Gilles de Rais (1404–1440)
Lord of Rais (or Retz) and marshal of France, the ‘‘Bluebeard’’
of nursery legends, and a famous sorcerer. He was born
Gilles de Laval in September or October 1404 at Machecoul to
one of the most outstanding families of Brittany. His father,
Guy de Montmorency-Laval, died when Gilles was 20 years old,
and the impetuous young man found himself possessed of unlimited
power and wealth.
After his father’s death he became Gilles de Rais, the lord
of 15 princely domains, yielding a revenue of 300,000 livres.
He was handsome and distinguished by a beard of bluish-black.
His appearance was fascinating, his erudition extensive, and
his courage unimpeachable. All this seemed to ensure him a
splendid career, yet the name of Bluebeard came to be associated
with horror and atrocious crimes.
At the outset of his career de Rais did nothing to suggest an
evil predisposition. He served with zeal and gallantry in the
wars of Charles VI against the English and fought under Joan
of Arc in the Siege of Orléans. His exploits won him the dignified
title marshal of France.
From that point de Rais’s career drifted downward. He retired
to his castle of Champtocé and indulged in the display of
his luxury. Two hundred horsemen accompanied him on his
travels, and the magnificence of his hunting entourage exceeded
that of the king himself. His retainers wore the most
sumptuous clothing; his horses were caparisoned with the richest
trappings; his castle gates were open day and night to all
comers. A whole ox was roasted daily for his guests. Sheep,
pigs, poultry, mead, and hippocras (wine) were provided for
five hundred persons.
De Rais carried the same love of pomp into his devotion. His
principal chaplain, a dean, a chanter, two archdeacons, four
vicars, a schoolmaster, twelve assistant chaplains, and eight
choristers comprised his ecclesiastical establishment. Each of
these had his own horse and servant; all were dressed in robes
of scarlet and furs and had costly appointments. Sacred vessels
and crucifixes, all of gold and silver, were transported with
them wherever their lord went, as were many organs, each carried
by six men. De Rais was intent on having all the priests of
his chapel wear the mitre; he sent many embassies to Rome to
obtain this privilege, but without success.
He maintained a choir of 25 young children of both sexes,
who were instructed in singing by the best masters of the day.
He also had comedians, morris dancers, and jugglers, and
every hour was crowned with some sensual gratification or voluptuous
In 1420 Lord de Rais wedded Catherine, the heiress of the
noble House of Thouars. The wedding afforded him a fresh occasion
to display his passion for luxurious pomp. He gave
splendid banquets and participated in chivalric tournaments.
History or Legend
From this point on it is difficult to separate fact from popular
tradition. The folklore version of the horrific events that
transpired is related by Éliphas Lévi in The History of Magic
(1913). Lévi writes ‘‘He had espoused a young woman of high
birth and kept her practically shut up in his castle at Machecoul,
which had a tower with the entrance walled up.’’
Since de Rais had spread a report that the tower was in a ruinous
state, no one sought to enter it. Madame de Rais—who
was frequently alone during the dark hours—saw red lights
moving to and fro in the tower but did not venture to question
her husband, whose bizarre and somber character filled her
with terror.
De Rais’s expenses were so extensive that they eventually exhausted
even his apparently inexhaustible revenues, and to
procure the funds for his pleasures and extravagance he was
compelled to sell several of his baronies.
For de Rais, unable to live in diminished splendor, money
became the principal object of desire, and to obtain it he decided
to turn to alchemy.
He sent accordingly into Italy, Spain, and Germany and invited
the alchemical experts to the splendors of Champtocé.
Among those who obtained the summonses, and continued attached
to de Rais during the remainder of his career, was Prélati,
an alchemist of Padua. At their instigation de Rais built a
stately laboratory and, joined by other alchemists, they eagerly
began the search for the philosophers’ stone. For 12 months
the furnaces blazed brightly and a thousand chemical combinations
disposed of the marshal’s gold and silver.
Impetuous, de Rais could not abide such lingering processes.
He wanted wealth and he wanted it immediately. If the
grand secret could not be discovered by any quicker method,
he would have none of it, nor, as his resources were fast melting
away, would it avail him much if the search occupied several
years. At this junction the Poitousan physician and the Paduan
alchemist whispered to de Rais that there were quicker methods
of obtaining the desired alkahest if he had the courage to
adopt them.
