I first became aware of Gilles de Rais when I was about fifteen. As a teenager I loved books on the occult and I was flicking through my latest prize, The Devil And All His Works by Dennis Wheatley, when I came upon a small black-and-white picture of a dark man in armour leaning on a battle-axe. I can remember thinking that he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. The caption read: "Gilles de Rais, one of the blackest sorcerers in history". I now know that much of what I read in this book was untrue and that the picture was a copy of a nineteenth century painting - nobody knows what Gilles de Rais looked like, although he was said to be handsome and elegant. At no time did he ever dye his beard blue...
A few months later I read a review of a new book, Gilles de Rais, the Authentic Bluebeard by Jean Benedetti. I immediately ordered a copy, something I had never done before and very seldom do now (I prefer to browse before I buy). This was the beginning of a lifelong obsession; and in this short span I have seen a seismic shift in the way de Rais is seen. Benedetti's book is one of the best available, but it was written in 1971 and has been overtaken by events that he could not have anticipated. At that time, according to the newspaper headline writer, Gilles was The Beast who saved Joan of Arc before he became 'Bluebeard'.
Gilles de Rais was born in late 1404 at the Black Tower in the castle of Champtocé. He was wealthy from birth, the product of an alliance of rich families, but he was also orphaned young. His father was gored by a wild boar in a hunting accident and died of his injuries; his mother simply vanishes from the records in the same year, 1415, and seems more likely to have died than remarried. Gilles and his younger brother were brought up by their maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon. In 1420 Gilles was married to Catherine de Thouars, a distant cousin, after a courtship that consisted of abducting her on horseback. Their only child, Marie, was born in 1429; since she eventually died without issue, Gilles de Rais's line died out with her. There had been two prior attempts at matrimony but both came to nothing and it is supposed that the would-be brides may have died; this may go part-way to explaining the Bluebeard aura that has always hung round Gilles de Rais.
Wife and daughter were usually kept at Pouzauges, a castle that Gilles seldom visited. He lived a virtually woman-free existence with one shining exception - Jehanne d'Arc. With her he liberated Orléans and was one of the four knights who carried the holy ampulla of oil to the coronation of Charles VII, at which time he was made a Marshal of France at the age of 25. If he had been fortunate enough to die a warrior's death in battle, he would be remembered today entirely for his connection with Jehanne and his military exploits; as it is, the heady combination of saint and sinner has fascinated writers and one fictionalized biography was actually titled The Saint and the Devil. On October 27th 2008 (an awkward date, too late for the anniversary of his death and too early for Hallowe'en) the metal band Cradle of Filth brought out Godspeed on the Devil's Thunder, a surprisingly listenable concept album which insists that it was Jehanne's death that turned him into a monster. This is not the first time this suggestion has been made and it will not be the last. Paul Gillon's splendidly raunchy graphic novel Jehanne la Pucelle takes this idea to its logical extreme by locking saint and devil together in a sexual relationship - again, this is nothing new. All that is known for sure is that Gilles saved Jehanne's life twice and may have tried to rescue her from execution - he is known to have been at Louviers, a few miles from Rouen, when she was on trial, and he had an army with him. But Jehanne was burned and Gilles effectively retired from military life. He was certainly badly affected by her death. For a time he entertained an impostor called Jeanne des Armoises - one of a number of fakes claiming to be the Maid of Orléans saved from the stake - but seems to have seen through her. Critically, he also staged a huge mystery play in her honour, Le Mistère du Siège D'Orléans. He had spent money prodigally throughout his life, but it was this that bankrupted him. All the costumes were of the finest materials and had to be changed for every performance: it has been suggested that this was not down to theatrical perfectionism but because Gilles saw the play as a vast magical ritual. Perhaps he was trying to call up Jehanne's spirit? Certainly, if he had a hand in writing it as is rumoured, he wrote himself a decent part.
The mystery play was a succès fou but the glory years were over. Gilles now had no purpose in his life, and was moreover having to pawn and mortgage to finance his extravagant lifestyle. His family, notably his brother René de la Suze, were constantly appealing to the king to stop him squandering the family fortune. He turned to alchemy in a desperate attempt to find the Philosopher's Stone that would turn base metals into gold and solve his financial problems, but the alchemists he hired merely fleeced him. At one point a room was magically filled with gold ingots, which turned to dust as soon as they were touched; this seems like a metaphor for Gilles's life in its decline. He was, according to Georges Bataille, "un niaïs" - a fool; I would describe him as gullible and superstitious. By all accounts he drank prodigious amounts of a strong spiced wine called hippocras. But did he also become a monstrous child-killer? According to the trial records, from 1432 until his arrest in September 1440 an unknown number of children were abducted, tortured, sexually assaulted and murdered. And this is where the narrative becomes murky, as ever since there have been maverick historians who simply refused to believe what on the face of it is a body of overwhelming evidence including a detailed confession.
