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French Knight Gilles de Rais Inspired the Folktale “Bluebeard”

A veteran of the Hundred Years' War, he earned a chilling legacy later in life.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Gilles de Rais was a companion-in-arms to the legendary Joan of Arc, fighting alongside her during the Hundred Years’ War. For his service, he was later appointed Marshal of France—though, like Joan of Arc, he was destined for a grim fate. 

Indeed, by 1440, Gilles de Rais was a self-confessed and convicted serial killer who may have been responsible for the deaths of over 100 children. On October 26, 1440, he was hanged as punishment.

Little more than a decade earlier, no one could have imagined that the young knight would come to such an end. Rais fought alongside Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans; by 1429, he was one of only four lords chosen for the honor of bringing the Holy Ampulla for the consecration of Charles VII as King of France. 

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Yet by 1435, Rais had left the military and withdrawn from public life in order to embark upon personal projects that most of his peers and family members regarded as rank folly. Specifically, Rais financed the production of a massive theatrical spectacle of his own devising. The play, which consisted of more than 20,000 lines of verse, featured some 140 speaking parts and more than 500 extras. For each performance, some 600 costumes were constructed, worn once, then discarded, to be made afresh for the next show.

Those who attended this extravaganza were treated lavishly to food and drink, provided on Rais’ dime, even though financing the theatrical undertaking had already driven him to the brink of bankruptcy. As early as 1432, Rais had begun selling off his holdings. Upon his grandfather’s death in November of that year, the elder lord left his sword and breastplate to Rais’ younger brother in a public display of his displeasure with the young nobleman.

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Rais was nonetheless undeterred. He borrowed heavily, leveraging his family’s collection of objets d’art, manuscripts, and even clothing as collateral. Ultimately, the king himself delivered a royal edict declaring Rais a spendthrift and forbidding anyone in the kingdom from entering into any kind of contract with the extravagant lord.

gilles de rais
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  • 1870 illustration of Gilles de Rais from L’Histoire de la magie.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At this same time, Rais was amassing other troubles behind the scenes. In fact, according to his later confession, he was also racking up quite a body count. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. By 1440, Rais was involved in a dispute of some kind with a cleric which ended in the latter’s kidnapping. The event resulted in an investigation by the Bishop of Nantes, who found…troubling evidence.

The cleric's kidnapping all but forgotten, the bishop brought his findings to the Duke of Brittany. Until then, the duke had been protecting Gilles de Rais, in spite of his unfavorable position with the king. A secular investigation followed, which ended with the arrest of Rais and his two bodyguards. The charges brought against him included heresy, sodomy, and murder in frankly astounding numbers.

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Testimony from numerous witnesses convinced the court that the disgraced noble was behind the disappearances of French children in the region. Plans were made to torture Rais into confessing—which he did, without the assistance of torture, on October 21. According to his confession, Rais had either personally slain or ordered the killing of innumerable children, dating back as far as 1432. Estimates placed the number at over 100, with some going as high as 600, though that seems unlikely.

Rais’ confession—along with testimony by servants who had assisted in his crimes—stated that he had sexually assaulted the children, sometimes before their deaths, sometimes afterward. It described how the children were tortured, and how their bodies were dismembered and burned. According to Rais’ own words, “very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed.” His alleged victims ranged in age from 6 to 18.

These were not the only outrages that the trial brought to light. According to testimony from members of the clergy, Rais had previously sought assistance in summoning a demon to his castle. He is said to have reached out to Francois Prelati of Florence, who told him that the demon required an offering of “parts of a child” provided in a glass vessel. Yet it seems no demon ever manifested at the castle.

Unlike Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais was not burned at the stake, but he was sentenced to death. Before he was hanged, he was said to have addressed the gathered crowd with “contrite piety” and to have admonished his accomplices—who died alongside him—to “die bravely and think only of salvation.” After his demise, his body was claimed by “four ladies of high rank.”

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Though Rais was convicted by the strength of numerous eyewitness accounts as well as his own confession, there are many modern scholars who doubt his guilt. It has been suggested that Rais confessed due to fear of excommunication—indeed, his request to be buried in the churchyard of Notre-Dames des Carmes was ultimately granted despite his crimes. Other scholars and historians have argued that Rais was the victim of a plot to claim his lands, engineered in part by his former protector, the Duke of Brittany.

gilles de rais' execution
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  • The execution of Gilles de Rais.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In fact, in 1992, a media event was organized in France to “retry” Gilles de Rais. He was found innocent of the many crimes historically laid at his feet, though the “retrial” had no official backing from either judicial, civic, or ecclesiastical authorities. One of the key pieces of exonerating evidence was that no bodies or physical evidence were ever actually found.

Despite this late-blooming skepticism about the crimes of Gilles de Rais, he has nonetheless gone down in history as one of the most notorious serial killers of all time. Indeed, Rais has found his way into fiction and media as a figure of villainy and black magic, even appearing as a servant of Dracula in the Castlevania video game series.

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Perhaps most notably, Rais is thought to be a historical inspiration for the French folktale “Bluebeard.” The story concerns a nobleman who marries a succession of wives, each of whom he secretly murders. The climax of the tale occurs when his newest wife enters a forbidden room within the castle, where the bodies have been hidden.

While the stories clearly differ on some key points, numerous scholars have nonetheless drawn parallels between the supposed crimes of Gilles de Rais and the story of Bluebeard. Whether or not Gilles de Rais was guilty of the heinous crimes for which he was put to death, his name has been forever entwined with that of the fictional killer.