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Frenchman Gilles de Rais was the original Bluebeard, according to tradition in his native Brittany. In 1440 the Church charged Gilles, whose full name was Gilles de Laval, Baron de Rais or Retz, with heresy, sacrilege, conjuring demons, sodomy and reading forbidden works of magic. At the same time the civil court accused him of torturing and murdering 144 children, and of perverted behavior with boys and girls, both living and dead.

A portrait has been drawn of a man ruined by too much wealth too soon, able to indulge the vilest sado-erotic fantasies. Is this image true or is the fascination exerted by Gilles de Rais testimony to the power of propaganda?

Born in 1404, Gilles was orphaned at the age of 11 and inherited vast estates. In 1420 his marriage to a great heiress, Catherine de Thouars, made him the richest nobleman in Europe. In the fifteenth century, the chronicler Monstrelet called him a most valiant knight. He fought beside Joan of Arc at Orleans, and at 25 was made a marshal of France. In 1432 he retired to his domains, where his extravagant life exhausted his fortune, and he turned to sorcery to replenish his riches. He hired alchemists and magicians, including a Florentine necromancer, Father Francesco Prelati. When they failed to turn base metal into gold, Gilles started selling his lands, principally to Duke Jean of Normandy and his chancellor, Malestroit, bishop of Nantes.

In September 1440 Gilles beat and imprisoned a priest attempting to take title of a castle bought from him. Bishop Malestroit seized this opportunity to summon Gilles to face charges he had secretly been preparing. Gilles found himself on trial answering 49 possibly frivolous accusations, but he was tortured into confessing, and on 26 October 1440 he and two associates were executed as heretics. Many thought the trial a sham. Other “accomplices” were freed once they had denounced Gilles. Prelati escaped death even after he had confessed to organizing horrific ceremonies, but he was later hanged for other crimes.

The trial’s real purpose may have been to convict Gilles of heresy. As a heretic, his estates would be forfeited to Bishop Malestroit and the Duke of Brittany. Indeed so confident was the duke of the verdict that he had already sold the lands he anticipated getting on 3 September – 15 days before the trial began.