claiming to have been sent by God to save France. There was an old prophecy that France had been lost by a harlot – the Dauphin's mother, who disputed his legitimacy – and would be saved by a virgin. Since the royal plight had never been so desperate, it must have been felt that the freakish tomboy from Domrémy could do no harm and might do much good.
Thus Gilles de Rais met Joan of Arc.
Cover of Jehanne La Pucelle by Paul Gillon
Joan was entrusted into his care, apparently at her own request. Gilles was a fierce warrior in his own right; with the Maid he was undefeatable. The town of Orléans had been under siege for months. Joan and Gilles liberated it in three days. They cut a swathe through the Loire valley, clearing the way to Reims so that the Dauphin could be crowned King Charles VII. On the same day, Gilles was made a Marshal of France; he was not yet twenty-five years old.
This was to prove the zenith of his life. The only way for him, and for Joan, was down.
The capital, Paris, was occupied by the Burgundian allies of the English. Joan badly wanted to free it, but she failed. She was injured in the attempt and Gilles tended to her, not for the first time. The King, whose heart was never in this particular enterprise, disbanded the army. Joan was never to see Gilles, or any of her captains, again. When she was pulled from her horse at Compiègne and captured by the enemy, she was fighting her own guerrilla war, unsupported by the King. History has blamed Gilles, who was not present and probably knew nothing of her private campaign, for failing to save her. Probably he blamed himself.
Joan was put on trial at Rouen and Gilles certainly planned a rescue attempt; he was at Louviers, just across the river, with an army. But the plan miscarried and Joan was burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic.
Her death shattered Gilles. He continued to fight for France, but with diminishing enthusiasm. He fades into the shadows. What he did with his time in the eight or so years remaining to him is hotly disputed to this day.
The one certainty is that, on the sixth anniversary of the liberation of Orléans, he organized a colossal play as part of the celebrations. It was performed on multi-tiered trestles throughout the town and it is said that there were fountains that flowed with wine. No costume was worn more than once. The play was performed over and over, for several months. Gilles paid for everything.
Joan haunted his thoughts. Not long before his death, he even took a False Joan into his household, a double who claimed to be the Maid saved from the stake. But he had known Joan too well to fool himself for long.
Gilles was still a rich man, but he was spending money faster than the rents and taxes from his estates could accrue and was sometimes reduced to pawning his possessions. He had a private army to feed and house, his own chapel – the Chapel of the Holy Innocents – to furnish and equip with clergy and choristers, he gave alms lavishly, his hospitality was renowned, and he continued to pay actors and entertainers to amuse him and his retinue.
Inevitably, he began to sell his castles and land. But fewer estates meant less revenue. It also led to friction with his family, especially his younger brother René. Eventually his kinsfolk appealed to the King to declare Gilles prodigal and forbid anybody to buy his lands. And the King complied, weary of his talented marshal's unreliability.
Gilles could no longer sell his lands in France. However, the King's writ did not apply in Brittany. Gilles continued to deplete his inheritance, though selling only to the Duke and his Chancellor, the Bishop of Nantes. Under Breton law, it was illegal for the Duke to engage in this kind of transaction with his vassals; he got round this by using proxies.
At this point, Gilles had no friends or allies except, as he naively imagined, his cousin the Duke. His family had turned against him. The King had abandoned him as he had abandoned Joan. Gilles was alone and in need of money. Logically for that time, he turned to alchemy in the hope of transmuting base metals to gold.
Now, alchemy was perfectly lawful as an intellectual pursuit for the rich and bored, but the transmutation of metals was not. It was a minor crime, on a par with forgery, but Gilles had crossed a boundary with his spell books and furnaces. He was now on the wrong side of the law, and he knew it.
And here the tale of Gilles de Rais becomes murky. The events in his life lack all coherence. He was no longer a soldier, though he kept a small army. He dabbled in theatre and alchemy and religion, seeking diversion like a man whose true purpose in life had gone. He signed strange documents, one of them effectively disinheriting his wife and daughter. He seemed certain that his family was plotting against him, as indeed it was. He continued to sell his properties. He constantly returned to Orléans, the scene of his greatest triumph, where he felt happy and loved. His behaviour was that of a deeply unhappy man.
Some of his actions were inexplicable and violent. He kidnapped a priest who had been his boyhood tutor, on the flimsy pretext that the man had helped publish the King's writ. As if this were not enough to alienate the Church, he reclaimed the castle of Saint-Etienne-de-Mermorte, which he had sold to an official of the Duke. The key-holder was the purchaser's brother, a priest; Gilles raided the church where he was hearing Mass at Whitsun, captured him and had him open the gates of the castle, where he was imprisoned. He was joined in the dungeons by two of the Duke's officers.
Weeks before, at Easter, Gilles had made confession and insisted that the poor people present, who had stood back from the altar out of respect, should join him in holy communion. It is difficult to believe that this is the same man as the one who entered the church at Saint-Etienne-de-Mermorte waving a battleaxe and shouting threats.
In one moment of madness, he had offended against the Church and the Duchy of Brittany. He had already lost the support of the King. His family regarded him as an embarrassment or worse. There was nobody left to save him.
The Duke, who had long coveted certain of Gilles' castles, had his cousin and Chancellor the Bishop make certain enquiries. What emerged resulted in France's greatest hero, after Joan of Arc, being brought to trial in Brittany for horrible crimes, condemned, and executed like a common felon.
He stood accused of heresy, devil worship, alchemy and much worse. It was said that children disappeared in the vicinity of his castles, never to be seen again. Mysteriously, everybody knew exactly what happened to them – they were murdered in horribly inventive ways after being sexually assaulted, and then burned and their ashes scattered. Or possibly they were sacrificed to the Devil.
Gilles was arrested at his castle of Machecoul, in Brittany. Although it was capable of withstanding a siege, he gave himself up without resistance. Probably he imagined that he was being summoned to explain his conduct at Saint-Etienne-de-Mermorte.
He was taken to the Duke's castle in Nantes to await trial, along with his two body servants, his Italian alchemist, and his household priest. There he awaited his appearance before an ecclesiastical tribunal, with the Bishop of Nantes presiding. He was treated well and behaved politely in court, but he had only been told of the charge of heresy. When, a month later, he was read the other charges, he lost his temper and raged against his judges. He refused to take an oath and was excommunicated.
Gilles was a religious man. Excommunication meant that he was excluded from the Church and would go to Hell should he die excommunicate. Aware that he was certainly facing death, Gilles had no real choice; he admitted to all the charges. His two servants had already been tortured into confessing; his account follows theirs exactly. He testified twice, one in private and once in court, and it is certain that he endured torture in between the two confessions.
The story that, at the most ghastly part of his confession, the Bishop rose and veiled the crucifix is just that, fiction. But the account he gave was lurid enough.
Since the Church officially could not shed blood, Gilles was brought before a civil court for sentencing. It was decided that he and his two body servants would be hanged and burned the next day. Because of his penitence, he was allowed extraordinary concessions; the people of Nantes would accompany him to the gallows, praying for his soul, and he would be taken from the pyre intact and interred in a church of his choice. The sentence of excommunication was also lifted.
And so ended the life of Gilles de Rais, in much the same manner as his companion Joan of Arc. He died an exemplary Christian death, and was entombed among the great Breton heroes and rulers. It is said that the noble ladies who prepared him for burial removed some of his bones to keep as relics. Later an expiatory monument was built at the site of the gallows and mothers visited it to ask for abundant milk for their babies. A similar cult grew up around his tomb. The odour of sanctity around his death is strangely disturbing.