In France, Gilles de Rais is remembered both for his service as a war hero with the French army and for murdering more than 100 children.
The 15th century nobleman Gilles de Rais has a complicated legacy in his homeland of France.
He is remembered for his service as a war hero who led the French army, alongside the French national hero Joan of Arc, to defeat the Kingdom of England and its allies in the Hundred Years’ War.
He is also remembered for murdering over 100 young children, a crime that inspired the enduring myth of Bluebeard.
Gilles de Rais was born in 1405 as the son of nobles in the area of Rais, part of the larger region of Brittany in France. As a child he was bright. He wrote illuminating manuscripts, spoke Latin fluently, and learned military tactics.
When he was 10, his parents died, and he was put in the custody of his grandfather, a noted political schemer. Rais’ grandfather married him off to Catherine de Thouars of Brittany, a wealthy heiress who greatly increased his fortune.
Rais got wrapped up in the massive conflict between the Kingdom of France and the Kingdom of England, that would come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War, when his home region of Brittany became a disputed territory between the two kingdoms.
He fought alongside Joan of Arc when the French army rescued the city of Orleans from an English siege, a major turning point in the war, as well as in the battles of battles of Jargeau and Patay.
After Joan was captured by the English and burned at the stake and with the definitive victory of the French over the English in 1435, Rais receded from the military and public life.
In 1440, an argument between Rais and a cleric at the Church of Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte resulted in his abduction of the priest. The church then launched an investigation and found that over the previous eight years, Rais had been engaging in some of the most heinous acts imaginable.
Church officials and secular lawmen interviewed his body servants, who claimed he had raped and murdered over 100 young children, mainly boys.
Two French clerics testified that Rais had sought individuals who knew alchemy and demon-summoning to learn the arts for himself. They said that he attempted to summon a demon several times, and once procured the body parts of a child for a summoning.
Rais’ two servants admitted to abducting children for him, and watched him masturbate on and molest young boys before decapitating them.
Several peasants from neighboring villages also came forward to state that their children had gone missing after begging at his castle.
In one instance, a furrier relayed how his 12-year-old apprentice had been borrowed by his cousins and never seen again.
Rais even confessed to the crimes, under threat of torture, saying that “when the said children were dead, he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs.”
Experts estimate that Rais killed between 80 and 200 children, most of them boys.
On October 26, 1440, he was hanged.
For centuries, people accepted the Church’s narrative as to the crimes committed by Gilles, with him even acting as the inspiration for the 1697 fairy tale “Bluebeard”.
However, in the last decade some have begun to dispute his guilt.
Though throughout history people, like King Charles VII, pamphleteers in the French Revolution, and 1920s essayist Salomon Reinach, have contested the Church’s ruling, it is only recently that the movement gained a greater foothold.
English writer Margot K. Juby recently published a book claiming Rais’ innocence, citing the torture the ecclesial court used in obtaining confessions, as well as the lack of any physical evidence presented at the time of the over 100 murders he is said to have committed.
“It seems impossibly quaint in the 21st-century to read a text that fully accepts the validity of an Inquisition trial with the use of torture,” Juby said in reference to modern scholarship that asserts his’ guilt.
Furthermore, the Duke of Brittany, who prosecuted the secular case, received all the titles to his former lands after his conviction.
In 1992 a French Freemason organized a court of former French ministers, parliament members, and UNESCO experts to reopen the trial and retry Rais based on the evidence from his original trial.
They came back with a verdict of not guilty.
With the evidence available to us today, it is really impossible to know for certain whether or not Rais committed these horrifying crimes.
Unless further evidence proving or refuting his guilt come to light, more than 500 years after his death, Rais will remain a disputed, but prominent, figure of French history.