THE LIVES OF THE TYRANTS we have considered so far seem designed as illustrations of Lord Acton's dictum that power corrupts. Yet this is an oversimplification. History is full of rulers who were not corrupted by power: Asoka, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Charlemagne, Kubla Khan. The truth seems to be more straightforward.

There is an uncontrolled element in all of us, a "spoilt child." If it is allowed too much freedom at an early stage, it becomes ungovernable, and the result is often sadism. This applies as much to western Europeans as to Roman emperors or Eastern tyrants. The problem of Gilles de Rais was that he was the wealthiest man in Europe.

One of the strangest and most disturbing examples in western European history is the man John Addington Symonds referred to as Marechal de Retz; the commoner spelling of his name is de Rais.

The problem of Gilles de Rais was that he was the wealthiest man in Europe. His father had married a landed heiress, and Gilles was born in 1404 in the château of Machécoul, where he would commit so many of his atrocities. His father died when he was nine, and his mother immediately married again and abandoned her two children. And so once again we can observe the classic pattern — a child who had been treated as the lord of the manor suddenly finding himself in the position of a nobody. When his mother died two years later, 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. But he had a taste for the "forbidden" and secretly devoured Suetonius, with his details of the sexual excesses of the Roman emperors. Since Gilles himself was homosexual, these stories must have encouraged the tendency to sexual fantasy, to which he admitted at his trial.

After the years of glory, he seems to have found life unbearably dull. Gilles came from a family of mediæval knights, and was himself trained as a soldier. The Hundred Years War with the English had been going on since 1338, so a training in arms was essential for any gentleman.

When Gilles was sixteen, his grandfather married him off to a rich heiress, Catherine de Thouars, whose estates abutted those of the de Rais in Brittany and Poitou.

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. During the following year he committed his first sex murder.

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. When the Dauphin decided to have himself crowned, it was Gilles who was sent 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 Iys in his coat of arms. But after her military triumphs, Joan of Arc's career was soon undermined by jealous ministers, 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; she was only nineteen.

Gilles still had one more martial exploit to come — the deliverance of Lagny from the English. Then he retired to his grandfather's estate. After the years of glory, he seems to have found life unbearably dull. And during the course of the following year, according to his later confession, he committed his first sex murder, that of a boy. His grandfather seems to have suspected what had happened; he willed his sword and cuirass to the younger brother René. The grandfather died in the following year, and Gilles was suddenly able to do what he liked.

WHAT HE LIKED, IT SEEMS, WAS TO SODOMIZE young boys, then cut their throats and disembowell them. The evidence at his trial makes it clear that he was a classic case of sexual sadism. Like Peter Kürten, he was obsessed by the sight of blood and the thought of violence. He had undoubtedly been fantasising about it since he was an adolescent.

Gilles' attacks of sadism seem to have descended on him like an epileptic fit. But unlike most sex criminals of the twentieth century, he was not obliged to hunt his own prey. His cousins Roger de Briqueville and Gilles de Sille were both homosexuals; so was his steward Henriet Griard; they were more than willing to procure boys for his pleasure.

One of these was a youth called Poitou; he was brought to the château and raped, after which Gilles prepared to cut his throat. At this point, Gilles de Sille pointed out that Poitou was such a handsome boy that he would make an admirable page. So Poitou was allowed to live, and to become one of Gilles' most trusted retainers.

Gilles' attacks of sadism seem to have descended on him like an epileptic fit, and turned him into a kind of maniac. A boy would be lured to the castle on some pretext, and once inside Gilles' chamber, was hung from the ceiling on a rope or chain. But before he had lost consciousness, he was taken down and reassured that Gilles meant him no harm. Then he would be stripped and raped, after which Gilles, or one of his cronies, would cut this throat or decapitate him — they had a special sword called a braquemard for removing the head.

But Gilles was still not sated; he would continue to sexually abuse the dead body, sometimes cutting open the stomach, then squatting in the entrails and masturbating. When he reached a climax he would collapse in a faint, and be carried off to his bed, where he would remain unconscious for hours. His accomplices would meanwhile dismember and burn the body. On some occasions, he later confessed, two children were procured, and each obliged to watch the other being raped and tortured.

Gilles was not merely sexually deranged; he was also a reckless spendthrift. He surrounded himself with a retinue of two hundred knights, for whom he provided. He loved to give banquets and fêtes; in 1435, when the city of Orléans celebrated its deliverance by Joan of Arc, Gilles presented a long mystery play about the siege, with enormous sets and a cast of hundreds, playing, of course, the leading role himself. He also provided food and wine for the spectators. Like a Roman emperor he must have felt that he was virtually a god.

