In 1415, as a boy of 11, Gilles de Rais became heir to the greatest fortune in France. At 16, he increased his net worth by marrying the extremely wealthy Catherine de Thouars. Although he was known as a devout Christian with a mystical turn of mind, and is described by his contemporaries as a man of rare elegance and almost angelic beauty, he was far from an ascetic. He was highly skilled in the arts of warfare, and when he had barely turned 20 he rode by the side of Joan of Arc (c. 1412–1441) and served as her chief lieutenant, fighting with such fierce merit that King Charles VII (1403–1431) later awarded de Rais the title of Marshal of France.
Gilles de Rais was a man so noted for his devotion to duty and his personal piety that he came to be regarded as a latter-day Lancelot. But, like Lancelot, de Rais entered into an illfated love affair that destroyed him. Although it was undoubtedly an affair that was conducted entirely on a spiritual plane, de Rais became the platonic lover of Joan of Arc, the strange young mystic whose "voices" dictated that she save France. He became her guardian and protector, but when Joan was captured and burned at the stake, de Rais felt as though his years of serving God and the good had been for naught. After the maid of Orleans was betrayed by the Church, he became transformed into a satanic fiend of such hellish and unholy proportions that his like may be unequaled in the annals of perverse crimes against society. Many scholars who have examined the life of this pietist turned monster in depth have agreed that de Rais's crimes and acts of sacrilege were quite likely inspired by what he considered God's betrayal of God's good and faithful servant, Joan of Arc.
Although she had given him a child, Gilles de Rais left his wife, vowed never to have sexual intercourse with another woman, and secreted himself in his castle at Tiffauges. The young man who had once surrounded himself with priests and supported dozens of chapels throughout France, now welcomed profligates, broken-down courtiers, sycophants, and wastrels to his castle, and his family gold supported several rounds of lavish orgies. At last, even the vast wealth of the de Rais was depleted, and Gilles decided to try his hand at alchemy, the dream of transmuting base metals into gold, as a means of replenishing his fortune.
Within a short time, he had converted an entire wing of his castle into a series of extensive alchemical laboratories. Alchemists and sorcerers from all over Europe flocked to Tiffauges. Some came to freeload on the feasts and to fleece the young nobleman out of a few bags of gold. Others came to seek final answers and resolution to the persistent, haunting quest of the alchemist. Although de Rais himself joined the alchemists and magicians in work sessions that went nearly around the clock, all of their experiments counted for naught.
It was the Italian alchemist/sorcerer Antonio Francisco Prelati, a former priest, who told him that a mortal cannot hope to achieve the transmutation of base metals into gold without the help of Satan. And the only way that an alchemist or a sorcerer could hope to arouse Satan's interest in his work was by dedicating the most abominable crimes to his name.
Under Prelati's direction, de Rais set about to commit his first abominable crime. He lured a young peasant boy into the castle and into the chambers that he provided for Prelati. Under the alchemist's instruction, de Rais brutally killed the boy and used his blood for writing of evocations and formulas. Satan did not appear and no base metals were transmuted into gold, but Gilles de Rais no longer cared. He had discovered an enterprise far more satisfying than the alchemist's quest. He had discovered sadistic satisfaction and pleasure in the torture and murder of children.
On September 13, 1440, Jean the Bishop of Nantes signed the legal citation which would bring the Baron Gilles de Rais to trial. Among the charges levied on him were the killing, strangling, and massacring of innocent children. In addition to such horrors, he was also charged with evoking demons, making pacts with them, and sacrificing children to them.
Etienne Corillaut, one of de Raises's personal servants, later testified at his master's trial when the Marshal of France was accused of having slain as many as 800 children.
Rather than be put to the question by the court, de Rais chose to confess every sordid and gory deed. Such a confession would spare him the ordeals by torture awaiting those who protested their innocence. Because of his high position in the court of France, Gilles de Rais was granted the mercy of being strangled before being burned. The tribunal conveniently looked the other way after his execution, however, and the de Rais family was permitted to remove his corpse after it had been given only a cursory singeing. The mass murderer of hundreds of innocent children was interred in a Catholic ceremony in a Carmelite churchyard. Antonio Francisco Prelati and the other professing Satanists were given, at most, a few months in prison for their part in the murders.
"It is thought likely by some historians that this was their reward for testifying against their master," Masters and Lea reflect, "and that both ecclesiastical and civil authorities were far more interested in obtaining Gilles' money and properties, which were still considerable, than in punishing him for his crimes."