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Gilles de Rais: Marshal & Monster

The horrors of Erzsébet Báthory were prefigured in a mediaeval maniac who was once Lord High Marshal of France. This monster, the richest sadist in Europe, still lurks in our subconscious fears today as Bluebeard. We look at the magick and mayhem surrounding Gilles de Rais.

On October 26th 1440 Gilles de Retz (Rais), otherwise known as Gilles de Laval – Marshal of France and relation to the ruling house of Brittany – was hanged on a gibbet above a roaring fire in the meadow of Biesse outside Nantes. Before the fire destroyed his remains he was placed into an iron coffin and conveyed by nuns to the Carmelite monastery in Nantes where he had asked to be buried. The reign of one of history's most brutal and sadistic child murderers had come to an end.

Born into a wealthy family, the young Gilles had excelled himself on the field of battle, defending the cause of King Charles VII and the French crown against the English in many battles between 1426 and 1433. He sank a large amount of his substantial fortune (he was reputed to be the richest nobleman in Europe!) into this cause, and was named amongst the most loyal servants of the King. In 1429 he played a major role in the expedition by Joan of Arc to deliver Orléans from the English, and was by her side when she was wounded outside the walls of Paris. He had the honour of carrying the oriflamme (the mediaeval French flag) at the coronation of the King in Rheims. His military prowess was supported by a clever mind and as a skilled strategist he was highly valued by the war-torn nation.

Then suddenly, on the death of his maternal grandfather Jean de Craon in 1432, he gave up all his esteem and his privileged positions at Court and retired to his estates in Brittany. There he somehow managed to fritter away vast amounts of his fortune, despite the addition of his wife, the heiress Catherine de Thouars', money. The most persistent notion we have is that he was powerfully attracted to black magick, and hired in all kinds of debauched souls to teach him the diabolic arts, including a priest called François Prelati, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in de Rais' activities but was later hanged for further misdemeanours against humanity. Gilles became obsessed with alchemy, and tried to use this to restore his dwindling funds. A famous story relates how he and his cousin, Gilles de Sillé, performed a black mass with a priest at the castle of Tiffauges, but that they ran off when the priest was beaten black and blue by an invisible assailant. This kind of story was to be attached to the name of Aleister Crowley in later days, a man who, perhaps significantly, was once banned from giving a lecture he had written about de Rais to the Oxford University Poetry Society.

The great dichotomy with de Rais is that for the most part he was a deeply religious man, excessively fond of the priestly life, and regularly saying prayers and litanies for the souls of those he killed. Before his execution he gave a long speech begging for God's mercy for his sins, and declaring that he had always been a good and noble man, devout in his prayers and an upholder of the faith. However, this purity was counterbalanced by a love of the Roman emperors, especially Tiberius and Caligula. He loved to read of their terrible exploits, and longed to recreate himself as a new Caesar in his own domains. This desire, coupled with his position and his egomania, led him into all kinds of sexual deviance and elaborate shows of his own extravagance and wealth.

As time went on the suffering peasants of the neighbouring villages began to offer up accusations that since their children had entered his castle to beg for food they had never been seen again. As he moved from castle to castle around his vast lands, the cries became louder and more insistent and eventually – in the villages surrounding his castle of Machecoul (or Malemort) – the storm broke. When Gilles tried to forcibly repossess his castle, which had been sold to Geoffroy de Ferron, treasurer to Jean V, Duke of Brittany, he flew into a rage at being denied entrance to what he saw as his own property. The keyholder of the castle, Geoffroy's brother Jean – a priest – was violently beaten, and the castle invaded.

At last the authorities had a wheel on which to break de Rais. Whilst his activities had been long suspected, as a respected nobleman it was not until he attacked both the royal house – by storming the castle – and the Church – by assaulting a priest – that he could be legally arrested. In September 1440 a deposition from the Duke of Brittany, supported by the Bishop of Nantes, arrived at the castle to arrest Gilles and his servants, of whom only two, named Henri Griart (known as Henriet) and Etienne Corillaut (called Poitou), did not flee. The prophecy of one of Gilles' astrologers – that he would be put into the hands of an abbot – had at last come true, though scarcely in the manner he could have expected. An intensely devout man, Gilles had always believed that the prophecy signified that he would end his days in a monastery. Instead it would send him to the gallows as a common criminal.

