Have you ever met a serial killer
Gilles de Rais: One of the worst serial killers in history is a knight
In the 15th century France is a land of death: English, French and Burgundian knights fight each other in battles, bandits loot areas empty, the Black Death eats thousands. But the most gruesome place in these gruesome times is a Breton city known for no battlefield, no gangs, no plague epidemic - a city where only one murderer searches for victims.
But this murderer takes his victims day after day and year after year, and nobody can stop him.
Perhaps a few hundred people live in Machecoul in Brittany. A good ten kilometers away in the west of the Atlantic waves, about 40 kilometers to the northeast is Nantes, the only significant town in this region. The houses of Machecoul lie in the shadow of the walls and the massive tower of a castle.
Sometime around 1432 - later no one will be able to remember the exact date - the furrier Guillaume Hilairet in Machecoul sends his twelve-year-old apprentice to this gloomy castle on an errand.
Nobody ever sees the boy again afterwards.
Gilles de Rais: The Monster of Machecoul
In the fortress resides Gilles de Rais, a knight and marshal of France, brother in arms of the highly revered Joan of Arc, hero of the Hundred Years War, commander of a private army, master of the land and thus of all the people who live there.
So nothing can be done - except to be silent and to be afraid of the monster of Machecoul.
So begins, with missing boys and terrorized parents, a series of murders like no other in history. Gilles de Rais kills children as regularly as other people eat bread - for seven or eight years, almost without pausing. Nobody falls into his arms, although rumors waft through the country. Until the knight finally brings himself down in haughty brutality.
Only then will judges and inquisitors bring him to trial - it will be one of the most spectacular trials of the century, with sobbing witnesses, gruesome revelations, theatrical confessions and spectacular executions.
But even the brightest inquisitor can never answer the crucial questions: Who is this Gilles de Rais? And why did he do what he did?
The story in brief
The Frenchman Gilles de Rais is a hero of the Hundred Years War, Jeanne d'Arc's protection officer - and child murderer hundreds of times. Servants and entourage help the knight as accomplices, and thanks to his high social rank he can kill unhindered for years. Because the lower classes are unable to do anything against him, and the nobility lets him go - until he finally falls out of favor among his own kind.
One day after the disappeared's parents complained loudly about their loss, Jean Roussin lets his nine-year-old son go to the fields to tend the animals. A neighbor watches as the child speaks to a servant from the castle, a man in a black cloak with a cloth over his face.
Alexandre Chastelier also soon misses his son, and Macé Sorin his. The widow Jeanne Édelin lives near the castle and has an eight-year-old filius, "very beautiful, very pure, very clever," as she says. At some point he's gone. Nobody ever sees the boys again.
So, very slowly, a terrible suspicion seeps into the citizens of Machecoul: that their children will disappear forever in this castle.
What, God have mercy on the young, is happening behind these walls? And what can you do?
In France in 1432 nobody knows what peace feels like anymore
As if there wasn't enough blood already in France. Because in 1432 nobody lives anymore who still knows what peace is. Since 1337 a conflict has been devastating the empire, which will one day be called the “Hundred Years War” and which is nothing other than the brutal power struggle of a noble elite.
It was triggered by England's King Edward III, who claimed the French throne due to dynastic connections. Since then, English armies have repeatedly plundered France. They are temporarily allied with the armies of the Duke of Burgundy and have occupied the north of the country and even Paris.
The French kings and their knights defend themselves against the attackers, but France's monarchs are mostly weak characters, the nobles fickle, often incompetent fighters. Neither side is strong enough to force the other down.
And so the war drags on: few major battles, many skirmishes, plus plundering gangs of deserted soldiers and uprooted peasants. Some regions are devastated with terrible regularity, in others life goes on almost undisturbed.
And sometimes there is no fighting at all, because the plague has raged since 1348, and the years of plague are so terrible that no one has the strength to kill.
A girl from a fairy tale
It is a girl from a fairy tale who finally overcomes this terrible stalemate of death and exhaustion: the farmer's daughter Jeanne d’Arc, a nobody for the proud clerics and knights.
The young woman preaches like a saint the resistance against the invaders. Even sober historical analysis cannot really explain its success. In January 1429, Jeanne, who was not even 17 years old, appeared before an influential knight and explained to him that the archangels and saints were speaking to her and had ordered her to free France!
