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Gilles de Rais

For the video game character named after Rais, see Gilles de Rais (Castlevania).

 Gilles de Rais (also spelled Retz) (September 10, 1404 – October 26, 1440) was a French noble, soldier, and one time brother-in-arms of Joan of Arc. He was later accused and ultimately convicted of torturing, raping and murdering dozens, if not hundreds, of young children, mainly boys. Along with Erzsébet Báthory, another sadistic aristocrat acting more than a century later, he is considered by some historians to be a precursor of the modern serial killer.


Early years

Rais was born in 1404 at Machecoul, near the border of Brittany. His father was Guy de Montmorency-Laval, who had inherited, via adoption, the fortunes of Jeanne de Rais and Marie de Craon. Gilles inherited the barony of Rais in the peerage-duchy of Rais (now spelled Retz). He was an intelligent child, learning fluent Latin. After the death of his parents circa 1415, Gilles was put under the tutelage of his godfather, Jean de Craon.

In 1420 he found himself at the court of the Dauphin, claimant to the crown of France. Jean de Craon sought to marry Rais off to the heiress Jeanne de Paynol; but this was unsuccessful. Jean de Craon then attempted to join Gilles with Beatrice de Rohan, niece of the Duke of Brittany, again with no success. Eventually he was able to substantially increase Rais's fortune by marrying him off to Catherine de Thouars of Brittany, heiress of La Vendée and Poitou, but only after first kidnapping her. Later stories connecting Rais with the legendary wife-murderer Bluebeard may have stemmed from the fact that two of several previous marriage schemes were thwarted by the death of the intended bride.

Rais took the side of the Montfort Dukes of Brittany against a rival house led by Olivier de Blois, Count of Penthievre, who took John VI, Duke of Brittany prisoner. He was able to secure the Duke's release, and was rewarded for this deed by generous land grants which the Breton parliament converted to monetary gifts.

Military career

  From 1427 to 1435, Rais served as a commander in the Royal Army, and in 1429 fought along with Joan of Arc in some of the campaigns waged against the English and their Burgundian allies. Although a few authors have tended to exaggerate the position he held during the latter campaigns, surviving bursary records show that he only commanded a personal contingent of some 25 men-at-arms and eleven archers, and was one of many dozens of such commanders.[1] Nor did he serve as Joan of Arc's bodyguard, a position actually held by Jean d'Aulon. Gilles's greatest honor during these campaigns came when he joined three other commanders in holding the quasi-ceremonial title of Maréchal, a subordinate position under the Royal Connétable. This honor was granted him at the coronation of Charles VII on July 17 1429.

In 1435 Rais retired from military service to his estates, promoting theatrical performances and exhausting the large fortune he had inherited. It was during this period that, according to trial testimony given by Gilles and his accomplices, he began to experiment with the occult under the direction of a man named Francesco Prelati, who promised Rais that he could help him regain his squandered fortune by sacrificing children to a demon called "Barron;" however, this story may have been encouraged at his trial as a contemporary attempt to find a rational explanation for the horrors he committed.

Investigation and execution

On May 15, 1440, Rais kidnapped a clergyman named Jean le Ferron during a dispute at the Church of Saint Étienne de Mer Morte. This prompted an investigation by the Bishop of Nantes, during which the investigators uncovered evidence of Gilles's crimes. On 29 July, the Bishop released his findings, and subsequently obtained the prosecutorial cooperation of Gilles's former protector, the Duke of Brittany. Action was now finally taken: on 24 August, Jean le Ferron was freed by Royal troops led by Arthur de Richemont. Gilles himself and his accomplices were arrested on 15 September, following a secular investigation which paralleled the findings of the Bishop of Nantes's earlier investigation. Rais's prosecution would likewise be conducted by both secular and ecclesiastical courts, on charges which included murder, sodomy, and heresy.

The extensive witness testimony convinced the judges that there were adequate grounds for establishing the guilt of the accused. After Gilles admitted to the charges on 21 October, the court canceled a plan to torture him into confessing. The transcript, which included testimony from the parents of many of the missing children as well as graphic descriptions of the murders provided by Rais's accomplices, was said to be so lurid that the judges ordered the worst portions to be stricken from the record.

According to surviving accounts, Rais lured children, mainly young boys who were blond haired and blue eyed (as he had been as a child), to his residences, and raped, tortured and mutilated them, often ejaculating via masturbation, over the dying victim. He and his accomplices would then set up the severed heads of the children in order to judge which was the most fair. The precise number of Rais's victims is not known, as most of the bodies were burned or buried. The number of murders is generally placed between 80 and 200; a few have conjectured numbers upwards of 600. The victims ranged in age from six to eighteen and included both sexes. Although Rais preferred boys, he would make do with young girls if circumstances required.

On 23 October, the secular court condemned Rais's accomplices, Henriet and Poitou. On the 25 October, the ecclesiastical court handed down a sentence of excommunication against Gilles, followed on the same day by the secular court's own condemnation of the accused. After tearfully expressing remorse for his crimes, Rais obtained rescindment of the Church's punishment and was allowed confession, but the secular penalty remained in place. Gilles de Rais, Henriet, and Poitou were hanged at Nantes on 26 October 1440.


