15 September 1440: A notorious medieval serial killer is brought to justice

Gilles de Rais is arrested, but has he been framed?


The date is 15 September 1440; the place, the castle of Machecoul, just outside Nantes. Inside is one of Brittany’s most famous knights, a veteran of the Hundred Years’ War who fought alongside Joan of Arc and was made a Marshal of France. His name is Gilles de Rais – and he is about to be arrested and charged with abuse of the clergy, consort- ing with demons and sexually assaulting dozens of children.
Today Gilles de Rais is remembered as one of the most notorious serial killers in European history. Yet there’s more to his story than meets the eye. The authorities only issued a warrant for his arrest after Gilles had attacked a local priest during a dispute about ownership of one of his castles. Indeed, some historians believe that Gilles was framed by his former patron, the Duke of Brittany, who wanted to get his hands on his estates.

What followed, however, was one of the most horrifying trials imaginable. According to Gilles’ servants, who confessed under torture, he had murdered at least 80 children, with some estimates even approaching 600. Gilles himself, who was not tortured, appar- ently admitted his guilt, adding that he would cut their bodies open, “and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed”.

Gilles was sentenced to death by hanging and burning. On the pyre, according to eyewitnesses, he conducted himself like a gentleman, asking the crowd to pray for his soul. Two centuries later, the story inspired Charles Perrault’s dark fairy tale about the child-murder- ing Bluebeard.

But was Gilles really a horrific child-killer – or was he framed? Alas, we will probably never know. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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