Gilles de Rais 1404 - 1440

Modern Impression of Gilles de Rais
Modern Impression of Gilles de Rais. Wikimedia Commons

Gilles de Rais was a French noblemen and noted soldier of the fourteenth century who was tried and executed for the murder and torture of numerous children. He is now remembered chiefly as a historical serial killer, but may have been innocent.

Gilles de Rais as Noble and Commander

Gilles de Laval, Lord of Rais (thus known as Gilles de (of) Rais), was born in 1404 at Champtocé castle, Anjou, France. His parents were heirs to wealthy land holdings: the lordship of Rais and part of the Laval family possessions on his father’s side and lands belonging to a branch of the Craon family through his mother’s side. He also married into a wealthy line in 1420, uniting with Catherine de Thouars. Consequently Gilles was once of the richest men in the whole of Europe by his teens. He has been described as keeping a more lavish court than even the French king, and he was a great patron of the arts.

By 1420 Gilles was fighting in the wars over the succession rights to the Duchy of Brittany, before being involved in the Hundred Years War, fighting against the English in 1427. Having proved himself an able, if brutal and low level, commander, Gilles found himself alongside Joan of Arc, taking part in several battles with her, including the famed rescue of Orléans in 1429. Thanks to his success, and the crucial influence of Gilles’ cousin, Georges de Ka Trémoille, Gilles became a favorite of King Charles VII, who appointed Gilles Marshall of France in 1429; Gilles was only 24 years old. He spent more time with Jeanne’s forces until her capture. The scene was set for Gilles to go on and have a major career, after all, the French were beginning their victory in the Hundred Years War.

Gilles de Rais as Serial Killer

By 1432 Gilles de Rais had largely retreated to his estates, and we don't really know why. At some stage his interests turned to alchemy and the occult, perhaps after an order, sought by his family in 1435, barred him from selling or mortgaging anymore of his lands and he needed money to continue his lifestyle. He also, possibly, began the kidnap, torture, rape and murder of children, with the number of victims ranging from 30 to upwards of 150 given by different commentators. Some accounts claim this ended up costing GIlles more money as he invested in occult practices which didn't work but cost regardless. We have avoided giving too much detail on Gilles' crimes here, but if you're interested a search on the web will bring up the accounts.

With one eye on these infractions, and possibly another on seizing Gilles’ land and possessions, the Duke of Brittany and the Bishop of Nantes moved to arrest and prosecute him. He was seized in September 1440 and tried by both ecclesiastical and civil courts. At first he claimed to be not guilty, but “confessed” under threat of torture, which is no confession at all; the ecclesiastical court found him guilty of heresy, the civil court guilty of murder. He was sentenced to death and hanged on October 26th 1440, being held up as a model of penitence for recanting and apparently accepting his fate.

There is an alternative school of thought, one which argues that Gilles de Rais was set-up by the authorities, who had an interest in taking what remained of his wealth, and was actually innocent. The fact his confession was extracted through threat of torture is cited as evidence of severe doubt. Gilles wouldn't be the first European who was set up so people could take wealth, and remove power, by jealous rivals, and the Knights Templar are a very famous example, while Countess Bathory is in much the same position as Gilles, only in her case it looks very likely she was set up instead of just possible.


The character of Bluebeard, recorded in a seventeenth century collection of fairy tales called Contes de ma mère l’oye (Tales of Mother Goose), is believed to be partly based on Breton folk tales which are, in turn, partly based on Gilles de Rais, although the murders have become of wives rather than children.

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "Gilles de Rais 1404 - 1440." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Gilles de Rais 1404 - 1440. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "Gilles de Rais 1404 - 1440." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).