Gilles de Rais (Gilles de Retz) (1404–1440) was a wealthy and distinguished French nobleman executed on charges of child murder, performances of the Black Mass, and sacrifices to the Devil.
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, the baron de Rais, distinguished himself in the military as a young man. He took up the side of the dauphin Charles in Charles’ dispute with the English over the French throne and was assigned to Joan of Arc’s guard. He fought several battles with Joan and accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of the victorious dauphin as Charles VII. The king named him marshal of France. After Joan was captured by the English in 1431 and executed, Gilles returned to his family lands in Brittany.
He had enormous wealth—besides his inheritance, he had married a wealthy woman in 1420—and he lived in a more lavish style than even the king. He employed hundreds of servants, hired 200 knights as bodyguards, and held extravagant parties. Gilles eventually spent all his money and went deeply in debt. He began selling off lands to pay off debt and finance his high-style living. In 1435, Charles officially prohibited him to sell or mortgage more land.
Desperate, Gilles turned to alchemy and began invoking Demons in an attempt to gain more riches. Rumors began to circulate that Gilles was involved in far more than alchemy but was kidnapping children for sexual abuse and ritual torture and murder. The duke of Brittany and his chancellor, who were interested in confiscating Gilles’ lands if they could have him convicted of heresy, probably encouraged the rumors. Gilles was arrested in September 1440 and charged with abducting and murdering more than 140 children in Black Mass rituals. He was brought to trial in Nantes before both an ecclesiastical court and a civil court.
The church inquisitors brought 47 charges against Gilles. Among them were accusations that he sodomized boys and girls; hung them until they were nearly dead, raped them, and then cut off their heads; and burned, tortured, and dismembered them. He was alleged to have let many bleed to death slowly, having intercourse with them while they died or after they were dead. He supposedly cut out their eyes and organs with a dagger and offered them to the Devil. He was accused of gloating over their pain and suffering.
Gilles refused to plead to the charges, which he said were not true. He was threatened with excommunication and so pleaded not guilty. The ecclesiastical trial lasted 40 days. Gilles was tortured until he confessed not only to committing the crimes but to enjoying them as well. Several of his servants and alleged accomplices also were tortured.
In the civil court parents of missing children testified that their children had disappeared in the vicinity of Gilles’ castle. Gilles’ personal attendants testified they had witnessed his defiling and murdering children and had counted their heads.
Gilles was condemned for heresy, sodomy, and sacrilege and was found guilty of murder. The civil court sentenced him to death. On October 26, 1440, Gilles was executed. By some accounts, he was hanged. By other accounts, he was strangled and set to burn, the common punishment for witches and sorcerers, and his family was permitted to remove his body and bury it in a Carmelite church.