Gilles de Rais (1404-1440)

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Gilles de Rais (1404-1440)

Lord of Rais (or Retz) and marshal of France, the "Blue-beard" of nursery legends, and a famous sorcerer. He was born Gilles de Laval in September or October 1404 at Machecoul to one of the most outstanding families of Brittany. His father, Guy de Montmorency-Laval, died when Gilles was 20 years old, and the impetuous young man found himself possessed of unlimited power and wealth.

After his father's death he became Gilles de Rais, the lord of 15 princely domains, yielding a revenue of 300,000 livres. He was handsome and distinguished by a beard of bluish-black. His appearance was fascinating, his erudition extensive, and his courage unimpeachable. All this seemed to ensure him a splendid career, yet the name of Bluebeard came to be associated with horror and atrocious crimes.

At the outset of his career de Rais did nothing to suggest an evil predisposition. He served with zeal and gallantry in the wars of Charles VI against the English and fought under Joan of Arc in the Siege of Orléans. His exploits won him the dignified title marshal of France.

From that point de Rais's career drifted downward. He retired to his castle of Champtocé and indulged in the display of his luxury. Two hundred horsemen accompanied him on his travels, and the magnificence of his hunting entourage exceeded that of the king himself. His retainers wore the most sumptuous clothing; his horses were caparisoned with the richest trappings; his castle gates were open day and night to all comers. A whole ox was roasted daily for his guests. Sheep, pigs, poultry, mead, and hippocras (wine) were provided for five hundred persons.

De Rais carried the same love of pomp into his devotion. His principal chaplain, a dean, a chanter, two archdeacons, four vicars, a schoolmaster, twelve assistant chaplains, and eight choristers comprised his ecclesiastical establishment. Each of these had his own horse and servant; all were dressed in robes of scarlet and furs and had costly appointments. Sacred vessels and crucifixes, all of gold and silver, were transported with them wherever their lord went, as were many organs, each carried by six men. De Rais was intent on having all the priests of his chapel wear the mitre; he sent many embassies to Rome to obtain this privilege, but without success.

He maintained a choir of 25 young children of both sexes, who were instructed in singing by the best masters of the day. He also had comedians, morris dancers, and jugglers, and every hour was crowned with some sensual gratification or voluptuous pleasure.

In 1420 Lord de Rais wedded Catherine, the heiress of the noble House of Thouars. The wedding afforded him a fresh occasion to display his passion for luxurious pomp. He gave splendid banquets and participated in chivalric tournaments.

History or Legend?

From this point on it is difficult to separate fact from popular tradition. The folklore version of the horrific events that transpired is related by Éliphas Lévi in The History of Magic (1913). Lévi writes: "He had espoused a young woman of high birth and kept her practically shut up in his castle at Machecoul, which had a tower with the entrance walled up."

Since de Rais had spread a report that the tower was in a ruinous state, no one sought to enter it. Madame de Raiswho was frequently alone during the dark hourssaw red lights moving to and fro in the tower but did not venture to question her husband, whose bizarre and somber character filled her with terror.

De Rais's expenses were so extensive that they eventually exhausted even his apparently inexhaustible revenues, and to procure the funds for his pleasures and extravagance he was compelled to sell several of his baronies.

For de Rais, unable to live in diminished splendor, money became the principal object of desire, and to obtain it he decided to turn to alchemy.

He sent accordingly into Italy, Spain, and Germany and invited the alchemical experts to the splendors of Champtocé. Among those who obtained the summonses, and continued attached to de Rais during the remainder of his career, was Prélati, an alchemist of Padua. At their instigation de Rais built a stately laboratory and, joined by other alchemists, they eagerly began the search for the philosophers' stone. For 12 months the furnaces blazed brightly and a thousand chemical combinations disposed of the marshal's gold and silver.