This girl speaks so invincibly that she casts a spell over the high lord and then more and more knights. A few weeks later, Jeanne appeared before King Charles VII of France. She was sent from heaven to save the country! And the fairytale actually comes true: Jeanne d’Arc persuades the insecure ruler to raise a new army to oppose the English.
Alone: She unleashes a new fighting spirit in war-weary men - but she has no military knowledge. The king puts knights at her side as commanders. One of them has little experience but has good connections with the court: Gilles de Rais.
The aristocrat was just 24 years old when the king ordered him to join Joan of Arc. He was born in a castle on the Loire and lost his parents at an early age, perhaps to illness. At the age of eleven he came into the care of his grandfather, Jean de Craon. He is a cynical man who is ready for any act of violence out of greed - and who involves his grandson in his crimes.
What does the boy experience in the brutal grandfather's castle? One can only speculate; Gilles himself sees the seed of his own violence in his neglected upbringing. “In his youth”, he will later confess, he was “always of a sensitive nature” and was able to do whatever he wanted to evil “for his pleasure and according to his will”. He will never reveal details.
At first he grew up to be a knight. A cousin, adviser to the king, recommended him at court - and so in 1429 Gilles became an officer alongside Joan of Arc.
The peasant girl has set herself the goal of the city of Orléans, which is besieged by the English, and wants to liberate the strategically important place.
The miracle happens: Fired by Jeanne d’Arc, who in a moment even puts a scaling ladder against the walls of an English bastion and does not allow herself to be deterred from attacking by a crossbow in the shoulder, French soldiers defeat the English. Gilles de Rais, previously a glorious knight, excels in the skirmishes with a terrible fury. What a triumph!
The war is not over with that - it will drag on until 1453. And Jeanne is captured and executed by the English. But from now on the French king is on the offensive (and will eventually recapture his empire).
Gilles de Rais is one of the heroes of the fateful battle of Orléans. He excelled in such a way that the extremely grateful Charles VII conferred on him the honorary title of Marshal of France. The knight could now become one of the most important men of his generation. But soon after Jeanne's death, how strange, he disappears from the center of power.
In his deeds, Gilles de Rais follows a satanic ritual
He no longer takes part in the victorious French campaigns, but the people marvel at him in increasingly eccentric spectacles. So he soon accepted more than 50 clergymen and choirboys into his entourage - oh, choirboys, how he loves church hymns!
200 armed horsemen follow him on his travels when he visits cities like Orléans or Poitiers, trumpeters and heralds announce his arrival, illuminators, armourers and alchemists buzz around the entourage. When the nobleman resided in Orléans for a few months, he rented the finest houses, invited to magnificent theatrical performances - and paid more than 80,000 livres, an incredible waste.
Gilles de Rais spends more money than his lands bring in. So he lives from the substance: sells a castle or cedes land to cover his costs. His addiction is so bottomless that his younger brother René and an influential cousin - both worried about the inheritance - obtain an order from the king in 1435 that forbids any Frenchman from doing business with Gilles.
The once radiant hero of Orléans has thus become a persona non grata: politically and militarily insignificant, a spendthrift who retreats to the Breton castles that still remain to him, for example to Machecoul. Nobody pays him any attention yet. And maybe that's exactly what Gilles wants - because he's no longer just a prasser, but: a murderer.
Gilles de Rais does not want to confess to any of the crimes
He will later recall that his crimes began in the year "my grandfather died". The life of the terrible old man ends on November 15, 1432. Does Gilles de Rais begin his terrible series without warning? Does he lure children to death when the grandfather has given his time? Or already in the weeks before, when the old man is helpless in agony?
Later, during interrogation, Gilles will not confess to any previous crime, and nowhere in the sources is there any concrete reference to crimes before 1432. Indeed, the apprentice of the furrier Guillaume Hilairet may be the first child to fall victim to this terrible knight.
In his deeds, Gilles follows a satanic ritual. And he has helpers: his relatives Gilles de Sillé, the servants Henriet and Poitou as well as boys from his church choir and knights from the entourage - more than a dozen names are named later in the process.
