Anyone who has studied French history or watched the movie The Messenger is likely familiar with the story of Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans. Joan lived from 1412 CE to 1431 CE and was noted for leading the French army to victory in several battles of the Hundred Years’ War. Whether or not you believe she had divine guidance the fact is that she did have a strong belief in God, and her actions did change the history of France forever. She was sold to the English and ultimately burned to death at the stake. Hundreds of years later, she was beatified and then canonized and has since become one of France’s patron saints.
While she may have lived a pious life, some of her companions certainly did not. One of the most notorious was Gilles de Rais who lived from 1404 CE to 1440 CE. While he is known as one of Joan of Arc’s companions, his actions during the war are vastly overshadowed by his actions as a serial killer who slaughtered many children during the years between 1432 CE and 1440 CE.
Gilles’ military career was a distinguished one. He was known for his recklessness and bravery on the field of battle and was present when Joan of Arc ended the Siege of Orleans, one of the turning points of the Hundred Years’ War and her first military victory. Some of his rewards for valor in battle and military actions included being made a Marshal of France and the awarding of letters patent that allowed Gilles to add the fleur-de-lys to his coat of arms.
After Gilles retired from military duty and public life, he began to change his lifestyle. He constructed a chapel where he officiated. He also staged a theatrical spectacle that ended up almost bankrupting him. He was even forced to sell off his family properties in order to bring in the money needed to support his lifestyle. He also began to have a deeper interest in the occult. According to records at his trial, Gilles met a man named Francesco Prelati who convinced Gilles that regaining his fortune would be possible if he were to sacrifice children.
Gilles de Rais not only killed children he performed unnatural acts on them before their death and would often dismember them once they were dead. Many of the unpleasant details that came out at his trial were furnished by Etienne Corrillaut, a body servant of Gilles de Rais. While it was known that he had killed many children, the exact number is not known. Many people feel that the numbers are much higher than the 80 to 200 children he is commonly believed to have killed. Many peasants who lived around his castle claimed that their children had begged for food at the castle and then were never seen again.
Gilles de Rais’ crimes would likely have taken much longer to come to light if he had not kidnapped a priest in 1440. The following investigation turned up evidence of his heinous crimes and massive amounts of testimony was unearthed. Henriet (another of Gilles’ body servants) and Corrillaut testified about his crimes and Gilles also confessed. All three of the men were hung and then burned although Gilles’ body was removed from the flames and later buried at a monastery in Nantes.