Had Bram Stoker decided to make his vampire nobleman French instead of Eastern European, there lies within that land’s history a model as appropriate as Vlad the Impaler. Looking at the life of Gilles de Rais (1404–1440), one can hardly imagine a better man to deserve the title “Monster.” In fact, it remains curious how little he appears in literature of the undead. His crimes certainly outshine those of Erzebet Bathori, the so-called Blood Countess of Hungary. They are also more reliably recorded than those of the famous Voivode. More, his tale contains quite a bit of irony. Here is a man who in his twenties fought alongside Joan of Arc!
But before age forty, he died at a hangman’s noose, convicted of truly sickening crimes.
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval was born the child of Breton nobility and showed himself a brilliant student at an early age. His was a chaotic time, towards the end of mis-named Hundred Years War (actually much longer than that) between France and England. Alien though the concept may seem to us now, the various Dukes of France in those days realistically did not have to obey the monarch of that kingdom. Indeed, the Dukes of Burgundy were England’s allies! For much of his life Gilles lay far more under the authority of Brittany’s Duke than Charles VI, the so-called ‘mad king.’ Henry IV had usurped the English throne from Richard II, and soon the brilliant warrior Henry V would inspire a Shakespearean play with the Battle of Agincourt–then die young, leaving the protectors of the infant Henry VI to lose all he had gained with the aid of St. Joan. Orphaned at age thirteen, Gilles ended up raised by his paternal grandfather who arranged an extremely advantageous marriage for the lad in 1420. All the while Brittany endured a civil war over the ducal title and power (a mini-preview of England’s Wars of the Roses a generation or so later). In 1425, Gilles was introduced at court. Within a few years he took part in many of the crucial battles against the English invaders, including the recapture of Paris. As a reward, he was allowed to include the royal arms as a canton with his own. He also escorted a vital part of the coronation regalia to Paris.
All this reads like the stuff of a fairly ordinary if distinguished warlord of medieval France. When one looks deeper, though, omens of the future pop up. For one thing, the last will and testament of Gilles’ father insisted that Jean d’Craon have nothing whatsoever to do with raising his son–yet that is precisely who ended up with the young heir. Under his tutelage, Gilles’ education took a turn towards warfare and little else. His marriage was hardly a matter of courtly love or even familial negotiation. At age sixteen, Gilles abducted a wealthy cousin and forced her to marry him, tossing three protectors in a dungeon for good measure. One of them, her uncle, died. The other two never recovered. The poor girl’s father died during negotiations for ransom. Curiously, by the end of his life Jean d’Craon felt guilty, giving away much of his wealth to his peasants and expressing regret over how he raised his increasingly-famous grandson.
In 1434, Gilles de Rais (he was the Baron of Rais, hence that part of his name) gradually withdrew from military life. He began to spend money lavishly and foolishly. An elaborate festival for example with hundreds of priceless costumes — each worn once then discarded. Unlimited food and drink for his guests. Soon he’d sold off a huge chunk of his holdings and his family asked the king to forbid him from selling more castles!
Worse, by then he had begun to dabble in something which would eclipse his military glory. The kidnapping and murder of children.
He also raped them. And ate their flesh. Sometimes in that order.
Whereas the real Dracula fought a brutal war against a much larger enemy, and enforced draconian edicts to rule a tempestuous region, the Baron de Rais seemed to view his own holdings as nothing more than resources with which to squeeze every last coin. Countess Bathori at least in theory (or legend) sought to regain her youth and beauty, Gilles evidently simply slaked an ever-increasing lust for violence. A hero in a war of liberation, a warrior who fought alongside the girl later made Patron Saint of France, a courtier in one of the most sophisticated courts in Western Europe–this strange man almost devolved, especially as the war with England ebbed. In modern terms it would be as if a member of the Rockefeller family won renown and high rank in Vietnam or the Gulf War, then turned around to become Jeffrey Dahmer.
In the now-ruined castle of Machecoul, Gilles de Rais retired with a few accomplices and wallowed in his own darkness. Exactly how many children (mostly boys) fell victim to him will never be known. He claimed to not remember. A formal indictment listed 140 victims. They were procured sometimes to be trained as pages. Others were simply kidnapped. At last mounting debts forced members of the family to intervene, which led in turn to the kidnapping-for-ransom of a prominent priest. Gilles hoped to force others to leave him alone via such a tactic. It failed. Official investigators descended and soon issued a report to the Duke of Brittany. The brave and accomplished Gilles de Rais stood accused of many crimes, including worship of the devil, heresy, witchcraft and murder.
Some to this day look at events and believe Gilles innocent. He and his conspirators confessed only under torture, while the huge estates involved ended up in the hands of the Duke under whose authority the trial was conducted. Maybe, although most historians discount this. The motivations of the prosecutors, after all, are a distinct question from what crimes were committed. On the other hand, spectral evidence was considered–just as in the infamous Salem Witchcraft Trials of a century and a half later.
At the time, a more hideous scandal could hardly be imagined. What perhaps made it even more bizarre was how quickly Lord de Rais changed his manner, going from belligerent and mocking to abjectly compliant in about forty eight hours. He confessed to everything, then was tortured to get more details. Before being hanged, he gave a sermon urging all to avoid his sins and to protect their children. Maybe, like Ted Bundy, he hoped to avoid the gallows at the end. If so, his strategy failed. But the ecclesiastical officials did allow him last rites and to be buried in consecrated ground.
To anyone studying vampires, the real question remains–why hasn’t this man been fictionalized as a vampire before now? Historically, neither Gilles de Rais nor Vlad Tepes could be called vampires yet the latter assumed the status of a lord of a the undead in our imaginations. Why not Gilles de Rais? Does he not make as tempting a figure as Rasputin or Countess Bathori or the Count of Saint Germaine? One really expects at least some exploitative horror movies to use him as a kind of template. One reason suggests itself–his victims were male children, a detail that in our culture crosses some kind of horror event horizon. It is too much. Sadly, the murder and rape of young girls is not (witness “Countess Dracula” or “Shadow of the Werewolf” or any of the dozen movies based oh-so-loosely upon Erzebet Bathori).
After his execution, Gilles de Rais’ widow eventually remarried. His daughter set up a stone shrine where her father died, and for centuries women came there out of a belief the shrine encouraged the production of breast milk. Why, I’ve no idea. It was destroyed during the French Revolution. The family itself died out within another generation. Other than the supremely bizarre shrine and its traditions, the only thing to have survived this terrible story is a fairy tale. Allegedly. Some hold that the trial and fate of Gilles de Rais inspired the equivalent of a folk tale which in turn inspired at least two major motion pictures.