The downfall of Gilles de Rais came as a direct result of his dealings with Jean V, Duke of Brittany, who was to be one of his judges. Gilles had sold and mortgaged various castles, many of them strategically crucial to Brittany, and Jean V seems to have bought some of them by proxy. He had recently sold the château of Saint-Etienne-de-Mer-Morte to the Duke's treasurer, but regretted the deal. The keys were held by Jean le Ferron, brother to the new owner and priest at Saint-Etienne. In a particularly wrong-headed move, Gilles took a small band of men and surrounded the church, waited until the end of Mass and then burst in. Gilles was armed with a double-edged battle-axe and raving; the priest was dragged out of the church and ended up in a dungeon of the newly-repossessed castle. This broke so many laws that Jean V and Jean de Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes, were now free to do what they had clearly been planning for some time. Gilles had brought destruction down on his own head and nobody has ever explained why he acted as he did. Was it just folly and vaingloriousness, fuelled by hippocras? Or did he in fact know what was brewing and flung down this gauntlet as a challenge to his enemies?
This was in May 1440; by the end of October Gilles would be dead. Jean de Malestroit had been investigating rumours of children disappearing in the region for some time. Gilles de Rais was arrested in September with a very few members of his entourage - interestingly, his two cousins had already fled, presumably forewarned - on charges of witchcraft, murder and sodomy. He put up no resistance and was taken to Nantes to await trial. Like another controversial figure he was to undergo two trials, one secular and one ecclesiastical, and to die with two others, receiving special treatment after death...
Although he has been written about frequently, the full and shocking record of these trials was not published until the 1960s, when it was translated from the Latin by Pierre Klossowski and printed as Le Procès de Gilles de Rais by Georges Bataille. When I was growing up, this book was consistently out of print (RPND as I was constantly being told - reprinting, no date). I did not get a copy till the early 90s; an English translation appeared a few years later. Both the English and the French version are now freely available because Gilles is having one of his moments in the sun. It is virtually impossible to read the transcripts of the confessions without concluding that the trial was a farce. But even reading Benedetti's book, and others, there is a definite stench of judicial impropriety.
The judges, for instance, had much to gain from a guilty verdict and summary execution. Jean V, as we have seen, had a direct financial and political interest and in fact sold his share of the estates before the verdict was given. The Church would also profit from the confiscation of his property. A couplet from an old illustration to Bluebeard runs through my head: "And then they all with gold and plate and jewels rare made free/ And ever after lived content on Bluebeard's property"... But there was another political factor, seldom mentioned by biographers until recently - both Jean V and Jean de Malestroit favoured the English side in the war. Jehanne had already been disgraced, burned not as a witch but as a relapsed heretic, but her death had not silenced the rumours of godliness and legend had it that her pure heart would not burn. Gilles de Rais had been the bravest and most loyal of her captains, his name was inextricably associated with hers. To smear him was to smear Jehanne and the whole French cause. And hence, I believe, some of the most monstrous allegations ever heard in any court were made, and made with such force that even though the full horror was censored and bowdlerized for centuries he still became the incarnation of evil, Bluebeard, a bogeyman for French children. Yet when he died the whole of Nantes wept and processed to the gallows to pray for his soul, and the little boys of Nantes were whipped until they bled so that they would never forget him. When his daughter erected an expiatory monument at the spot where he was hanged, it became a place of pilgrimage for breast-feeding mothers because it was reputed to give abundant milk. And neither his family nor his friends ever accepted his guilt. In all of this there is a disturbing odour of sanctity.
Gilles de Rais made a full confession, after initially defying the court, and this was lurid in the extreme and has always been considered proof absolute of his guilt. It was also as improbable as the evidence in other witch trials, of which this should certainly be considered one. Bodies were supposed to have been burned in a large fireplace - in fact, it is almost impossible to burn a human body in this way. Gilles was reckoned to be a pederast whose tastes ran to boys between the ages of seven and twenty - this is highly unlikely as men with a sexual interest in children tend to fixate at one age. It was stated that girls would be taken when no boys were available, although there is no record of any girl child being missing. Mothers continued to send their sons on errands to his castles and even to let them live there as pages although there were supposedly rumours that the Baron de Rais was some kind of ogre, eating children or possibly writing a huge grimoire in their blood. At one point, three dozen or more disintegrating bodies were said to have been removed from one castle to another by river, so no great care was taken to leave no evidence, and yet no trace of these alleged crimes was found anywhere, not a bone or a drop of blood.