Here, too, one can only speculate today as to what makes them henchmen. Henriet and Poitou, for example, already enter the service of the noble gentleman as adolescents, as do the choristers - perhaps it's a perverse form of terrible upbringing, they just learned it that way from childhood. Gilles de Sillé and some knights, on the other hand, may have been brutalized by the almost eternal war. Perhaps a human life matters so little to them that they calmly obey the commands to use violence.
In any case, these helpers lure pretty boys into the castle. The masked man, for example, whom a witness saw with the nine-year-old son of Jean Roussin, is Gilles de Sillé. The accomplices talk to poor boys, beggars, peasant children, promise them that they can serve as pages or singers with the high Lord de Rais, offer clothes, food and an escape from daily misery. Only if they can't find a boy will they grab girls too.
Sometimes the children were beheaded, sometimes their throats cut, sometimes their bodies were cut
Once the castle gate has closed behind the unsuspecting child, it is led into a specially prepared room. In the interrogation protocol of the servant Poitou you can read what happened afterwards.
The witness testifies that, before Gilles de Rais committed his debauchery to the said boy or girl, she hung a hook with a rope around her neck with her own hands so that she would not scream. Then he let them down again, stroked them and assured them that he would not hurt them, on the contrary, he wanted to have fun. Then Gilles de Rais rubbed his penis on the belly of the boys and girls, ignoring the natural vessel of the girls, with great pleasure and passion until he ejaculated his sperm on their bellies. Then sometimes he killed her with his own hand, or it was said Sillé or said Henriet or the witness himself, Poitou, or someone else. When asked about the method, the witness replied: Sometimes the children were beheaded, sometimes their throats were cut, sometimes their bodies were divided, and sometimes they were killed with a club blow on the neck.
The witness describes with delusional precision that de Rais sometimes sexually abused his victims before the murder or afterwards “when the body is still warm” - sometimes at the exact moment when blood splatters from wounds and they die under him.
Gilles and his cronies open their bodies, delight in the sight of the organs. The knight kisses the severed skull, lets his helpers compare the head with those of the previous day: which one is the most beautiful?
In the end, exhausted, the murderer retires to sleep. The helpers wipe up the blood. They throw the small bodies into dungeons under a castle tower, like rubbish. Later they will burn the corpses in a large fireplace, including the clothes, piece by piece, "so that it doesn't smoke treacherously," as the horribly loyal servant notes.
The serial killer does not comment on his motives
Six centuries later, people's bewilderment still shines through in the protocol (written in Latin). Again and again the judge asks the knight why he did this.
The President, surprised by the fact that he says that the accused has committed all of his crimes on his own initiative and without the instigation of others, exhorted the accused to state his motives in order to ease his conscience and obtain the grace of the Savior. The defendant grew angry at having been admonished and replied in French: “Oh monsieur, you are torturing yourself and me too!” The President said: “I do not torture myself in the least, but the answer gives me satisfaction not, I want to know the absolute truth. ”To which said defendant replied:“ Verily, there was no other motive, no other cause, no other goal. I've already told them enough to execute ten thousand men. "
Enough said? Nobody really knows when and how he will develop his gruesome ritual. Didn't he discover sadistic pleasure in the agony of others at the side of Jeanne d'Arc during the war? Or even as an unsupervised boy in the brutal grandfather's castle?
What is certain is that Gilles de Rais murders almost non-stop from around 1432: in the castles of Machecoul, Tiffauges and Champtocé as well as on trips in any houses where he takes up quarters. In Vannes, for example, one of the choirboys lures a ten-year-old to a knight who sexually abuses his victim and then has him murdered. The servant Poitou remembers this particular murder, so one can assume that he is supposed to hide the corpse in a latrine afterwards - and Poitou has to go down into the lavatory to push the body under the rubbish.
And never, never did anyone fight back.
Those who complained risked incarceration or abuse
The shoemaker André Barbe from Machecoul, for example, will only dare to make a statement at the trial: Yes, the son of Georges Le Barbier disappeared while picking apples and the child of Guillaume Jeudon and the child of Jean Roussin and that of Alexandre Chastelier, “and he still heard complaints about the loss of other children from the said place Machecoul ”, so the protocol.
Neighbors warn Barbe and his wife to "take care of their own child so that it is not abducted, and they are very afraid of it." And when Barbe once told someone in a neighboring town that he was from Machecoul, the stranger was shocked “and told him that they were eating children there”.