De Rais immediately dismissed the inferior alchemists and
put himself in the hands of the two abler and subtler masters,
one a physician. They persuaded him that the devil could at
once reveal to them the secret and offered to summon him so
that the marshal could conclude with him whatever arrangement
he thought best. Short of sacrificing his soul, the lord of
Rais professed himself willing to do anything the devil might
In this frame of mind he went to the physician at midnight
to a solitary spot in the neighboring woods where the physician
drew a magic circle and made the customary conjurations. De
Rais listened to the invocation with wonder, expecting that at
any moment the Spirit of Darkness would burst upon the startled
silence. After a lapse of 30 minutes, the physician manifested
signs of the greatest alarm—his hair seemed to stand on
end, his eyes glared with unutterable horror, he talked wildly,
his knees shook, a deadly pallor overspread his countenance,
and he sank to the ground.
The lord of Rais was a dauntless man and gazed upon the
strange scene unmoved. After awhile the physician seemed to
recover. He arose and, turning to his master, inquired if he had
not seen the wrathful countenance of the devil. De Rais replied
that he had seen no devil, whereupon the physician declared
that the Evil One had appeared in the form of a wild leopard
and had growled at him horribly.
Lévi quotes the physician ‘‘You would have been the same,
and heard the same, but for your want of faith. You could not
determine to give yourself up wholly to his service, and thereEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Gilles de Rais
fore he thrust a mist before your eyes.’’ De Rais acknowledged
that his resolution had indeed somewhat faltered, but said that
he would believe if the Evil One could really be coerced into revealing
the secret of the universal alkahest.
The physician said certain herbs grew in Spain and Africa
that possessed the power necessary to coerce the devil, and offered
to go in search of them himself if the lord of Rais would
supply the funds. Since no one else would be able to identify
the herbs, de Rais thanked the physician for volunteering and
loaded him with all the gold he could spare. The man then took
leave of his credulous patron, who never saw him again.
As soon as the physician left Champtocé, de Rais was once
more seized with the fever of unrest. His days and nights were
consumed in ceaseless visions of gold.
He now turned for help to the alchemist Prélati, who agreed
to undertake the enterprise if de Rais furnished him with the
necessary charms and talismans. The marshal was to sign with
his blood a contract that he would obey the devil in all things
and offer up a sacrifice of the hands, eyes, blood, heart, and
lungs of a young child. The madman having willingly consented
to these terms, Prélati went out alone on the following night.
After an absence of three hours, he returned to his impatient
lord. His tale was a monstrously extravagant one, but de Rais
believed it.
The devil, Prélati improvised, had appeared in the shape of
a comely young man of 20 who desired to be called ‘‘Barron’’
and had pointed out to him a store of ingots of pure gold buried
under an oak in the adjacent woods. It was to become the
property of the lord of Rais if he fulfilled the conditions of his
contract. But this bright prospect was clouded by the devil’s injunction
that the gold was not to be searched for until a period
of seven times seven weeks had elapsed, or it would turn to
slates and dust.
Gilles was by no means willing to wait so many months for
the realization of his wishes and asked Prélati to inform the
devil that he would decline any further dealings with him if
matters could not be expedited. Prélati persuaded de Rais to
wait for seven times seven days, and then the two went with
pickax and shovel to dig up the treasure.
They eventually dug up a load of slates inscribed with hieroglyphical
characters. Prélati broke into a fit of rage and branded
the Evil One a liar, a knave, and a rogue—de Rais heartily
joining in his fierce denunciations. Prélati persuaded his master
to give the devil a further trial, however, and led him on
from day to day with dark oracular hints and pretended demoniac
intimations until he had obtained nearly all de Rais’s remaining
valuables. He was preparing to escape with his plunder
when a catastrophe occurred that involved him in his lord’s
On Easter Day in the year 1440, Gilles de Rais received
Communion solemnly in his chapel and bade farewell to his
wife, telling her that he was departing to the Holy Land. The
poor woman was even then afraid to question her husband. She
was also several months along in her pregnancy. The marshal
permitted her sister to come on a visit as a companion during
his absence. Madame de Rais took advantage of this indulgence,
after which de Rais mounted his horse and departed.
Madame de Rais communicated her fears and anxieties to
her sister. The two women wondered what went on in the castle.
Why was her lord so gloomy What signified his repeated absences
What became of the children who disappeared day by
day What were those nocturnal lights in the walled-up tower
These and other questions caused both women to burn with curiosity.