UNFORTUNATELY, HIS MONEY was already running out. In a mere three years he had spent what would now be the equivalent of millions of pounds. Even at Orléans, he realised that he did not possess enough ready cash to pay all the bills (including lodgings for his vast retinue), and had to pawn some of his possessions to pay hoteliers. Back at Machécoul, he had to sell some of his most valuable estates. His brother was so alarmed that he persuaded the king to issue an interdict forbidding any further sales of land.

For a man of Gilles' unbridled temperament, this was an intolerable position. He went into a gloomy and self-pitying retirement. And now, suddenly, he saw a possible solution. Ten years later, his coffers empty, he believed black magic the answer to his problems.

Years before, when he first went to court, he had borrowed a book on alchemy from an Angevin knight who had been imprisoned for heresy. Alchemy was prohibited by law, and for a man with Gilles' romantic craving for "the forbidden," this must have been an additional incentive to learn more about it. Now, ten years later, with his coffers empty, he realised that alchemy might be the answer to his problems.

He asked a priest named Eustache Blanchet to find him a magician. Several were tried, but the results were poor — one of them, a man named Fontanelle, succeeded in conjuring up twenty crows. The others were not even able to conjure up a few birds. But Fontanelle also claimed he had conjured up a demon called Barron; and it was clear to Gilles that, if his magical operations were to succeed, he was going to need the active co-operation of Barron and his fellow demons.

Gilles was advised that his only way of learning to make gold was to agree to sell his soul to the Devil. At that time, it was taken for granted that "magic" was performed through the agency of the Devil, the ancient tradition of "white magic" having long ago been stamped out by the church. Now in spite of his taste for killing children, Gilles remained a devout Catholic; so deciding to invoke the Devil must have seemed a far more frightening step than murder.

But finally, he and his cousin Gilles de Sille locked themselves in the basement of his castle at Tiffauges, together with a magician, and prepared to converse with demons.

The magician warned them solemnly not to make the sign of the cross, or their lives would be in great danger. Sille stayed by the window, prepared to jump out; Gilles ventured fearfully into the magic circle and watched the beginning of the conjuration. Suddenly, a prayer to Our Lady came into his head, and he told the magician what had happened; the magician instantly ordered him to leave the magic circle. Gilles obeyed, making the sign of the cross from force of habit. Then he and his cousin hastened from the room. Fiascos like this were discouraging, but Gilles felt he now had no alternative.

GILLES NOW BEGAN TO RECEIVE SIGNS and portents that his soul was in danger; one magician drowned on his way to the castle, and another died soon after he arrived. Gilles was advised that his only way of learning to make gold was to agree to sell his soul to the Devil, but he refused to go this far.

All the same, he needed money so badly that there seemed no other way than continuing with his magical experiments. In 1439, he sent the priest Blanchet to Italy to search for a more skilled magician; Blanchet returned with a "clerk in minor orders" called François Prelati, a young man of great charm — and also, apparently, a homosexual. They would have to offer a child's blood and parts of its body as a sacrifice to the Devil; there was no problem about this.

It is hard to know whether he was simply a confidence trickster, or whether he had some genuine knowledge of the magic arts; it seems clear that Gilles found him immensely attractive and trusted him completely.

Prelati told him that they would have to offer a child's blood and parts of its body as a sacrifice to the Devil; there was no problem about this, and Gilles hastened to sodomize and murder another young boy. But he still refused to take the final step, of selling his soul to the Devil. Prelati told him that in that case, he would have to continue the conjurations alone. During one of these sessions, Gilles and his cousin heard loud thumps from inside the room; they looked in and found Prelati "so hurt that he could hardly stand up." He explained that he had been beaten by the demon Barron, and had to take to his bed for several days, during which time Gilles nursed him tenderly.

On another occasion, he rushed out to tell Gilles that he had finally conjured up a heap of gold. Gilles rushed back to see it, but Prelati was there first; as he opened the door, he staggered back and shouted that it was guarded by a huge green serpent. Gilles fled. When he returned, the gold had vanished, leaving only piles of dust ...