And yet: André Barbe added that nobody dared to talk about it, “for fear of those in the chapel of Gilles de Rais - and for fear of his other men. Those who complained risked incarceration or abuse ”.
The knight is so powerful that he can kill children at will without fear of the consequences. Its aura is so powerful that it makes any complaints roll off. No farmer or craftsman could put the lord of the castle in his place. What goes on behind the walls of his bastion remains a mystery. And perhaps it is precisely this mere suspicion, this inexact knowledge, which intensifies the horror and makes the gloomy power of the murderous nobleman unconquerable in the first place.
The serial killer makes a mistake
In the end, de Rais puts the noose around his neck himself, but it takes years to tighten. He continues to live wastefully. In the village of Machecoul he founds a chapel dedicated to the “innocent children”, and each of the frightened citizens may think of their part.
In 1437 he had to cede Machecoul Castle to his brother and cousin in a dispute over family ownership. "Two or three weeks before the handover", so Henriet and Poitou in almost identical statements, the servants have to "fetch the skeletons of about 40 children from the tower near the lower hall and burn them".
Strange things happen in the process: Another murder helper secretly lets two aristocratic ladies go to Machecoul so that the gentlemen can watch through a crack while the horrific tidying up.
Is it perverse curiosity? Have the rumors of the beggars and peasants finally trickled down to the other knights, so that one wants to make sure in these circles or even to delve into the murderous acts?
Whatever the case, the perpetrator remains unmolested. When his brother René and his cousin take over the castle, they discover two children's skeletons in a dungeon, apparently of victims that the servants have forgotten. You ask Henriet and Poitou what that means. They pretend to be clueless - and then it follows: nothing. Nobody asks or investigates.
Nevertheless, one must assume that Gilles de Rais was stuck with the plague of the murderer under France's knights by 1437 at the latest: a man with whom it would be better not to have anything to do with. In 1438 he had to cede the Champtocé Castle - again Poitou, Henriet and other helpers disappeared around 40 children's skeletons “as secretly as possible”, they took them away “in three large boxes” and burned them.
The following year, Gilles meets the charming, unscrupulous François Prelati - an Italian who poses as an alchemist and devil conjurer.
Because the knight, whose naivety is almost as great as his sadism, is constantly looking for sorcerers, demon conjurers, miracle workers who should create gold for him in order to pay off his ever increasing debts.
(And maybe they too, but that remains speculation, are supposed to cure that thirst for blood from which he somehow suffers. In any case, he occasionally fantasizes about a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to cleanse himself of his sins in the Holy Land, but never will it come to that.)
Gilles attracts charlatans from far away, who with their jokes take the last of the coins from him. And the most uninhibited of them all is François Prelati: in his early 20s, educated, shrewd - and completely unscrupulous. The knight falls for the charming stranger, possibly also makes him his lover, sees in him the savior.
Prelati, that is how it looks today, takes the aristocracy to him as ice cold. With nocturnal noise in castle chambers, he leads him to think of fights with demons. Or he has circles marked on the ground in the dark, rainy forest and conjures up the devil.
But the Italian discovers all too quickly that something demonic is indeed going on around his new master, something much more devilish than all the tricks with which he blinds the knight: one evening Gilles hands him the severed hand and the torn out heart in a glass of a child - that he might sacrifice the organs to Satan. Nobody knows what Prelati thinks about it; but he stays with the French.
In the end, neither child murder nor devil worship brings Gilles de Rais down, but rather an act of violence that is more common for this era. On May 15, 1440 he stormed a church with 60 armed men and kidnapped the priest - the dispute is once again about the sale of a castle. The clergyman, however, is of aristocratic blood and is also the brother of the treasurer of Duke Johann V of Brittany.
In doing so, Gilles de Rais created powerful enemies: in addition to the duke, also the bishop Jean de Malestroit of Nantes, to whose diocese the vandalized church belongs.
Only now are the nobles using the knowledge about the murders that they have apparently accumulated for years. It seems as if they were just as cold-hearted as Gilles de Rais killed his victims, keeping this knowledge to themselves for years, only to use it when the right occasion comes.
The spook is over, finally
On July 29, 1440, Bishop Jean de Malestroit published a letter in which he alleged, among other things, that “Gilles de Rais and certain accomplices cut the throats of boys, that he committed the sin of sodomy with these children and that he was terrible Demons calling ”.
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