But what could they do
The marshal had expressly forbidden them even to approach
the tower, and before leaving he had repeated this injunction.
It must surely have a secret entrance, Madame de Rais
and her sister Anne agreed, and they proceeded to search
through the lower rooms of the castle, corner by corner, stone
after stone. At last, in the chapel, behind the altar, they came
upon a copper button hidden in a mass of sculpture. It yielded
under pressure, a stone slid back, and the trembling curiosity
seekers distinguished the lowermost steps of a staircase, which
led them to the condemned tower.
At the top of the first flight there was a kind of chapel, with
an inverted cross and black candles; on the altar stood a hideous
figure, no doubt representing the devil. On the second
floor they came upon furnaces, retorts, alembics, charcoal—all
the apparatuses of alchemy. The third flight led to a dark
chamber where the heavy and fetid atmosphere compelled the
young women to retreat. Madame de Rais bumped into a vase,
which fell over. She then became aware that her robe and feet
were soaked by some thick liquid. On returning to the light at
the head of the stairs, she found that she was bathed in blood.
Anne would have fled from the place, but Madame de Rais’s
curiosity was stronger than her disgust and fear. She descended
the stairs, took a lamp from the infernal chapel, and returned
to the third floor, where a frightful spectacle awaited her. Copper
vessels filled with blood lined the whole length of the walls,
bearing labels with a date on each. In the middle of the room
was a black marble table on which lay the body of a child, obviously
murdered recently. It was one of the gory basins that had
fallen, and black blood spread over the grimy and worm-eaten
wooden floor.
The two women were horrified. Madame de Rais endeavored
at all costs to destroy the evidence of her indiscretion. She
used a sponge and water to wash the boards, but she only extended
the stain, and that which at first seemed black became
all scarlet. Suddenly a loud commotion echoed through the
castle, mixed with the cries of people calling to Madame de
Rais ‘‘Here is Monseigneur come back!’’ The two women made
for the staircase, but at the same moment they were aware of
footsteps and the sound of other voices in the devil’s chapel.
Sister Anne fled upward to the battlement of the tower; Madame
de Rais rushed down the stairs trembling and found herself
face to face with her husband, accompanied by an apostate
priest and Prélati.
De Rais seized his wife by the arm and without speaking,
dragged her into the infernal chapel. According to Lévi, Prélati
told the marshal ‘‘It is needs must, as you see, and the victim
has come of her own accord. . . .’’ ‘‘Be it so,’’ answered his master.
‘‘Begin the Black Mass. . . .’’ The apostate priest went to
the altar while de Rais opened a little cupboard inside and drew
out a large knife. He sat down close to his swooning spouse,
who was crumpled in a heap on a bench against the wall. The
sacrilegious ceremonies began.
Lévi explains that the marshal, instead of taking the road to
Jerusalem, had proceeded only to Nantes, where Prélati lived,
and had attacked the miserable traitor with the utmost fury,
threatening to slay him if he did not reveal the means of extracting
from the devil the long-sought gold. Stalling, Prélati
declared that terrible conditions were required by the infernal
master; first would be the sacrifice of the marshal’s unborn
child, after tearing it from the mother’s womb. De Rais made
no reply but returned at once to Machecoul, the Florentine sorcerer
and his accomplice the priest on his heels.
Meanwhile, Anne, left to her own devices on the roof of the
tower and not daring to come down, had used her veil to send
distress signals. These were answered by two cavaliers accompanied
by a posse of armed men, who were riding toward the castle.
They proved to be her two brothers, who, on learning of the
spurious departure of the marshal for Palestine, had come to
visit and console Madame de Rais. Soon after, they arrived with
a clatter in the court of the castle, Lévi narrates, whereupon
Lord de Rais suspended the hideous ceremony and said to his
‘‘Madame, I forgive you, and [put] the matter at an end between
us if you do now as I tell you. Return to your apartment,
change your garments, and join me in the guest-room, whither
I am going to receive your brothers. But if you say one word,
or cause them the slightest suspicion, I will bring you hither on
their departure; we shall proceed with the Black Mass at the
Gilles de Rais Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
point where it is now broken off, and at the consecration you
will die. Mark where I place this knife.’’
