Rais, Gilles de

Rais, Gilles de (1404-1440)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Gilles de Laval, Baron de Rais (Rayx or Retz), was born in 1404 to Guy de Laval II and Marie de Craon, both wealthy landowners. Gilles was descended, on his father's side, from a woman—Tiphaine du Guesclin—who many considered to be a fairy.

During his youth, Gilles de Rais was treated as a prince. When his father died, Gilles inherited a considerable fortune, together with estates and castles at Champtocé, Tiffauges, Machecoul, Malemort, and La Suze. At the age of sixteen he married Catherine de Thouars, Dame de Tiffauges, a wealthy heiress, making him one of the richest men in Europe. It was a loveless marriage.

At twenty-two, Gilles de Rais entered the service of Charles VII and was able to maintain a large troop of men at his own expense. A favorite of his overlord, the Duke of Brittany, Gilles fought bravely against the English and served as bodyguard to Joan of Arc. At the age of 25, at Charles's coronation, he was appointed as a Marshall of France.

Shortly thereafter, in 1432, Gilles retired to his estates where he lived in great luxury, spending money at a prodigious rate. At Tiffauges, he built a chapel, which he staffed with a dean, archdeacons, precentors, canons, choirboys, and musicians from Italy. He amassed a library of rare manuscripts and became proficient at manuscript illumination. His corps of personal bodyguards consisted of two hundred knights.

Over the years his wealth became depleted to the point where he had to sell off some of his real estate to continue to enjoy his life of luxury. His thoughts then turned to the art, or science, of alchemy. Having built laboratories, he sent to Germany and Italy for men who professed to be able to turn base metal into gold. The sale of his estates furnished the alchemists with working material.

In 1436, alarmed at the rate at which Gilles de Rais was depleting his fortune, relatives managed to persuade Charles VII to issue an order forbidding further sales of land and buildings. This order was obeyed everywhere except in Brittany, where Duke John V and his Chancellor, Malestroit Bishop of Nantes, were eager to acquire properties.

One of the charlatans Gilles de Rais employed was a Florentine priest named Francesco Prelati. He gained the confidence of his employer and led him to believe that, when alone, he was able to conjure a demon named Baron. This Baron was able to produce gold, but only if the necessary sacrifice was forthcoming. Sacrifice followed sacrifice, with no success. Young children were enticed into the castle, or simply kidnapped, and sacrificed to the demon. Young blood flowed freely.

Meanwhile, in July 1440, Geoffroi le Ferron, Treasurer of Britanny, purchased the castle St. Etienne de Malemort. He sent his brother, Jean, to take the title. Gilles de Rais refused him and had the man beaten and imprisoned. Unfortunately, Jean le Ferron was a priest. Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes, had been collecting information concerning Gilles de Rais's crimes with children. Hearing of the imprisonment of le Ferron, the bishop was able to bring Gilles to court for committing sacrilege and violating clerical immunity. The bishop was joined by the inquisitor, Jean Blouyn, who charged Gilles with heresy. The bishop, the inquisitor, and Duke Jean profited from the situation insofar as they were allowed to confiscate his property.

Initially forty-seven charges were brought against Gilles de Rais. It came out in the trial that he had performed a variety of obscene acts with the children, both boys and girls, before and after they had been put to death. Gilles was accused of being a "heretic, apostate, conjurer of demons, . . . (and) accused of the crime and vices against nature, sodomy, sacrilege, and violation of the immunities of the Holy Church." The formal trial opened on October 15, 1440. On October 19, Gilles de Rais was tortured, as were four of his servants. Two of his personal attendants gave damning evidence against him. One witness claimed that he had counted between 36 and 46 heads of murdered children. After further torture on October 21, Gilles de Rais confessed to the crimes "voluntarily and freely." He was found guilty and, on October 26, 1440, was strangled. Although his body was placed on a pyre, relatives were allowed to remove the corpse, which was buried at a nearby Carmelite church.