Gilles de Rais was born in a commune in France called the Champtocé-sur-Loire to Guy II de Montmorency-Laval and Marie de Craon. His exact date of birth is unknown, but was thought to be some time in late 1405. Gilles was known to be an intelligent child. He spoke fluent Latin, illuminated transcripts and divided his education between military discipline and intellectual development.
After the deaths of his parents in 1415, Gilles and his younger brother were placed under the guardianship of their maternal grandfather Jean de Craon. Craon was a schemer; he attempted to arrange a marriage of then 12-year old Gilles to a 4-year old named Jeanne Paynel, who was one of the richest heiresses in Normandy. When this plan failed, he attempted to arrange a marriage between Gilles and Béatrice de Rohan, who was the niece to the Duke of Brittany. This marriage was also unsuccessful.
Finally, on November 30th, 1420, Craon was successful in arranging a marriage between Gilles and Catherine de Thouars, who was the heiress of La Vendée and Poitou. This union produced one child, Marie, who was born in 1429.
Gilles was introduced to the court of Charles VII (who was the king of France until 1461) and learned courtly manners by studying the Dauphin. From 1427 to 1435, he served as a commander in the Royal Army, and was distinguished for his bravery on the battlefield during the renewal of the Hundred Years War.
In 1429, Gilles fought along Joan of Arc in some of the campaigns against the English, including the lifting of the Siege of Orléans. He was officially created a Marshal of France on July 17th, 1429, which is France's highest military distinction.
Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in May 1431, and Gilles was not present for this. His grandfather died on November 15th, 1432, and Craon left his sword and breastplate to his other grandson René de La Suze. This was done to publicly show his displeasure at Gilles' reckless spending habits.
Gilles withdrew from the military life in either 1434 or 1435, so that he could pursue his interests in theater and the construction of a Chapel of the Holy Innocents. His theater production, Le Mistère du Siège d'Orléans, consisted of more than 20,000 lines of verse, required 140 speaking parts and 500 extras. Gilles was almost bankrupt at the time of production, and began selling his properties to support his spending habits.
By March 1433, he had sold most of his properties and was only left with two castles. Half of his property sales were used to fund his theater production. He even investigated the occult as a mean to save his finances, and employed scores of alchemists and sorcerers to summon a demon named Barron.
The demon manifestation was unsuccessful after three attempts, and Gilles grew frustrated. He offered his cleric François Prelati child parts to use as an offering. Prelati says the parts were provided in glass vessels but they were still unable to help the cleric summon the demon.
Gilles confessed that he committed his first assaults on children between 1432 and 1433. The murders occurred at Champtocé-sur-Loire, but no records of them survived. Soon after, Gilles moved to Machecoul, where he confessed to killing, and ordering the killings, of a large number of children after he sodomized them.
The first documented case of child kidnapping and murder involves a 12-year-old boy called Jeudon, who was an apprentice to a furrier named Guillaume Hilariet. Gilles' cousins Gilles de Sillé and Roger de Briqueville asked the furrier to lend them the boy so that he could take a message to Machecoul for them. When Jeudon did not return, Gilles' cousins told the furrier that they didn't know where the boy was, and even suggested that he may have been kidnapped by thieves at Tiffauges to be made a servant.
Gilles' body-servant Etienne Corrillaut was an accomplice in many of these crimes, and testified that his master stripped the children and hung them with ropes to prevent them from crying out. Gilles then masturbated over the child's stomach or thighs and, if the victim was a boy, he would touch his genitals and buttocks. After taking the child down, Gilles would comfort the child and tell them that he only wanted to play. He would then kill the child or had the child killed by his cousin de Sillé, Corrillaut or another servant named Henriet.
The victims were killed by decapitation, dismemberment, cutting their throats or breaking their necks with a stick. A short, thick, double edged sword was kept at hand to commit these murders. Corrillaut testified that Gilles sometimes abused the victims before killing them and at other times, after the victims were already decapitated.
Gilles confessed that after the children were killed, he kissed them and "those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed".
Corrillaut testified that he and the other servant Henriet burned the bodies in Gilles' fireplace. The victim's clothing were placed into the fireplace piece by piece so that they would burn slowly and minimize the smell of burning flesh.
The last recorded murder was of the son of a man named Éonnet de Villeblanche, who was assaulted, murdered and incinerated in August 1440.
Trial and Execution
Gilles kidnapped a cleric during a dispute at the Church of Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte on May 15th, 1440. This prompted an investigation by the Bishop of Nantes, and it was then that evidence of Gilles' crimes were discovered.
On July 29th, the Bishop released his findings, and Gilles, along with his servants, were arrested on September 15th 1440. Their charges included murder, sodomy and heresy.
The number of Gilles' victims are unknown, and most of the bodies were either burned or buried. The age of the victims ranged from 6 to 18, and most of them were boys.
On October 23rd, 1440, Corrillaut and Henriet were sentenced to death after the court heard their confessions. Gilles was sentenced to death on October 25th. All three men were hanged until they were dead and their bodies burned on October 26th. Gilles' body was taken out of the fire before it burned completely, and was buried behind the church of the monastery of the Notre-Dame des Carmes.
Even though Gilles and his servants confessed to these crimes, there are some who think that they are innocent. Some theories say that Gilles was a victim of a plot of revenge by the Catholic Church or the French State. Doubts also persisted after the Duke of Brittany, who prosecuted the trial, received all titles to Gilles' lands after he was convicted. The duke then divided the land among his own nobles.