10 Details About Gilles de Rais: Pedophile, Satanist, Murderer... Or the Most Misjudged Man in History

Engraving of Gilles de Rais, France, 1731. Wikimedia Commons

The Hundred Years’ War

The outbreak of the civil war between the French barons provided Gilles with an unexpected but useful education in warfare. Also in 1420, Gilles was married to Catherine de Thouars, a wealthy heiress from Brittany, increasing again both his wealth and power. After a brief peace between England and France, the Hundred Years’ War broke out again in 1422 when the English King, Henry V, died suddenly. In 1427, Gilles, with five fresh companies of soldiers, had an instant positive impact on French fortunes. Under the tutelage of Guillaume de Jumellière, Gilles blossomed into a brave and fearsome soldier.

He was instrumental in several notable French successes, including Saint-Jean de Mortier and the capture of the castle of Malicorne, but his personal highlight came at the Château de Lude. There he audaciously climbed a siege ladder to the ramparts, and was amongst the first Frenchman to reach the top. There, in full sight of his men below, Gilles killed the famous and feared English Captain, Blackburn, in single combat. This act of heroism destroyed English morale, and secured the château for France. For this brave act, Gilles was rightly hailed a hero by his peers and commanding officers.

Many anti-de Rais biographers, however, look to Gilles’s glory days in the army for evidence of his later crimes. In truth, though Gilles was a strong and ruthless knight, he was no more bloodthirsty than his peers. For although he hanged treacherous Burgundians at Rainfort and Malicorne, this was only with the tacit approval of his superior officers in the French army. Some soldiers thought these executions to be a waste of good ransom money, but perhaps Gilles showed a more laudable spirit in thinking of the good of the country rather than his own pocket, loss of life notwithstanding.