During all this time, he continued to murder children, girls as well as boys. In the case of girls, he rubbed his erect member against the stomach or between the thighs until he ejaculated, "saying he had more pleasure and less pain than acting in nature." Afterwards he would frequently play with the heads. It was the fear that excited him, the feeling of having the power of life and death over another human being. The records of the case contain a list of children who vanished:

Lost, at La Rochebernart, the child of the woman Peronne, a child who did go to school and apply himself to his book with exceeding diligence. Lost at St Etienne de Montluc, the son of Guillaume Brice, and this was a poor man and sought alms. Lost at Machécoul, the son of Georget le Barbier, who was seen a certain day knocking apples from a tree behind the hotel Rondeau, and who since hath not been seen. Lost at Thonaye, the child of Mathelin Thouars, and he had been heard to cry and lament, and the said child was about twelve years of age.

At Machécoul, the day of Pentecost, mother and father Sergent leave their eight year old boy at home, and when they return from the fields

they did not find the said child of eight years ... At Chantelou, two little children of the age of nine who were brothers and the children of Robin Pavot of the aforesaid place, and since that time neither have they been seen nor doth any know what became of them.

A widow living close to the castle reported the disappearance of her eight year old son, "a comely lad, white of skin and very capable."

In 1437 his family seized the castle of Champtoce. Gilles was terrified; he'd left the mutilated bodies of dozens of children there ... Two weeks later another boy vanished, and there was an outcry in the village. Gilles decided that something had to be done, and sent his cousin to explain that the boys had been given as part of a ransom for his brother, who was being held by the English; they would be trained as pages ...

During his years of murder, Gilles often came close to discovery. In 1437, his family heard that he intended to sell the castle of Champtoce, in spite of the royal interdict; they hastened to seize it. Gilles was terrified; he had left the mutilated bodies of dozens of children there. He was also afraid that the castle of Machécoul would be next — the remains of many children had been thrown into a locked tower. He and his companions removed about forty dismembered bodies from Machécoul. When he regained control of Champtoce in 1438 he hastened to remove another forty or so corpses, which had apparently remained unnoticed.

IN JULY 1440, GILLES MADE HIS FATAL MISTAKE. He had sold a castle called Mermorte to Geoffroy de Ferron, treasurer to the Duke of Brittany, Gilles' suzerain [overlord]. For some reason, Gilles decided that he was entitled to repossess the castle, which had not yet been occupied by its new owner.

The keys, it seemed, were in the hands of Geoffroy's brother, a priest called Jean de Ferron. Here Gilles' impatience was his undoing. Instead of waiting until Jean de Ferron was in his home, he led his men into the church of St Etienne de Mermorte soon after mass, and had the priest dragged outside, where he was beaten. By entering a church and permitting violence, Gilles had committed sacrilege, a capital offence.

By entering a church and permitting violence, Gilles had committed sacrilege, a capital offence. The Duke of Brittany was delighted. If Gilles was convicted and executed, his lands would be forfeit. So the Duke lost no time in complaining to the Bishop of Nantes and starting proceedings for sacrilege, adding a charge of heresy for good measure.

Gilles' companions later revealed that, even on this expedition to recover his castle, he had been overcome by his craving for rape and murder. After leaving the church, he had halted for the night in the town of Vannes and taken lodging in a house near the bishop's palace. One of the ex-choristers of his private chapel, André Bouchet, had brought him a ten year old boy. Since his present lodging was not private enough for rape and murder, the boy was taken to another house near the market, and there sodomised and decapitated; the body was thrown into the latrines of the house, where the smell was less likely to cause its discovery.

Meanwhile, the Duke of Brittany had imposed a huge fine on Gilles, aware that Gilles would be unable to pay. The indictment was forty-nine paragraphs long.

He also began an investigation into the disappearance of hundreds of children. Gilles committed his final murder in August 1440 — it is a reasonable assumption that he would have gone on indefinitely if he had not been arrested — but was arrested soon after, and brought before the judges on 13 October, 1440. The Duke of Brittany was so certain of the verdict that he disposed of his own share of Gilles' lands fifteen days before the trial began.

His confidence was not unfounded. The indictment was forty-nine paragraphs long, and included many charges of child murder. Gilles was at first arrogant and defiant; but after being threatened with excommunication and torture, he suddenly gave way, and made a full confession.

SOME HISTORIANS HAVE SUGGESTED that Gilles was "framed," and that the duke and the bishop conspired to seize his lands. The detail of his confession makes this virtually impossible. He described the murders at length, and his accomplices gave damning evidence against him.

The parents, oddly enough, forgave him. He confessed to a hundred and forty murders. The actual number is almost certainly more than two hundred.

