Was Gilles De Rais One Of The Greatest Killers Ever?

Apr 7, 2023 | Crime, Dark History

April 7, 2023
12 min read

There is an old French folktale about a wealthy nobleman named Bluebeard. He has been married several times, but each of his wives mysteriously disappears, only to be replaced by a new wife. One day, his newest wife finds a secret room. Upon opening the door, she is horrified to find the mutilated bodies of her new husband’s previous wives.

On the one hand, this old tale is a chilling reminder to be careful who you marry. However, it also paints a terrifying scene that allows readers to step into the shoes of a potential murder victim that has realized that they are only one of many who have met a similar fate.

This scenario captures the exact feeling that hundreds of victims may have faced when they met their end at the hands of the real-life inspiration for this tale — Gilles de Rais.

Orphaned and Manipulated

Gilles de Rais was born around 1405 in the Brittany region of France. As a child, he was well-educated, spoke Latin, and even learned military tactics. At 10 years old, his parents both died within a few months of each other, and Rais was sent to live with his grandfather, Jean de Craon.

Gilles de Rais. Charles Barbant, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

From the start, Craon plotted to use his young grandson as a pawn to increase his own wealth and power. He attempted to marry the 12-year-old off to young girls (at one point to a four-year-old girl) from the wealthiest families in the area, but after several failed attempts, Rais was married to his cousin, the heiress Catherine de Thouars.

This marriage drastically increased young Rais’ wealth and social standing. As a young man, Rais earned the favor of the Duke of Brittany and was welcomed into the French court.

Protector of a Saint

In addition to being a wealthy socialite, Rais served as a commander for French forces in the Hundred Years’ War. Recognized for his skill and bravery on the battlefield, he was tasked with protecting possibly the most famous combatant of the war — none other than Joan of Arc.

Together they fought in several campaigns, including the famous Siege of Orléans. While recognized for being fearless in battle, Rais also gained an unpleasant reputation for enjoying the brutality of war more than he should. Despite this, he was rewarded for his dangerous exploits with the high-ranking and prestigious position of Marshal of France.

Gilles de Laval, sire de Rais, compagnon de Jeanne d’Arc, Maréchal de France (1404–1440). Éloi Firmin Féron, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After Joan of Arc’s capture and public execution in 1431, Rais completed a few more campaigns before retiring from the military and public life in 1435.

Poor Financial Habits Catch Up

By the early to mid-1430s, Rais had developed a habit of spending money beyond his means. While he did contribute to building churches and even a cathedral, he spent excessively on lavish items and made several poor investments.

One peculiar case of his poor spending came in the form of a massive play that he created and starred in called “The Mystery of the Siege of Orléans.” With hundreds of extras, thousands of lines of dialogue, and costumes for all players, this bizarre performance was the definition of excess. Rais even paid for extravagant food and drink for all in attendance.

His poor financial decisions eventually caught up to him, and he began selling assets to avoid bankruptcy. Borrowing money using items belonging to his family as collateral, Rais had a difficult time keeping up with his debts. Even the King publicly decreed that Rais was a spendthrift and forbade anyone from entering contracts with him.

Attracting an Investigation

On May 15, 1440, Rais was involved in some kind of argument or altercation with a priest and had the man kidnapped. Of course, this did not go unnoticed, and the Bishop of Nantes quickly launched an investigation into Rais. His findings were brought to the Duke of Brittany, who then launched a secular investigation.

It wasn’t until September 15, 1440, that Rais and two of his bodyguards were arrested on charges of murder, heresy, sodomy, conjuring up demons, and abuse of clerical privilege.

Trial and Horrific Testimonies

Over 100 witnesses testified at the trial, including peasants, servants, nobility, and members of the cleric. Over the past several years, boys in the region had gone missing, and the witnesses were ready to point fingers at Rais.

Parents testified that their children were last seen begging near his castle. Rais’ own servants testified that they were involved and had helped him to abduct boys ranging in age from six to 18 years old. Trial documents presented that since 1432, over the past eight years, Rais was responsible for the murder of up to 150 boys.

Gilles de Retz, le vampire de Bretagne. Louis Bombled, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Servants described how the children were brought to Rais who would take them to a secret room. Here he would sexually assault and torture them before horrifically murdering them. They claimed children were killed by various means, including decapitation, dismemberment, disembowelment, and bludgeoning. Once killed, Rais would sometimes sexually assault them again before having the bodies burned.

Members of the clergy testified that Rais had found help from sorcerers and necromancers to summon a demon to his castle. To do so, he would need human sacrifices, which is why he must have abducted the boys. Some even said that he wanted to sell his soul to the devil for the ability to make gold to pay off his debts.

Rais’ Confession, Conviction, and Execution

The court planned to torture him into confessing but never got the chance to. On October 21, 1440, Rais confessed to killing, or ordering the killing, of hundreds of children since 1432.

Gilles de Laval Lord of Rais performs sorcery on his victims. Valentin Foulquier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He claimed that not only was he guilty of torturing and killing the boys, but that he enjoyed it. Rais described how he kept some severed heads on display in his castle as trophies, and would sometimes kiss the ones he found attractive.

As a devout Catholic, he vehemently denied involvement in summoning demons or worshipping the devil. Reportedly, he even cried when threatened with ex-communication from the church.

With his confession, he was found guilty of murder, sodomy, and heresy and sentenced to death by hanging and burning. Two of his servants who had testified of their involvement were also sentenced to death.

Upon his request, Rais was granted a last confession and was allowed to be buried in the graveyard of Notre Dames des Carmes.

On October 26, 1440, he and two of his servants were led to their execution. Rais spoke to the crowd and professed his faith before telling his servants to think of their salvation and die bravely.

Exécution de Gilles de Rais (gibet et bûcher), circa 1530. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rais was hanged, but his body was removed from the fire before it was completely burned. His family collected his remains.

Modern View and Legacy

For centuries, no one gave much thought to whether Rais was guilty as he had confessed and been convicted. However, modern scholars speculate that he may have been innocent.

While confessions under torture were widely accepted during Rais’ lifetime, we now know today that such confessions are unreliable. Out of fear of torture and ex-communication, Rais may have confessed to anything to avoid such a fate.

Also, no bodies or physical evidence were ever recovered, and Rais’ conviction was based solely on witness testimony and his own confession.

Why would he have been the target of such claims if he was innocent? Some believe it may have been a plot to seize his property. Interestingly, the Chief Prosecutor of the secular trial, the Duke of Brittany, received all of Rais’ titles and land after his execution.

Miniature representing the trial of Gilles de Rais. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, in 1992, a public retrial of this case was staged. The court comprised of French ministers, parliament members, and experts from UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). All available evidence and testimonies were reviewed and Rais was ultimately found not guilty. Unfortunately for Rais, this trial held no legal bearing to exonerate him.

As it’s been nearly 600 years since his conviction, we will likely never know with any certainty whether Rais was the victim of a sinister plot, or guilty of murdering and torturing hundreds. Regardless, his reputation has already been cemented in history as one of the most prolific killers of all time.


Originally published on Medium’s Lessons from History publication on April 3, 2023.


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