Impetuous, de Rais could not abide such lingering processes. He wanted wealth and he wanted it immediately. If the grand secret could not be discovered by any quicker method, he would have none of it, nor, as his resources were fast melting away, would it avail him much if the search occupied several years. At this junction the Poitousan physician and the Paduan alchemist whispered to de Rais that there were quicker methods of obtaining the desired alkahest if he had the courage to adopt them.

De Rais immediately dismissed the inferior alchemists and put himself in the hands of the two abler and subtler masters, one a physician. They persuaded him that the devil could at once reveal to them the secret and offered to summon him so that the marshal could conclude with him whatever arrangement he thought best. Short of sacrificing his soul, the lord of Rais professed himself willing to do anything the devil might command.

In this frame of mind he went to the physician at midnight to a solitary spot in the neighboring woods where the physician drew a magic circle and made the customary conjurations. De Rais listened to the invocation with wonder, expecting that at any moment the Spirit of Darkness would burst upon the startled silence. After a lapse of 30 minutes, the physician manifested signs of the greatest alarmhis hair seemed to stand on end, his eyes glared with unutterable horror, he talked wildly, his knees shook, a deadly pallor overspread his countenance, and he sank to the ground.

The lord of Rais was a dauntless man and gazed upon the strange scene unmoved. After awhile the physician seemed to recover. He arose and, turning to his master, inquired if he had not seen the wrathful countenance of the devil. De Rais replied that he had seen no devil, whereupon the physician declared that the Evil One had appeared in the form of a wild leopard and had growled at him horribly.

Lévi quotes the physician: "You would have been the same, and heard the same, but for your want of faith. You could not determine to give yourself up wholly to his service, and therefore he thrust a mist before your eyes." De Rais acknowledged that his resolution had indeed somewhat faltered, but said that he would believe if the Evil One could really be coerced into revealing the secret of the universal alkahest.

The physician said certain herbs grew in Spain and Africa that possessed the power necessary to coerce the devil, and offered to go in search of them himself if the lord of Rais would supply the funds. Since no one else would be able to identify the herbs, de Rais thanked the physician for volunteering and loaded him with all the gold he could spare. The man then took leave of his credulous patron, who never saw him again.

As soon as the physician left Champtocé, de Rais was once more seized with the fever of unrest. His days and nights were consumed in ceaseless visions of gold.

He now turned for help to the alchemist Prélati, who agreed to undertake the enterprise if de Rais furnished him with the necessary charms and talismans. The marshal was to sign with his blood a contract that he would obey the devil in all things and offer up a sacrifice of the hands, eyes, blood, heart, and lungs of a young child. The madman having willingly consented to these terms, Prélati went out alone on the following night. After an absence of three hours, he returned to his impatient lord. His tale was a monstrously extravagant one, but de Rais believed it.

The devil, Prélati improvised, had appeared in the shape of a comely young man of 20 who desired to be called "Barron" and had pointed out to him a store of ingots of pure gold buried under an oak in the adjacent woods. It was to become the property of the lord of Rais if he fulfilled the conditions of his contract. But this bright prospect was clouded by the devil's injunction that the gold was not to be searched for until a period of seven times seven weeks had elapsed, or it would turn to slates and dust.

Gilles was by no means willing to wait so many months for the realization of his wishes and asked Prélati to inform the devil that he would decline any further dealings with him if matters could not be expedited. Prélati persuaded de Rais to wait for seven times seven days, and then the two went with pickax and shovel to dig up the treasure.

They eventually dug up a load of slates inscribed with hieroglyphical characters. Prélati broke into a fit of rage and branded the Evil One a liar, a knave, and a roguede Rais heartily joining in his fierce denunciations. Prélati persuaded his master to give the devil a further trial, however, and led him on from day to day with dark oracular hints and pretended demoniac intimations until he had obtained nearly all de Rais's remaining valuables. He was preparing to escape with his plunder when a catastrophe occurred that involved him in his lord's ruin.

