Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

GILLES DE RAIS

Downfall

Just because Gilles was trying to summon a demon did not mean his bloodlust was ignored. Rather, the debauchery and murder continued unabated. Gilles had several near-misses in terms of being caught, and historians speculate that Rene de Rais and other close family members were quite aware of what Gilles was doing. The relationship between Rene and his brother was strained, but amiable. Rene, who had taken the name of his grandfather, la Suze, was constantly after his brother for his spendthrift ways. As in so many families, Rene and Gilles were opposites in many ways, although Rene was just as brave in battle. He was equally devout and more fiscally conservative.
Rene managed to have the king issue an edict preventing Gilles from selling any of the family estates, and gained control of the chateau at Champtoce. When Gilles learned his brother was moving into Champtoce, he panicked. Rene was clearly acting in an aggressive manner to curtail Gilles' spending and it was only a matter of time before his younger brother moved to have Machecoul taken as well. That would spell doom for de Rais, who took action to cover his tracks. Gilles dispatched Poitou and Henriet to Machecoul and ordered them to burn the bodies of the 40 or so children he had stored in a tower.
They complied, but by then it was almost too late. Some noble friends spied on the two servants as they completed their grisly task. Their reaction was not what one would expect: they ignored what they saw. After all, the victims were only miserable peasant children. "Justice reacted on the occasion of another affair; under certain circumstances justice might have closed its eyes," wrote French historian Georges Bataille.
Gilles' fear that Rene was on the march and intended to occupy Machecoul was well-founded and correct. Three weeks after moving into Champtoce, Rene and a cousin Andre de Laval-Loheac occupied Machecoul to prevent Gilles from liquidating any more family property. Gilles de Sille and a servant had been charged with making sure the castle was clear of evidence - the alchemy tools had been destroyed earlier when Louis, the Dauphin, came to visit. It was de Sille's job to clean up the bones and he botched the assignment. Two skeletons were found on the grounds and the captain of the guard interrogated Poitou and Henriet about them. The pair denied knowing anything, which was a lie, and the matter was hushed up. "A wall of silence (was) erected round the family," Benedetti writes. "Besides, if they spoke up, the local peasantry might come forward and tell what they knew and the whole family would be plunged into disgrace."
But time was not on the side of Gilles de Rais. Retired from the military at just 36, politically impotent and clearly mad, Gilles was like a wounded shark in a feeding frenzy. He had no real allies and no money to pay an army, he was on thin ice in the eyes of the very powerful church and worst of all, his property was coveted by many different camps. Like predators circling a weakened animal, his enemies waited until the right moment to strike. Gilles' days were numbered, and nothing, supernatural or otherwise, could change that.
The end came in 1440, after a Gilles desperately put together a group of brigands and converged on the church at St. Etienne de Mermorte during High Mass. Breaking into the church, wild-eyed and brandishing a double-edged axe, Gilles threatened the priest and hauled the man away. The priest was the brother of the treasurer of Brittany who was charged with occupying a chateau owned by Gilles, which he was forced to sell. Gilles demanded the priest relinquish Brittany's claim on the property.
Although Lord de Rais had sexually assaulted and murdered at least 30 children, robbed and pillaged the merchants and bourgeois inhabitants of Brittany, Anjou and his own province of Pays de Rais, and dabbled in the forbidden arts of alchemy and black magic, it wasn't until he kidnapped an important priest from inside a church that someone decided that he had gone too far.
It was no secret that Jean V, duke of Brittany, coveted the lands and estates of Gilles de Rais, and would do whatever was necessary to have them. He formed an alliance with the Bishop of Nantes, Jean de Malestroit, who had been an enemy of de Rais for many years. Once again, as it was when the nobles watched de Rais' valets dispose of his Champtoce victims, the deaths of peasant children meant nothing to the duke and the bishop. This wasn't a justice issue to them, it was purely economics.
Malestroit began secretly taking depositions and gathering information about Gilles de Rais. One can only imagine what he must have thought when he learned of the book of spells written in children's blood or how Gilles enjoyed sitting on the stomachs of dying children and masturbating. Even though his stated purpose was to ruin a political foe, the bishop's stomach must have turned as he heard witness after witness come forward with tales of missing children or suspicious men with their faces covered by black veils prowling the countryside kidnapping innocent shepherd boys.
It was in July 1440 that Malestroit went public with his findings. As bishop of Nantes, he published an incendiary account of interviews with seven commoners who live in under the rule of Gilles. In the report he asserted that "Milord Gilles de Rais, knight, lord, and baron, our subject and under our jurisdiction, with certain accomplices, did cut the throats of, kill and heinously massacre many young and innocent boys, that he did practice with these children unnatural lust and the vice of sodomy, often calls up or causes others to practice the dreadful invocation of demons, did sacrifice to and make pacts with the latter, and did perpetrate other enormous crimes within the limits of our jurisdiction..."
Despite the harsh words from the cathedral in Nantes, Gilles remained resolute in his defiance and naivete. He was the Marshal of France, the king's military chief of staff, summoner of demons and lord of Pays de Rais. No one would dare come to Tiffauges to accuse him of heresy or murder. His co-conspirators, however, were not so confident. Gilles de Sille and Roger de Briqueville, having stashed away money for just such a situation, immediately fled Tiffauges and disappeared into history. Poitou, Henriet, Prelati and Blanchet remained in Tiffauges with their master to await their fate. Henriet was so frightened of what the future held that he considered slicing his own throat.
In August, the Constable of France, brother of the Duke of Brittany, seized Tiffauges and waited for permission from the secular authorities to arrest Lord de Rais who remained holed up in the castle at Machecoul. In a separate inquiry from the ecclesiastical probe, representatives of the king heard much of the same evidence and also prepared documents to arrest de Rais. But it was not until September 14, 1440 that Bishop Malestroit issued the arrest warrant for the gang. In a letter to all the priests under his jurisdiction, he ordered them to find Gilles de Rais, arrest him and bring him to Nantes to face an inquisition.
The next day, the Duke of Brittany's men arrived at the gates of Machecoul and took Gilles and his servants into custody. He was brought to Nantes, where he first appeared before the secular court to answer for the allegations concerning his attack on the church at St. Etienne. Interestingly, the transcript of this hearing makes absolutely no mention of any murders or supernatural dabbling.

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