Giles de Rais
SINCE we have allowed ourselves to smile at the Grand Inquisitor and the activities of the holy office, let us admit that some real bona fide business was occasionally provided for both. In those old times some foolish or evil-minded persons made a practice of dabbling in magic or sorcery, which was apt to lead them into positive crime.-Of all such unfortunates, Gilles de Rais (or de Retz, as the name is more commonly written) remains the most notorious on account of the great number of his victims and the peculiar atrocity of his deeds.
This book, however, would not take notice of him but for his connection with the story of Jeanne d'Arc, which indeed will not permit us to ignore him.
Gilles de Rais, born in Anjou, of a rich and noble family but no better in point of morals than many others of the same class in those times, was a cousin of La Tremoille, that evil genius of Jeanne d'Arc. It was La Tremoille who appointed him to the personal body-guard of the Maid, in which position he was responsible to the king himself for her safety. Gilles fought bravely at Orleans and supported Jeanne when she was wounded before Les Tourelles. In the following
actions he was similarly noted for his valor and soldierly conduct, leading, as it subsequently did, to his being made a marshal of France--extraordinary promotion for so young a man (he was at this time well under thirty).
We have pointed out La Tremoille's jealousy of the Maid, which was shared by many of the army chiefs, and to some extent by Charles himself. In the end it led to Jeanne's undoing, and in that end Gilles participated, beyond doubt, as the guilty agent of his cousin La Tremoille. The plot climaxed at Compiegne, where Jeanne was taken prisoner leading a bold sortie against the Burgundians and the English. The gates of the town were closed in her face by order of Flavy, the governor, himself a creature of Philip the Bad and a -half-brother of that other enemy of Jeanne—Regnault de Chartres, Archbishop of Reims.
Gilles de Rais, charged to defend her with his life, alone of her personal guard escaped through connivance of the aforesaid Flavy. These are incontestable facts; there is no if, but, or peradventure about them.
In 1432 Gilles began the dark practices which were eventually to lead him to the worst end of any of the enemies and betrayers of Jeanne d'Arc. Tutored by an Italian mountebank, one Prelati, in the mysteries of Satan-worship, he was presently led to think of making human sacrifices to the infernal deities. Nothing was easier for the grand seigneur than to secure victims at one or other of his strong castles, Machecoul, Tiffauges, Chantoce, etc. The victims were nearly always
poor children of the peasant families roundabout, and for the most part were inveigled to their death by the promise of food; or in the case of the older ones, of money or some small employment. The oblations of innocent blood gave a fillip to Gilles's diabolical passion, and he very soon united to them the gratification of his abominable lust in such measure and variety of wickedness, such unheard of atrocity as we dare not dwell upon in any detail. Suffice it that even in their dying pangs the monster continued to abuse his victims, tasting thereby, as he confessed, the sweetest pleasure of all!
It was established during his trial at Nantes—a trial ecclesiastical and laic—that he had thus destroyed between two hundred and three hundred children, leaning rather to the latter number; as well as some mature young women, several of these being in a state of pregnancy! His crimes as a whole have had no parallel in ancient or modern times; compared with him Nero takes on some aspect of virtue and Heliogabalus might pass for a plaster saint!
What protection the poor had in those dark times may be estimated by the number of Gilles's victims and his eight years of impunity. There were complaints from time to time of the lost children, but the parents were poor and of no great mood to hunt for them, having usually more mouths than they could feed. Rumors pointing to the truth got about after a while, but it required no ordinary courage then to force entrance to a seigneur's chateau—and this man was a marshal of France! From 1432 to 1440, to take
the whole period of his evil doing, he continued to feed his infernal propensities as no other man has ever done of whom there is any record.
He might have gone much farther had he not invaded a church during high mass with a following of armed men, in order to seize one with whom he had a dispute about money. This man he maltreated, shutting him up in a dungeon at Tiffauges.
The poor you have always with you and their children, but the church shall not stiffer in its rights and privileges—not even from a grand seigneur! The cry Of SACRILEGE is raised. Our old friend the Constable de Richemont besieges Tiffauges and releases the prisoner. The Duke of Brittany condemns Gilles to pay a fine of fifty thousand livres.
But now the voice of accusation is heard in that desolated country-side. Where are the children that have been disappearing for years? What has been their fate? Inquiries are put on foot that will not be halted. Suspicions multiply, rumors accumulate, the day of reckoning is at hand. Gilles de Rais is arrested with several of his servants and accomplices; makes a bold front at first, but they confess," and he can only follow suit. His confession was so awful, there in the very scene of his crimes, that one marvels why the people did not tear the building to pieces in order to reach him. (Prelati, being of obscure priestly antecedents, escaped the death sentence and was doomed to perpetual imprisonment. He soon escaped and flourished during some years in the train of the Duke of Anjou. Eventually falling foul of the king's justice, he took the same road as his pupil Gilles de Rais.)
On the contrary, there was no disorder of any sort, and Gilles made an edifying end; people actually wept with sympathy for him as he marched to the scaffold, exhorting his fellow culprits to repentance. His death was more merciful that that which Jeanne d'Arc suffered at the hands of the priests. His body was not burned, and at his request it was honorably buried in a select church of the district.
Time went by and, mirabile dictu, made of Gilles de Rais, in popular notion, something of a saint. An expiatory monument was raised in his favor. He had possessed a piece of the true cross and bequeathed it to a monastery, where the faithful were allowed to see it for a small consideration, thereby contributing to the strange legend. This has long since faded out, but another legend, equally baseless, persists in identifying him with Bluebeard, the slayer of many wives. Here it is at last possible to say a word for Gilles de Rais: he had only one wife, who married again some few years after his mortal expiation. His name and his race, save in evil commemoration, are blotted from the earth.