On Easter Day in the year 1440, Gilles de Rais received Communion solemnly in his chapel and bade farewell to his wife, telling her that he was departing to the Holy Land. The poor woman was even then afraid to question her husband. She was also several months along in her pregnancy. The marshal permitted her sister to come on a visit as a companion during his absence. Madame de Rais took advantage of this indulgence, after which de Rais mounted his horse and departed.

Madame de Rais communicated her fears and anxieties to her sister. The two women wondered what went on in the castle. Why was her lord so gloomy? What signified his repeated absences? What became of the children who disappeared day by day? What were those nocturnal lights in the walled-up tower? These and other questions caused both women to burn with curiosity. But what could they do?

The marshal had expressly forbidden them even to approach the tower, and before leaving he had repeated this injunction. It must surely have a secret entrance, Madame de Rais and her sister Anne agreed, and they proceeded to search through the lower rooms of the castle, corner by corner, stone after stone. At last, in the chapel, behind the altar, they came upon a copper button hidden in a mass of sculpture. It yielded under pressure, a stone slid back, and the trembling curiosity seekers distinguished the lowermost steps of a staircase, which led them to the condemned tower.

At the top of the first flight there was a kind of chapel, with an inverted cross and black candles; on the altar stood a hideous figure, no doubt representing the devil. On the second floor they came upon furnaces, retorts, alembics, charcoalall the apparatuses of alchemy. The third flight led to a dark chamber where the heavy and fetid atmosphere compelled the young women to retreat. Madame de Rais bumped into a vase, which fell over. She then became aware that her robe and feet were soaked by some thick liquid. On returning to the light at the head of the stairs, she found that she was bathed in blood.

Anne would have fled from the place, but Madame de Rais's curiosity was stronger than her disgust and fear. She descended the stairs, took a lamp from the infernal chapel, and returned to the third floor, where a frightful spectacle awaited her. Copper vessels filled with blood lined the whole length of the walls, bearing labels with a date on each. In the middle of the room was a black marble table on which lay the body of a child, obviously murdered recently. It was one of the gory basins that had fallen, and black blood spread over the grimy and worm-eaten wooden floor.

The two women were horrified. Madame de Rais endeavored at all costs to destroy the evidence of her indiscretion. She used a sponge and water to wash the boards, but she only extended the stain, and that which at first seemed black became all scarlet. Suddenly a loud commotion echoed through the castle, mixed with the cries of people calling to Madame de Rais: "Here is Monseigneur come back!" The two women made for the staircase, but at the same moment they were aware of footsteps and the sound of other voices in the devil's chapel. Sister Anne fled upward to the battlement of the tower; Madame de Rais rushed down the stairs trembling and found herself face to face with her husband, accompanied by an apostate priest and Prélati.

De Rais seized his wife by the arm and without speaking, dragged her into the infernal chapel. According to Lévi, Prélati told the marshal: "It is needs must, as you see, and the victim has come of her own accord." "Be it so," answered his master. "Begin the Black Mass." The apostate priest went to the altar while de Rais opened a little cupboard inside and drew out a large knife. He sat down close to his swooning spouse, who was crumpled in a heap on a bench against the wall. The sacrilegious ceremonies began.

Lévi explains that the marshal, instead of taking the road to Jerusalem, had proceeded only to Nantes, where Prélati lived, and had attacked the miserable traitor with the utmost fury, threatening to slay him if he did not reveal the means of extracting from the devil the long-sought gold. Stalling, Prélati declared that terrible conditions were required by the infernal master; first would be the sacrifice of the marshal's unborn child, after tearing it from the mother's womb. De Rais made no reply but returned at once to Machecoul, the Florentine sorcerer and his accomplice the priest on his heels.

