15 September: On this day in history

What events happened on 15 September in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

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

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

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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.


15 September 1712

Sidney, 1st Earl of Godolphin died at St Albans, aged 67. As first lord of the Treasury under Queen Anne he had worked hard to improve efficiency and to root out corruption and he played a vital role in financing his ally the Duke of Marlborough’s successful campaigns against Louis XIV and his allies. Godolphin, whose political and administrative career spanned the reigns of four monarchs, had also been instrumental in negotiating and passing the Act of Union with Scotland and had negotiated the creation of a unified East India Company.


15 September 1847

After a week of fierce fighting, Mexican troops surrender to their American besiegers at the National Palace in Mexico City.


15 September 1871

The Army and Navy Co-operative Society was incorporated as a limited company. It had been established for “the supply of articles of domestic consumption and general use to its members at the lowest remunerative rates”.


15 September 1940

Following weeks of mounting aerial pressure, Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe launch their largest offensive yet against the Royal Air Force, hoping to draw them out by a massive attack on London. But the RAF destroy some 60 enemy planes and carry the day – remembered today as Battle of Britain Day.

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15 September 1964

The Sun first appeared on shelves in newsagents

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