Gilles de Rais (also spelled Retz) (autumn of 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 infanticide – torturing, raping and murdering dozens, if not hundreds, of children. 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 killers.
Gilles de Rais was born in 1404 in the château of Machécoul, near the border of Brittany. His father was Guy de Montmorency-Laval, from the house of Laval who had inherited, via adoption, the fortunes of Jeanne de Rais and Marie de Craon.
His father died when he was nine, and his mother immediately married again and abandoned her two children to die two years later c.1415. Gilles and his brother René must have felt alone in the world.
Their father’s will made provision for them to be brought up by a cousin and educated by two priests; instead they were sent to live with their grandfather, Jean de Craon, who had a violent temper, but was too wrapped up in his own affairs to pay attention to his grandsons. His own son had been killed at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, so that Gilles became heir to the entire vast fortune. He was an intelligent child who read Latin fluently and loved music. Gilles came from a family of medieval knights, so he was trained in the art if war and chivalry..
He already had a taste for the “forbidden” and secretly devoured Suetonius, with his details of the sexual excesses of the Roman emperors.
Five years later, he went to the court of the Dauphin, the uncrowned heir to the throne, and made a considerable impression with his good looks and fine breeding.
Jean de Craon sought to marry Gilles off to the heiress Jeanne de Paynol; this was unsuccessful. Jean de Craon then attempted to join de Rais 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 Vendee 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. By his marriage to the extremely wealthy heiress, Gilles de Rais became one of the richest noble in Europe. *
From 1427 to 1435, Rais served as a commander in the Royal Army , Rais served as a commander in the Royal Army, making a name for himself by displaying reckless bravery on the battlefield during the renewal of the 100 Years Wars against the Brittons.
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.
In 1429 he was at Chinon when a seventeen-year-old peasant girl named Jeanne, from the village of Domremy, demanded to see the Dauphin, and told him that she had been sent to defeat the English, who were now laying siege to Orléans. The Dauphin thought she was mad, but decided it was worth a try. He ordered Gilles to accompany “the Maid” (la pucelle) to Orléans, perhaps because he had noticed that Gilles was fascinated by the girl’s boyish figure and peasant vitality.
Gilles fought by her side when she raised the siege of Orléans, and again at Patay, when she once more defeated the English. At twenty-four, Gilles was a national hero. 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.
However, when the Dauphin decided it was time for the crowning, Gilles was awarded the honour to collect the holy oil with which the king was to be anointed. After the coronation, Gilles was appointed Marshall of France and allowed to include the fleur de lys in his coat of arms. But after her military triumphs, jealous ministers soon undermined Joan of Arc’s career, and the king was too weak and self-indulgent to withstand the pressure. In the following year she was captured by the English, and burned at Rouen in 1431 with the Church and most of the French noblemen consent; she was only nineteen. (Jeanne who has been made a saint since is one of the great figure of France history and a paradox, she saved thousands of people and pushed the English back to their filthy Channel but she was treated with the most cruelty by the very one who profited from her; she was guided by God’s voice but was called a witch and burned…).
Gilles still had one more martial exploit to come–the deliverance of Lagny from the English. After the coronation of Charles VII, he retired to his estates, at Machecoul, Malemort, La Suze, Champtoce and Tiffauges, promoting theatrical performances and exhausting the large fortune he had inherited.
He spent his time and money in collecting a fine library, including a copy of Saint Augustine’s City of God; but above all he devoted himself to making the religious services held in the chapels of his castles as sumptuous and magnificent as possible.