In fact, Gilles's confession was made under threat of torture and also excommunication, which as a superstitious man he dreaded. He was also told that if he made a full confession of his "crimes" he would be allowed the mercy of being taken from the fire after being hanged. Since hanging was often not a fast death, the alternative to admitting to whatever his judges had dreamed up was a lingering death by simultaneous strangulation and burning - the fate which awaited his loyal, luckless bodyservants. Gilles de Rais was a brave man, but he can be forgiven for flinching from this, especially as he would also have died excommunicate and therefore risked going from one hell to another.
The alleged accomplices get short shrift in most accounts of Gilles's life. They were Henri Griart, known as Henriet, and Etienne Corillaut, nicknamed Poitou, who may have been Gilles's lover. They are actually critical to the narrative for many reasons, the first being - why them? Gilles was surrounded by a virtually all-male entourage, all of whom were implicated in whatever had been going on. His two cousins had fled and nobody seems to have sought to bring them to justice - presumably their high birth protected them. However, there was an Italian alchemist called Francesco Prelati and a defrocked priest, Eustache Blanchet. Both were arrested, both gave evidence, both were as guilty (or innocent) as anybody else. Yet the only ones who paid the ultimate price were two lowly, and frankly expendable, servants. This does seem rather cynical of the authorities, they could surely have hanged the charlatan Prelati at the very least. Presumably he and Blanchet were paid spies, there is no other explanation for their mysterious immunity.
Another reason why Poitou and Henriet are so crucial is that their evidence completely destroys the case for the prosecution. That they were tortured is so obvious that one feels embarrassed for the historians who have failed to notice and have ranted about how perfectly each story corroborates the other. Too perfectly. It is almost impossible to get two people to agree completely about something they have witnessed - they notice different details or disagree on minor points. These two almost seem to be looking through the same eyes. At one point they are describing the removal of some desiccated bodies from a tower and they use almost the same words: they could not count the bodies, but did a rough estimate from the number of heads, either thirty-six or forty-six... When I read this I was dumbfounded, every last doubt I might have had about Gilles de Rais's innocence evaporated instantly. These men were tortured and simply reciting the words that had been put in their mouths, just like those "witches" who enthusiastically told of flying to the Sabbath on a goat's back and kissing the Devil under his tail. The only moment at which their evidence differs is when Poitou speaks of two sexual experiences with his master; this has the ring of truth and is deeply poignant. Poitou was in his mid twenties when he was hanged and burned.
As soon as evidence is shown to have been produced under torture or the threat of torture, the trial begins to disintegrate. All the confessions are now seen to be suspect and all that is left is the statements by outsiders, parents who had lost children, people who had heard dark rumours of vanished boys. We should be on firmer ground here; this must be impossible to explain away. It is not. And here I am indebted to the revisionist scholar Kathleen Lehman who has been through these documents with a fine-tooth comb and unpicked all the inherent contradiction. Much of it is unashamed hearsay with nothing to back it up at all: it boils down to "I heard somebody say that so-and-so lost a son" etc. What is more, the solid evidence can be traced back to just eight witnesses - I had always suspected that the evidence was bought in by the yard, but had no idea that so few witnesses would have to be suborned. Or that it would be so cheap - there had been a famine in 1437 and people were desperately poor. Five of the eight main witnesses were widows or relying on charity. This was a time when nobody would raise an eyebrow when a woman alleged that she had sold her son as a page for the price of a new dress. All of these eight suspect witnesses freely associated with other witnesses during the trial. And so an almost overwhelming mass of evidence melts away like those illusory gold ingots as we realise that very few named children (and no girls) were missed and that those few were wandering about from village to village in a completely lawless time and place. Some may have been abducted or killed by brigands, but the evidence that Gilles de Rais had any part in their vanishing is simply not there. What we see is mass hysteria, like the crying out of witches. As soon as Gilles was condemned, the fickle crowd turned back to him as passionately as it had howled for his death. Would these people have wept so loudly if this man had been predating on their children for several years? It seems unlikely.
