Remember that bedtime story of a bizarre man who wants to marry a young woman but she doesn’t want to do so because all of his previous wives have disappeared? No? What if I added that this girl finally agrees to marry him because he presents her with the lifestyle she would enjoy? Does it ring a bell? Let me add something else: one day he has to leave the country for a business errand and leaves his wife a set of keys to all his estate but forbids her to enter one particular room. Failing to resist temptation, she enters the room, only to discover a macabre and terrifying scene: the corpses of all of her husband’s previous wives, hanging from the walls. Still nothing? Well, last chance, his name was Bluebeard.
Actually, it's not that weird if you don’t remember the story, since it stopped being included in several editions of The Tales of Mother Goose by Charles Perrault since the fifties. This story that hasn't been rewritten, nor adapted because there's literally no way to reimagine it as a children's story (as it was intended to be) tells the story of a sadistic and creepy man who seems to find pleasure in tricking his wives and killing them. The tale doesn’t get into too much detail about the crimes or the real reason behind them, since it has been interpreted to be a moral story of how curiosity and disobedience can bring doom into a woman’s life (yeah… you know how these fairy tales were like). However, it’s a common belief that Perrault was inspired by the story of a man who was condemned as a pedophile and murderer. And that character was Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, best known as Gilles de Rais.
Once upon a time, during France’s feudal era, there was a wealthy family that owned many properties and land. This noble family had a son, Gilles, a well educated young man with a bright future who only needed a wife to complete his perfect life. As it happens in these stories, he found the perfect option to start a life with an heiress who had a great fortune and an important name in the realm. Together they became the richest couple in all the continent and would spend their wealth in a luxurious life. Their fortune was even greater than that of the King's.
But our poor nobleman felt a void in his heart. He needed a passion, something worth fighting for. So, he joined his majesty’s army in his never ending war against England, the Hundred Years' War. This is where our story merges with another great tale of bravery and commitment to a cause, the story of Joan of Arc. With his fortune, youth, and strength he fought many battles next to France’s heroine, and together brought many victories to their country. As it was foreshadowed, his life and career were brighter than any others'. His Majesty, who admired this young and persisting man, honored him with the title of Marshall of France once the Siege of Orleans was over. But things were about to change so quickly, as evil forces were working against him.
The passion he once felt for the army soon faded away, leading him to a secluded life in one of his magnificent castles. He found another inspiration in life: the magic and mysticism of the occult and alchemy. Little is known about what he really did in those moments of seclusion, but what is certain is that all his wealth was vanishing. Whether it was out of jealousy or anger, the King decided to forbid the nobleman from selling mortgages of any property, and soon the once richest man in France lost most of his fortune.
As if things couldn’t be worse, after having a big dispute with a priest during mass, Gilles was arrested for heresy, rape, torture, kidnapping, and murder of up to 150 children. Tortured in a cell, he accepted the charges and was condemned to death and hanged in 1440. It’s said that they found children's body parts in his castle, but there was no clear evidence of this. Like legendary Bluebeard, his life ended in a cruel and violent way, as his supposed victims suffered.
For centuries, this story captivated and horrified many who wouldn’t understand how a man who had it all, could commit such despicable crimes. But others were not that convinced about the reliability of the story, since the numbers and facts didn’t match. In 1992, a commission in France petitioned the state to reconsider the sentence of Gilles de Rais, since they had strong evidence that the nobleman had been framed so the Church could seize all his properties and assets. After an arduous reexamination, Gilles de Rais was declared innocent by the state more than 500 years later. Then, they all lived happily ever after... Well, not really, actually most of the people involved in this story had a tragic death, but at least, after centuries, his name was cleared.
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