His crimes, however, were far from common. Initially repudiating the charges brought against him in an astonishing 47 paragraph indictment, he spent much of the early stages of the trial taunting his accusers, declaring that as he had made full confession to the Father Superior of the Carmelites – and was therefore fully absolved of all his sins – he was not required to confess anything to the court as well. And indeed the charge – abuse of clerical privilege – was originally more to do with his attempted repossession of the castle he had sold years before than any more perverse crimes, and were to be settled by corporal punishment and a hefty fine to those most aggrieved by his actions. This was of course before his servants spilled the beans.

As the trial continued, and his terrified servants finally surrendered their loyalty and confessed to their part in the slaughter of hundreds of young boys, Gilles changed his tune. Describing their master as sadistic and cruel, Henriet and Poitou told tales of how he delighted in bathing in the boys' blood and cutting off their heads himself so that he could wash his face and beard in the gore. They said he often had his servants stab a boy in the jugular so he could shower in the spurting blood. He sat on their chests and cut across part of their throats so they bled slowly to death. Others he hanged until they were nearly dead and then cut their throats. Still others had all their limbs cut off, or were ripped open so he could see their hearts and entrails. After death, all the bodies and their clothes were burned in the castle's great kitchen furnaces. The servants spoke of obscene torture and blood-splattered walls in each of his castles. When Gilles returned to the court, dressed from head to toe in white to indicate his repentance, to face the new charges of the conjuration of demons and sexual perversions against children, he lost all his bluster and arrogance, and – under the threat of excommunication for the crime of heresy – confessed to a list of terrible crimes and passions which still horrify us today.

His sexual preference for young children was made explicit in the cross-examination of the incredible 110 witnesses. To quote from the translation of the confession of his servants: 'In order to practise his debauches with said children, boys and girls, against the use of nature, [he] first with licentious passion took his rod in his left or right hand, rubbed it so it became erect and sticking out, then placed it between the thighs or legs of the said boys and girls, not bothering with the natural female receptacle, and rub his said rod or virile member on the belly of the said boys and girls with much gratification, heat and libidinous excitement, until he emitted his sperm on their stomach...'

Early reporters of the case suggest that Gilles de Rais suffered from a lycanthropic disease, or werewolfism, which made him feral, sexually depraved and bloodthirsty only at times, which certainly ties in with his everyday purity and devotion to his faith, whilst allowing a reason for his evil deeds. This does, however, suggest an attempt to excuse him his worst crimes, which of course would never do, would it?! He has been demonised on this score, and on the accusations of being a vampire, necrophiliac, skin-fetishist, cannibal and wife-murderer ever since his death, despite there being little or no evidence for any of this. The simple fact of this bizarre case is that for the crime of heresy alone – the practice of black magick – de Rais could have been condemned to death, and yet because he did not want to die with a guilty conscience he made a full confession of all his murders. The court certainly did not require him to mention them at all. They had enough evidence to condemn him already.

A curious addendum to the case of Gilles de Rais comes from the once respected – though now largely discredited – research of Dr Margaret Murray. In her book 'The Witch Cult in Western Europe', originally published in 1921, she comes to the conclusion that Gilles (and Joan of Arc) were members of a Dianic cult devoted to the Roman lunar deity Diana, the virgin huntress. Murray claimed that this explained why none of her erstwhile supporters (including de Rais) stepped in to halt Joan's death. She was chosen, or chose to be, a martyr to her cause, and her death was celebrated as a sacrifice to the Old Religion. It has to be said that this stretches the bounds of probability a little too far than most people would care to take it, and there is no evidence that either Gilles – who longed to be a priest – or Joan – with her ecstatic visions of being God's chosen vessel for France's salvation – were involved in anything that modern followers of the Old Religion would care to relate to. The matter of Joan's early demonisation, painting her as a promiscuous harlot, hardly bears out the notion that she was a worthy sacrifice to a virgin goddess, and de Rais' notorious sexuality makes a mockery of this idea too!

Ironically though most writers on the subject since that time have, de Rais never explicitly mixed his alchemical leanings with his slaughter of children, and it is a mistake to see the two things as intrinsically linked. Whilst he did apparently allow his diabolical priest Prelati to use the limbs of his victims in magickal rites, Gilles himself never apparently believed that killing children and bathing in their blood would provide him with magickal answers to his problems, or bring him closer to God. He committed his murders because of his desire to emulate the Caesars of Ancient Rome, and indulged in black magick purely as a means of raising his finances. He violently asserted that despite his crimes he had never once been tempted to sell his soul to the Devil. For such small mercies, we should, perhaps, all be eternally grateful!

see also on this site: John Polidori Catherine de' Medici Mozart Aleister Crowley Bathory More Bathory

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