Gilles de Rais was doomed from the moment of his arrest. It was strongly implied at his trial that his "unnatural sin of lust" was responsible for earthquakes, famines and plagues, but it was not for sodomy or even for murder that he was condemned to die: he could have been pardoned for those. He was executed solely for heresy, against which charge there was no defence. Gilles began by refusing to answer the charges, calling his judges ribalds and simoniacs with no authority over him; knowing what we now know, he seems to have been in the right of it. However, he was excommunicated and threatened with torture and must have seen that the outcome was fixed no matter what he did. He made the confession that hanged him, but he won a small, significant victory: he refused to admit to being tempted by the devil to commit these alleged crimes. From storming and raging he became calm, accepting his fate and meeting death like a perfect Christian gentleman. He even insisted that he should go to the gallows ahead of his servants in case they might think that they were to be punished while he was spared at the last moment. As a reward for his confession, he was granted a final privilege - his body was to be removed from the flames before it could be consumed. This was in itself a cynical act on the part of the authorities, as if Gilles had genuinely been practising witchcraft it would have been vital to destroy the physical integrity of his body by reducing it to ashes. However, he was indeed taken from the pyre and entombed in the church of Notre Dame des Carmes. Even there he was not allowed to rest in peace forever, as his tomb was smashed and its contents scattered during the Revolution three hundred-odd years later.
And thus began his afterlife. Myths and untruths swarmed round him like flies round honey. Much of what seems to be fact turns out to be fiction - for instance, the dramatic moment in his trial when the evidence is so sordid that the Bishop of Nantes rises and veils the crucifix is fiction. This, and much else, was invented by J-K Huysmans in his novel Là-Bas. Then there is the Bluebeard myth. At some point Gilles de Rais and Barbe Bleue became inseparable, and there is a persistent and particularly annoying potted version of his life which suddenly segues into the fairy tale halfway through, as if the killing of wives would be far more acceptable than the killing of children. Novels have been written about him. Aleister Crowley wrote a teasing, disingenuous and (apparently) banned lecture which concluded that he was probably a victim of the Catholic Church's fear of knowledge - although one suspects that Crowley, who revelled in his Wickedest Man in the World tag, simply did not want a serious rival... In France he features as a character in bandes-dessinées, graphic novels. The racehorse that won the Two Thousand Guineas in the year of my birth was named after him, as is a Japanese rock band; dozens of internet-users worldwide have appropriated his name, he is a character in the role-playing game Castlevania and he has been the subject of a highly ambiguous modern opera (Tombeau de Gilles de Rais by Enzo Cormann/ Edith Canat de Chizy) as well as the Cradle of Filth album. In his homeland, however, he was mostly ignored until the 1990s when the tourist board of Brittany had what must have seemed a very good idea at the time. Realising that the sulphurous myth of Gilles de Rais, Bluebeard, would be a powerful tourist attraction they began to capitalize upon it, hanging his banner from the ruins of his castles, putting on tournaments and son et lumière. I often wonder what took them so long. I was in the Pays de Retz in 1973 and there was nothing at all to say he had ever lived there; it was possible to wander around what remains of Champtocé and even descend into the crypt. Local people did not know the name of Gilles de Rais, the only response I got to my enquiries (in Machecoul) was "Ah! Le château de Barbe Bleue!". This has all changed now, Brittany having belatedly decided that the disgraced son might after all be a cash cow.
As part of this reinvention, a Vendéen writer named Gilbert Prouteau was hired to write a new biography of Gilles. But he was ill-chosen for the task in hand, which was merely to rubber-stamp the official version of the story, namely that Jehanne la Pucelle's brave captain had unfortunately gone mad after her death and dabbled in witchcraft and murder. Prouteau took his task seriously, investigated the facts and produced a revisionist biography that concluded, sensationally, that Gilles was an innocent man. And not only that, he summoned a Court of Cassation in Nantes to re-try the case - this was in the autumn of 1992 and it resulted in the acquittal of Gilles de Rais. This was reported worldwide and I found out about it when that wonderful, spurious picture of the dark man with the battle-axe was reprinted on the front page of The Guardian, to my great shock and delight. The Breton tourist board was less than impressed and is still muttering darkly and spitting blood to this day.
It has taken centuries for Gilles de Rais's name to be cleared, and it will be many years before he is entirely free of the stain on his character that was deliberately put there by ruthless enemies. But it is already almost impossible to pick up a book or go to a website that does not at least, however grudgingly, mention the doubts about his trial and conviction. There is also a new legend in the making, which I have been unable to confirm or deny, since the only reference for it is a book about Béla Bartók (who wrote Duke Bluebeard's Castle). This is the rumour that at some time, presumably in the nineties, person or persons unknown proposed Gilles de Rais for canonisation. The proposal was rejected, as one might expect. I think, however, it will only be a matter of time before he is elevated to the sainthood with Jehanne - the Church destroyed him and it owes him this much.
Saint Gilles de Rais... it has a certain ring to it.