Day 442: Gilles de Rais – War Hero, Aristocrat, Serial Killer

originally published March 17, 2013

If I were to be struck by a plummeting satellite piece today, my obituary would lack a lot of highlights. Sure, I had kids, undertook a ridiculously large writing project, and there was that time I managed to stuff 27 pens in my mouth at once, but it ain’t much. If I came across a Wikipedia entry about myself, there’s no way I’d venture to write a thousand words about me.

But Gilles de Rais, who had to pack a lifetime’s worth of wow into thirty-six short years – now here’s a guy with a story. Granted, it’s not a terribly heroic story, nor is it an inspiring story, unless watching Dexter has softened your stance on serial killers. But Gilles had a hell of a ride.

He was born in 1404 in western France. Gilles was a smart kid, learning to speak Latin fluently, which was just as impressive back then as it is now. Also just as useful. Nevertheless, 9-year-old Gilles was sent to live with his grandfather after his parents died, and his grandfather made it his mission to ensure Gilles married rich.

Though he was off the matrimonial market by his mid-20’s, Gilles had everything going for him. He was introduced into the court of Charles VII, which automatically granted him a chair at the cool kids’ table wherever he went in France. He was a combat prodigy, slicing through enemies of the court like a Ginsu superhero. He was promoted to commander in the Royal Army; his superiors were in awe of Gilles’ fearlessness and balls-out bravery in the heat of battle. Gilles fought like he knew he was the protagonist in some epic film: untouchable, unbeatable, and downright invincible.

During the Hundred Years War with England, Gilles fought shoulder to shoulder with Joan of Arc. When the Siege of Orléans came to a close, and Joan was officially recognized as the bad-ass broad of the Brit-slayers, Gilles was right there at her side, the Chewie to her Han-ness, the Murtaugh to her Riggs, the Weasley/Granger 1-2 punch to her unconquerable Potterishness.

Of course, when Joan was sent to burn at the stake, Gilles didn’t show up. He was an official Marshal of France by this point, one of only four lords who were privileged to carry the Holy Ampulla (a little jar with sacred oil for anointing kings) into Notre Dame for the consecration of Charles VII as the all-out king. Gilles couldn’t drop in on a downer like a stake-burning; he had a reputation to protect. Hell, he had his own coat-of-arms, and permission to slap the fleur-de-lys on it, since he was a French hero. You don’t wear those colors in just any old neighborhood.

If Charles VII’s court was the world of The Sopranos, then Gilles de Rais was the Christopher Multisanti of the gang. He was young, boisterous, with a willingness to kill whoever he had to kill in service of his boss. He probably had a goomah or two on the side. But he was reckless. Not stupid, but foolish. And while Christopher had access to the best drugs in New Jersey, Gilles simply had copious amounts of money to spend on stupid things.

His grandfather saw it. When he died in 1432, just a year after Joan got roasted, Gilles’ grandfather left his sword and breastplate to Rene, Gilles’ younger brother. It was a message – lay off the spending, Gilles, or you’ll end up hocking stuff like this.

He built a church. He poured his money into staging a play about the Siege of Orléans. Not a simple play mind you – this one had 20,000 lines of verse, 140 speaking parts, 500 extras, and for whatever reason, the 600 costumes constructed for the production were thrown out every night and re-made for the next show. Gilles was going broke.

If the public spent the 1420’s looking up to Gilles as the playboy-supersoldier of France, his proclivities during the 30’s might have changed some minds. In ’38 he gathered up some folks to help him summon demons. Finding a way to make a living as a retired soldier and swinging spend-monkey isn’t easy, and I suppose fifteenth-century logic dictated that perhaps a demon might be able to assist with the cash-flow situation. At one point, the cleric who was helping Gilles out claimed that the demon they summoned was angry, and demanded parts of a child as an offering.

Luckily for Gilles, that wouldn’t be a problem.

You see, Gilles allegedly had a thing for killing children. According to his bodyservant (which I assume is a bodyguard / man-servant combo job), Gilles would hang his victims from a hook whilst alive, masturbate on their leg, then take them down and comfort them before decapitating them. The number of times he did this varies from account to account. It’s generally thought Gilles produced 80 to 200 victims, though some have pinned the number up around 600.

Needless to say, the government wasn’t particularly happy about this.

Gilles was put to death in October of 1440. But in the last few years, some doubt has been raised regarding his guilt. He had denied his involvement in the crimes vehemently, but was faced with the option of confessing or being ex-communicated from the Catholic church. Keep in mind, Gilles had built his own cathedral back when money was plentiful – he opted to face death as a Catholic over life as a non-Catholic. Was he unfairly coerced? It’s hard to say.

In 1992, Jean-Yves Goëau-Brissonière, a Grand-Master Freemason in France, was able to talk a bunch of former French ministers and parliament members into forming a court to investigate Gilles’ case again. Perhaps not the best use of everyone’s time, but it was notable in that they decided Gilles was not guilty.

Not that this did him a lot of good; he was more than 550 years gone. But that leaves the question – if Gilles didn’t murder all those children, who was the serial killer that got away with all those crimes? Even with the lowball estimate of 80 dead kids, that’s a tremendous amount of evil to leave in one’s wake.

Gilles’ story ultimately reads as a tragedy, despite so many years being the subject of national adoration and respect. There’s a lesson in there somewhere… maybe it’s “don’t spend all your money on stupid plays and try not to murder dozens or hundreds of children.”

A little on the obvious side, but I guess it’s good advice.

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