Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

GILLES DE RAIS

The Saint and the Sinner

Having come this far in the story of Gilles de Rais and not encountered a single murder, after sitting through a brief history of the Hundred Years' War (Shakespeare wrote six plays dealing with the subject we have covered in a few thousand words), the reader is asked to indulge in just a little more 15th century politics. For the sake of brevity we will compress the next decade or so into a few paragraphs. For the reader who desires a more in-depth study of the years of Gilles' rise to power, a detailed timeline and bibliography follow this article.

Charles VII of France
Charles VII of France

In the throes of insanity, Charles VI disinherited his son, the Dauphin Charles VII and allowed for negotiation of a peace treaty with England that named Henry V heir to the French throne. The treaty was rejected by many in France who considered the Dauphin to be Prince Regent because of his father's madness. Among the Dauphin's supporters were Jean d'Craon and Gilles de Rais. This backing of the Dauphin was fortuitous for Gilles, because he was with the Prince Regent at Chinon 

when a young woman hearing voices of the saints convinced Charles VII to give her an army with which she promised to relieve the besieged city of Orleans and deliver the throne of France to Charles. This maid was Joan of Arc.

Chateau de Chinon (CORBIS)
Chateau de Chinon (CORBIS)

Dressed in white armor with the Dauphin's coat of arms, Joan traveled with a 10,000 man army. Her primary advisor and general was Gilles de Rais. Over time and several pitched battles, Joan and Gilles liberated Orleans and were able to present the Dauphin to Reims, the ancient site of the coronation of French kings. Gilles de Rais, was charged with carrying the holy chrism, or anointing oil, from Paris to Reims for the coronation. The year was 1429 and the child murders would begin in less than two years.

Political intrigue, infighting among the French, and the first of several sales of property by Gilles de Rais marked the next 18 months or so. Gilles had been given the title Marshal of France – in effect becoming the nation's highest-ranking soldier. His bravery and intelligence on the battlefield were widely known and admired, but he demonstrated a lack of skill in the political arena. He made many enemies among the powerful men of France, enemies who were waiting to pounce on him when the rumors of his bloodlust began to circulate.

An artist's rendering of Joan of Arc
An artist's rendering of Joan
of Arc

George La Tremoille, the king's chief advisor, viewed Joan of Arc as a threat to his own power. An opportunist of the most ruthless sort, La Tremoille had risen to power after kidnapping and murdering Pierre de Giac in 1427 with the help of Constable de Richemont. Pierre de Giac was the favored advisor of Charles VII, and not only did La Tremoille replace him on the king's council, he replaced him in his bed, by marrying Pierre's widow, Catherine – who was suspected of being an accomplice to her first husband's murder. Shortly after being named Chamberlain of France, La Tremoille turned on Richemont and had him banned from the Court of Charles VII.

Tapestry of Joan of Arc
Tapestry of Joan of Arc

As Joan was more and more triumphant and held in high esteem by the people and their king, La Tremoille saw his own influence wane. He set about rectifying the situation by convincing the king to abandon the siege of Paris, where a young Henry VI had crowned himself king of France and England. Joan disagreed with this decision and her downfall from grace began.

La Tremoille's power peaked in 1430 when Joan of Arc was wounded and captured by the Duke of Burgundy, ally of the English. As the chamberlain negotiated a peace accord with Burgundy, Joan languished in a Burgundian prison. Under the customs of the day, she could easily have been ransomed, but La Tremoille managed to convince Charles VII that this was unwise. Gilles de Rais also abandoned the Maid of Orleans who had contributed so much to his career.

In the spring of 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at Rouen, thanks in great part to the machinations of La Tremoille. She was considered a heretic for several years, until the fall of La Tremoille and the ascendancy of her supporters to power. Joan was raised to heroic status by the French; she was canonized in the early 20th century and her feast day at the end of May is a national holiday in France.

For all intents and purposes, Gilles' public career ended in early 1432 when Jean d'Craon died. On his deathbed, Jean expressed remorse for his harsh lifestyle and regret for having raised the monster Gilles de Rais. Attempting to make amends to those he had harmed, he gave property and money to his peasants, compensation to those he had robbed and endowments to two hospitals. He left his sword to Rene de Rais and recanted his prideful living. This public snub of Gilles was a message to Jean's survivors about what he thought of his eldest grandchild. At his request, a simple, humble funeral was held for one of France's most cunning and powerful men.

As Gilles' public service ended, his life of debauchery and decadence began. Freed from the shadow of his grandfather, believing to his core that he was exempt from the laws of decency, amoral and still very wealthy, Gilles devoted the rest of his life toward satisfying his demons.

 

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