De Rais rose and led his wife to the door of her chamber,
then received her brothers, saying their sister was preparing
herself to come and greet them. Madame de Rais appeared almost
immediately, pale as a specter. Her husband never took
his eyes off her, seeking to control her by his glance. When her
brother suggested that she was ill, says Lévi, she answered that
it was the fatigue of pregnancy, but added in an undertone,
‘‘Save me, he seeks to kill me.’’
At the same moment Sister Anne rushed into the hall, crying,
‘‘Take us away; save us, my brothers, this man is an assassin,’’
and she pointed to de Rais. The marshal summoned his
men, but the visitors’ escort surrounded the women with drawn
swords. The marshal’s people disarmed instead of obeying
him. Madame de Rais, with her sister and brothers, crossed the
drawbridge and left the castle.
Terrible rumors spread through all the countryside. Many
young girls and boys had disappeared; some had been traced
to the castle of Champtocé and not beyond. The public accused
de Rais of murder and of crimes even worse than murder. It was
true that no one dared openly accuse a baron so powerful as the
lord of Rais. Whenever the disappearance of so many children
was mentioned in his presence, he reacted with the greatest astonishment.
Suspicions aroused are not easily allayed, however,
and the castle of Champtocé and its lord had acquired a fearful
reputation and were shrouded in mystery.
The continued disappearance of young boys and girls had
caused so bitter a feeling in the neighborhood that the church
felt compelled to intervene. At the urging of the bishop of
Nantes, the duke of Brittany ordered de Rais and his accomplices
De Rais’s Trial
Their trial took place before a commission composed of the
bishop of Nantes, the chancellor of Brittany, the vicar of the Inquisition,
and Pierre l’Hôpital, the president of the provincial
parliament. De Rais was accused of sorcery, sodomy, and murder.
At first he stood his ground, denouncing his judges as
worthless and impure and declaring that rather than plead before
such shameless knaves he would be hung like a dog, without
trial. But overwhelming evidence brought against him day
after day—terrible revelations by Prélati and de Rais’s servants
about his unquenchable sexual lust, his sacrifices of young children
for the supposed gratification of the devil, and the ferocious
pleasure with which he gloated over the throbbing limbs
and glazing eyes of those who were the victims of both his sensuality
and his cruelty—shook even de Rais’s imperturbability
and he confessed everything.
The final count showed that 140 children had fallen victim
to de Rais and his insane lust for the philosophers’ stone. Both
de Rais and Prélati were doomed to be burned alive, but in consideration
of rank, the punishment of the marshal was somewhat
mitigated—he was strangled before he was given over to
the flames.
The sentence was executed at Nantes, on October 26, 1440.
The chronicler Monstrelet states
‘‘Notwithstanding his many and atrocious cruelties, he
made a very devout end, full of penitence, most humbly imploring
his Creator to have mercy on his manifold sins and
wickedness. When his body was partly burned, some ladies and
damsels of his family requested his remains of the Duke of Brittany,
that they might be interred in holy ground, which was
granted. The greater part of the nobles of Brittany, more especially
those of his kindred, were in the utmost grief and confusion
at his shameful death.’’
The records of the trial and judgment are preserved in the
Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and at Nantes.
The castle of Champtocé stands in a beautiful valley, and
many a romantic legend flowers about its gray old walls. Novelist
Anthony Trollope described it thus
‘‘The hideous, half-burnt body of the monster himself circled
in flames, pale, indeed, and faint in colour, but more lasting
than those the hangman kindled around his mortal form
in the meadow under the walls of Nantes—is seen on bright
moonlight nights, standing now on one topmost point of craggy
wall, now on another, and is heard mingling his moan with
the sough of the night-wind. Pale, bloodless forms, too, of
youthful growth and mien, the restless, unsepulchred ghosts of
the unfortunates who perished in these dungeons unassoiled,
may at similar times be seen flitting backwards and forwards in
numerous groups across the space enclosed by the ruined walls,
with more than mortal speed, or glancing hurriedly from window
to window of the fabric, as still seeking to escape from its
hateful confinement.’’
Bataille, Georges. Procès de Gilles de Rais. Paris, 1959.
Gabory, Emile. Alias Bluebeard. New York Brewer & Warren,
Lévi, Éliphas. The History of Magic. London Rider, 1913.
Wilson, Thomas. Blue-Beard A Contribution to History & FolkLore.
London, 1899. Reprint, New York B. Blom, 1971. Reprint,
New York Arno Press, 1981.
Wolf, Leonard. Bluebeard The Life & Crimes of Gilles de Rais.
New York Crown, 1980.