Meanwhile, Anne, left to her own devices on the roof of the tower and not daring to come down, had used her veil to send distress signals. These were answered by two cavaliers accompanied by a posse of armed men, who were riding toward the castle. They proved to be her two brothers, who, on learning of the spurious departure of the marshal for Palestine, had come to visit and console Madame de Rais. Soon after, they arrived with a clatter in the court of the castle, Lévi narrates, whereupon Lord de Rais suspended the hideous ceremony and said to his wife:

"Madame, I forgive you, and [put] the matter at an end between us if you do now as I tell you. Return to your apartment, change your garments, and join me in the guest-room, whither I am going to receive your brothers. But if you say one word, or cause them the slightest suspicion, I will bring you hither on their departure; we shall proceed with the Black Mass at the point where it is now broken off, and at the consecration you will die. Mark where I place this knife."

De Rais rose and led his wife to the door of her chamber, then received her brothers, saying their sister was preparing herself to come and greet them. Madame de Rais appeared almost immediately, pale as a specter. Her husband never took his eyes off her, seeking to control her by his glance. When her brother suggested that she was ill, says Lévi, she answered that it was the fatigue of pregnancy, but added in an undertone, "Save me, he seeks to kill me."

At the same moment Sister Anne rushed into the hall, crying, "Take us away; save us, my brothers, this man is an assassin," and she pointed to de Rais. The marshal summoned his men, but the visitors' escort surrounded the women with drawn swords. The marshal's people disarmed instead of obeying him. Madame de Rais, with her sister and brothers, crossed the drawbridge and left the castle.

Terrible rumors spread through all the countryside. Many young girls and boys had disappeared; some had been traced to the castle of Champtocé and not beyond. The public accused de Rais of murder and of crimes even worse than murder. It was true that no one dared openly accuse a baron so powerful as the lord of Rais. Whenever the disappearance of so many children was mentioned in his presence, he reacted with the greatest astonishment. Suspicions aroused are not easily allayed, however, and the castle of Champtocé and its lord had acquired a fearful reputation and were shrouded in mystery.

The continued disappearance of young boys and girls had caused so bitter a feeling in the neighborhood that the church felt compelled to intervene. At the urging of the bishop of Nantes, the duke of Brittany ordered de Rais and his accomplices arrested.

De Rais's Trial

Their trial took place before a commission composed of the bishop of Nantes, the chancellor of Brittany, the vicar of the Inquisition, and Pierre l'Hôpital, the president of the provincial parliament. De Rais was accused of sorcery, sodomy, and murder. At first he stood his ground, denouncing his judges as worthless and impure and declaring that rather than plead before such shameless knaves he would be hung like a dog, without trial. But overwhelming evidence brought against him day after dayterrible revelations by Prélati and de Rais's servants about his unquenchable sexual lust, his sacrifices of young children for the supposed gratification of the devil, and the ferocious pleasure with which he gloated over the throbbing limbs and glazing eyes of those who were the victims of both his sensuality and his crueltyshook even de Rais's imperturbability and he confessed everything.

The final count showed that 140 children had fallen victim to de Rais and his insane lust for the philosophers' stone. Both de Rais and Prélati were doomed to be burned alive, but in consideration of rank, the punishment of the marshal was somewhat mitigatedhe was strangled before he was given over to the flames.

The sentence was executed at Nantes, on October 26, 1440. The chronicler Monstrelet states:

"Notwithstanding his many and atrocious cruelties, he made a very devout end, full of penitence, most humbly imploring his Creator to have mercy on his manifold sins and wickedness. When his body was partly burned, some ladies and damsels of his family requested his remains of the Duke of Brittany, that they might be interred in holy ground, which was granted. The greater part of the nobles of Brittany, more especially those of his kindred, were in the utmost grief and confusion at his shameful death."

The records of the trial and judgment are preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and at Nantes.

