The Hundred Years war between England and France produced countless heroes on both sides and its battles have become part of our national psyche. It is still common today for the English to gloat about their great victory of Agincourt or the exploits of the Black Prince. The Patron Saint of France was one of these heroes that emerged from this century of war. Joan of Arc was an illiterate peasant girl who, believing that she was sent by God, rallied the French from their much weakened position and created the momentum to drive the English out of France. Joan, of course, did not act alone. She had a dedicated retinue of of knights and aristocrats who would become legends in their own right. One of these men was a Breton noble, the Baron of Rais, known as Gilles de Rais.
Gilles de Rais was born in 1404 and soon showed great promise. He was fiercely intelligent, being able to speak fluent Latin from an early age as well as showing both academic and military skill. However, in 1415, Gilles life (and that of France) took a terrible turn. The French suffered their famous defeat at Agincourt which decimated the French nobility. Gilles parents both died in that year, his father dying in a hunting accident, resulting in Gilles and his younger brother, Rene, being raised by their maternal grandfather, Jean Craon. Jean tried desperately to find a good match for Gilles among the great houses of France. This was made difficult as the English, following their victory at Agincourt, ravaged France seizing huge swathes of French territory. Gilles would eventually marry a fellow Breton, Catherine de Thouars, a rich heiress in 1420. There are some stories who claim that she was abducted by Gilles and forced into the marriage but this is unverified.
In the same year as his marriage Gilles would start his incredible military career at the age of 16. There was a civil war within Brittany over the succession between the Montfort and De Blois families. Interestingly the Montforts were also a prominent English family and it is important to remember that the English and French nobility shared the same lands, culture and language and that the Hundred Years War was essentially a bloody divorce between the English and the French in creating their own separate identities. Gilles played a prominent role fighting for the Montforts, personally rescuing Duke John V de Montfort from captivity. As a result his wealth was increased and he was introduced to the court of the Dauphin (the title of King of France had been usurped by the English). Now fighting for the French crown Gilles cut a bloody path and proved himself a competent commander, despite English supremacy. Recognizing Gilles martial talent the Dauphin made him the Marshal of France.
In 1429 the peasant girl Joan of Arc came to the French court professing to have been sent by God to help the French in their darkest hour. Gilles, drawn to Joan’s charisma, volunteered to accompany her on on her relief mission to raise the English siege on Orleans. At the time Orleans was seen as being the last bastion of French resistance, if Orleans fell then so would France. The English had looked on the verge of winning for the last half a year. However, nine days after the arrival of Joan the English were completely routed. Gilles had played a prominent role in the breaking of the siege, acting as the military adviser to the Maiden. In recognition for his service Gilles was given the honour of using the royal insignia of the Fleur-de-Lys on his family crest.
Gilles continued to fight alongside Joan in all her major military campaigns until her capture and execution by the English in 1431. Following the death of Joan Gilles gradually removed himself from military affairs. France was now winning and would soon have kicked the English out of France completely.
Gilles moved into producing a play based on the victory of the siege of Orleans Le Mistere du Siege d’Orleans which consisted of more than 20,000 lines of verse, 140 speaking parts and 500 extras. The play drove him to the verge of bankruptcy forcing him to sell his estates one after the other. When his family cut him off he was forced to borrow huge sums using his manuscripts, books, art and even clothes as security. His financial position eventually grew so desperate that he went the way of Doctor Faustus and contracted a Florentine magician named Prelati.
Gilles sought to summon a demon called Barron and sell his soul to the Devil in order to regain his wealth. This involved a number of Black Masses and Satanic Rituals in order to summon the demon. All attempts to summon Barron failed and Gilles began to get frustrated with Prelati. Prelati claimed that Barron was bloodthirsty demon and required an offering of parts of children to be placed in a glass vessel at the invocations.
Gilles was eventually investigated by the Bishop of Nantes, initially over a fight Gilles had with a cleric, and eventually had the former Marshal arrested in connection with the disappearance of children. Gilles confessed to killing and dismembering over 200 children over a ten year period. For his abominable crimes this companion of Joan of Arc was sentenced to death by hanging/burning alive. He was executed on 26th October 1440.