Some authors have alleged that Gilles de Rais was framed for murder and heresy by elements within the Church as part of a diocesan plot to expropriate his lands. This theory is considered highly suspect by most historians since the Church stood little chance of acquiring said properties, and by the fact that title ultimately devolved to the Duke of Brittany, who in turn doled them out to such nobles as Arthur de Richemont. Moreover, his conviction was based on the detailed eyewitness accounts of his collaborators and the testimony of the parents of his numerous victims, thereby providing corroborated evidence to justify the verdict.[2] Any plot to dispossess him would have had to involve an improbable number of co-conspirators, as well as the unlikely complicity of numerous secular and Church officials. Similarly most historians consider the Duke of Brittany, who would have been the chief beneficiary of such a plot, to be an unlikely instigator of any such conspiracy, as he had long been a counselor and protector of de Rais. The Duke only consented to de Rais’ prosecution after two investigations had uncovered damning and irrefutable evidence of his guilt.

Anthropologist Margaret Murray and occultist Aleister Crowley are among those who have questioned the traditional account relayed to us by the ecclesiastic and secular authorities involved in the case. Murray, in her book The Witch-Cult of Western Europe (pp. 173-74), surmised that Gilles was a witch and follower of a fertility cult centered around the pagan goddess Diana. According to Murray, "Gilles de Rais was tried and executed as a witch and, in the same way, much that is mysterious in this trial can also be explained by the Dianic Cult." [3]

Mainstream historians reject Murray's theory; as Hugh Trevor-Roper put it [4] "The fancies of the late Margaret Murray need not detain us. They were justly, if irritably, dismissed by a real scholar as ‘vapid balderdash’ (C.L. Ewen, Some Witchcraft Criticisms, (1938)." Other historians who have taken issue with Murray's claims include Jeffrey Russell (who said Murray's theories were "riddled with fallacies" [5]), Jacqueline Simpson [6], Ronald Hutton, [7], G. L. Kitteredge, [8] Norman Cohn, [9] Keith Thomas [10] and Georges Bataille (e.g., The Trial of Gilles de Rais). They point out that her Dianic Cult theory does not fit with what is known of Gilles de Rais's crimes and trial. Murray's theory having been rejected by professional historians, its application to Rais is not commonly accepted; where Murray saw Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais as martyrs to an old religion, historians and recent scholars have tended to view the former as a devout Catholic convicted for political reasons by a pro-English court, and the latter as a Catholic who fell into depravity and crime.[11]

Undoubtedly, though, the most controversial source of information on Gilles de Rais remains a yet-to-be thoroughly authenticated cache of fragmentary documents believed to date from 1440 and finally published along with the trial proceedings in 1965 under the title Le procès de Gilles de Rais (translation by Klossowski, edition by Bataille). The salvaged documents purport to bear witness to Rais's own mind as the moment of his execution neared. Evidence from other sources suggests that he was able to write sufficiently well in Latin to have composed the document himself. It is also possible, though less likely, (considering the intimately confessional nature of the largest of the fragments) for them to have been redacted by a scribe at the request of Rais.


  • Bataille, Georges. The Trial of Gilles de Rais Amok Books. ISBN 978-1-878923-02-8
  • Benedetti, Jean. Gilles de Rais. Stein and Day. ISBN 978-0-8128-1450-7
  • Bordonove, Georges. Gilles de Rais. Pygmalion. ISBN 978-2-85704-694-3
  • Cebrián, Juan Antonio. El Mariscal de las Tinieblas. La Verdadera Historia de Barba Azul. Temas de Hoy. ISBN 978-84-8460-497-6 (Spanish)
  • Huysmans, Joris K. La Bas (Down There). Dover. ISBN 978-0-486-22837-2
  • Hyatte, Reginald. Laughter for the Devil: The Trials of Gilles De Rais, Companion-In-Arms of Joan of Arc (1440). Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. ISBN 978-0-8386-3190-4
  • Morgan, Val. The Legend of Gilles De Rais (1404-1440) in the Writings of Huysmans, Bataille, Plancon and Tournier (Studies in French Civilization, 29) Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 978-0-7734-6619-7
  • Nye, Robert. The Life and Death of My Lord, Gilles de Rais. Time Warner Books. ISBN 978-0-349-10250-4
  • Wolf, Leonard. Bluebeard: The Life and Times of Gilles De Rais. Potter. ISBN 978-0-517-54061-9
  • Hubert Lampo, De duivel en de maagd, 207 p., Amsterdam, Meulenhoff, 1988 (11e druk), ISBN 9029004452 (1e druk: ’s-Gravenhage, Stols, 1955).
  • Hubert Lampo, Le Diable et la Pucelle, 163 p., Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2002, ISBN 2-85939-765-5 (traduction française de De duivel en de maagd).


  1. ^
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  3. ^
  4. ^ Hugh Trevor-Roper, The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 1969
  5. ^ Jeffrey Russell, A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans, 1970.
  6. ^ Jacqueline Simpson, Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her and Why?, Folklore 105, 1994, pp. 89–96
  7. ^ Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1991, and The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999
  8. ^ G. L. Kitteredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, 1951. pp. 275, 421, 565
  9. ^ Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons, London: Pimlico, 1973
  10. ^ Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971 and 1997, pp. 514–517
  11. ^ W.P. Barrett, The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1932; Regine Pernoud & Marie Veronique Clin, Joan of Arc, Her Story, 1966; Françoise Meltzer, For Fear of the Fire: Joan of Arc and the Limits of Subjectivity, 2001.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Gilles_de_Rais". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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