The castle of Champtocé stands in a beautiful valley, and many a romantic legend flowers about its gray old walls. Novelist Anthony Trollope described it thus:

"The hideous, half-burnt body of the monster himself circled in flames, pale, indeed, and faint in colour, but more lasting than those the hangman kindled around his mortal form in the meadow under the walls of Nantesis seen on bright moonlight nights, standing now on one topmost point of craggy wall, now on another, and is heard mingling his moan with the sough of the night-wind. Pale, bloodless forms, too, of youthful growth and mien, the restless, unsepulchred ghosts of the unfortunates who perished in these dungeons unassoiled, may at similar times be seen flitting backwards and forwards in numerous groups across the space enclosed by the ruined walls, with more than mortal speed, or glancing hurriedly from window to window of the fabric, as still seeking to escape from its hateful confinement."


Bataille, Georges. Procès de Gilles de Rais. Paris, 1959.

Gabory, Emile. Alias Bluebeard. New York: Brewer & Warren, 1930.

Lévi, Éliphas. The History of Magic. London: Rider, 1913.

Wilson, Thomas. Blue-Beard: A Contribution to History & Folk-Lore. London, 1899. Reprint, New York: B. Blom, 1971. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1981.

Wolf, Leonard. Bluebeard: The Life & Crimes of Gilles de Rais. New York: Crown, 1980.

de Rais, Gilles (1404-1440)

views updated May 11 2018

de Rais, Gilles (1404-1440)

Gilles de Rais, a fifteenth-century French military hero, serial killer, and occultist, was born at the chateau de Camptocé, the family estate near Nantes, France. He was the son of Guy XI de Montmorency-Laval, the Baron de Rais, and Marie deCraon. They both died in 1415 when Gilles was 11 years old, and Gilles and his younger brother were placed in the care of their grandfather, Jean de Craon. In 1417 he was betrothed to a rich heiress, Jeanne Peynel, then four years old. However, the arrangement was put aside and in 1419, Gilles was married to Catherine de Thouars, another wealthy heiress. Unfortunately, Catherine was a cousin, and only after a papal dispensation were they remarried in 1422 with the blessing of the church.

During the later 1420s, de Rais began to make a name for himself in the French wars with England, who held Normandy and had advanced south and east. He was among the leaders in the king's army in 1429 when the visionary Jeanne d'Arc appeared and convinced the king that she had a role to play in the wars. She led the French army in the recapture of Orleans and de Rais was at her side when she was wounded. He followed her to Reims and at the subsequent coronation of Charles VII, was an honor guard. At the age of 25, he was named a marshall. The war with England, after initial success, climaxed with the betrayal of the youthful commander and her execution by the British in 1431. During that time, de Rais' streak of cruelty manifested when he ordered the wholesale slaughter of prisoners of war. That same year, his grandfather died and he became master of the family estates.

Now one of the wealthiest men in Europe, following his victory at Lagny he retired to his estate, where he lived an ostentatious life and began to practice alchemy and magic, in part to replenish the money he was spending to support his lavish lifestyle. He also entered into the ranks of world-class villains by his habit of kidnapping and torturing male children. His hero status, wealth, and aristocratic rank kept him protected from any repercussions of his crimes. However, his arrogance and grandiosity caught up with him.

In 1440 he insulted Geoffroi de Ferron, the powerful treasurer of the neighboring province of Brittany by having his brother beaten and imprisoned. As a result of the complaint, de Rais was summoned to an inquiry by the Bishop of Nantes and the Inquisitor General. The man who had been beaten, a priest, charged him with heresy. The charges were later extended to include his practice of black magic and his rape and killing of the children. Those in charge of the prosecution had powerful friends and would be able to confiscate some of de Rais' estate if he were convicted. To increase the body of evidence, both de Rais and his servants were tortured. While much of the evidence would be unacceptable in a modern court, enough was available to convict de Rais of infanticide and murder. The exact number of children he killed will never be known, but several hundred were well documented. Additional hundreds less so. He was executed on October 23, 1440. He would later be called Bluebeard, seemingly because of his black beard that contrasted sharply with his blond hair.


Wolf, Leonard. Bluebeard. New York: C. N. Potter, 1980.

Wyndham Lewis, W. D. The Soul of Marshall Gilles de Rais. London: Eyre & Spottiswood, 1952.

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