Charged with him were his steward Henriet Griard and his page Etiène Corillaut, called Poitou. Many parents gave evidence about the disappearance of their children — a man named Ayse described how his ten year old son had gone to seek alms at the castle at Machécoul, and never returned. They knew that his real sin was heresy, and that this meant eternal damnation.

Ayse learned later from a serving maid that the child had been offered a meal and had entered the castle.

In court, Gilles sobbed, confessed his sins, and begged the parents for forgiveness. And they, oddly enough, also sobbed and declared that they forgave him. They knew that his real sin was heresy, and that this meant eternal damnation.

On 25 October, Gilles was excommunicated; the following day he was marched to the gibbet in Nantes, together with his two companions, and there strangled. His corpse was placed on a pyre, but his relatives were allowed to remove his body before the flames reached it, and he was interred in the nearby Carmelite church. His two companions were less lucky; they were burned alive.

H.G. Wells comments on the case in a book called Crux Ansata:

All this was the behaviour of an uncontrolled upper-form schoolboy with a belief in his luck ... and an unanalysable disposition to torment fags ... He was cruel; by all our standards, he was hideously cruel; he delighted in the tormenting of children; and the points best worth discussing about him here are, first, whether he was an exceptional sinner, or whether his crimes were the outcome of a mental disposition that has always been operative since that wretched congestion of mankind that is called civilisation began; and secondly, and more important for our present purpose, how far the religious beliefs and practices of Catholic Christendom in the fifteenth century really condemned his abominations.

Wells' own answer to this second question becomes apparent when he writes:

... his body was saved from being burnt by 'four or five dames and demoiselles of great estate,' who removed his body from the pyre built so that he would fall into it. Manifestly they thought no great evil of what he had done ...

Wells is making an interesting point. We find the crimes of Gilles de Rais too horrible to contemplate; his contemporaries thought them less important than the fact that his soul was damned. We can observe much the same attitude in the contemporaries of Vlad the Impaler and Ivan the Terrible. Our own century may have produced an appalling number of sadists and serial killers, but at least we regard them with horror rather than a sneaking admiration.


As much as I admire Wilson's ambitious attempt to map the changing nature of serial murder throughout the entire course of human history, I find his categorizing of de Rais as a "spoilt child" one of the truly weak areas of his voluminous work. By his own definition this characteristic develops "if it is allowed too much freedom at an early stage."

But why had his sadism remained latent until his late twenties, long into adulthood? Certainly Gilles, scion of a wealthy house, abandoned by his mother and ignored by his grandfather, was afforded the freedom of resources and undersupervision that might allow such a personality to develop. But why should it have remained latent until his late twenties, long into adulthood?

Most "spoilt" children will take advantage of any opportunity to indulge themselves. But despite his characteristic attention to detail exercised thoughout his work, Wilson strangely fails to produce any evidence of abnormal behavior in Gilles during his upbringing or any unusual cruelties committed during his campaigns against the English — even when the gift of hindsight has a tendency to make the most insignificant oddities seem relevant.

If Gilles was indeed "spoilt," he seems to have been able to demonstrate paradoxically restrained behavior under the most inviting circumstances. As a potential mass murderer, his upbringing actually compares quite poorly to Vlad the Impaler or Ivan the Terrible, to whom Wilson likens de Rais. The only solid clue offered towards Vlad's future depredations is his imprisonment as a teenager by the Turks:

His [Prince Radu's] elder brother remained a difficult prisoner, and harsh treatment hardened his character and made him vengeful.

In Ivan the temperament is all too clear:

Ivan had always been rather a brutal child. One of his favourite games was "splattering dogs," dropping them from the top of a high tower into the courtyard two hundred feet below. Now neglect and distain turned him into a bully and a sadist, inflicting pain on anyone who was too weak to fight back.

Gilles' childhood by comparison seems rather idyllic and Wilson seemingly betrays his own mystification when he writes, "Gilles' attacks of sadism seem to have descended on him like an epileptic fit." In truth, Gilles' sadism defies explanation because there exists no apparent clues to follow through his early years. (Note that even Wells, quoted above, described him as 'unanalysable.') Thus we are left with the one explanation that remains the most difficult to accept — one that Wilson actually does suggest — that Gilles, after all the fanfare had grown still, simply "found life unbearably dull."


Presumed Innocent:, Mar 16, 2000
  Gilles de Rais — victimizer or victim?