Friday, May 6, 2011
Gilles de Rais and the Château de Champtocé
Fasten your creepy seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride.
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, baron de Rais (1404–1440)
Gilles was born in the small village of Champtocé-sur-Loire. Legend tells us that, on the night he was born, an ominous and tumultuous storm broke out over the Château de Champtocé, marking the destiny of this privileged and wealthy noble who grew up to be one of France's most infamous mass murders.
Château de Champtocé is located in the small village of Champtocé-sur-Loire, population 1,000. In a rather shocking way, this is the first image of the village one sees when rounding the corner of a lazy and peaceful country road. The ruins of the castle are massive, bigger than life, and exude a morbid and dark energy that envelops one immediately.
Giles de Rais' father was gored to death by a wild boar when he was eleven and his mother died shortly after. He and his brother, René de La Suze, were then raised by their maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon, a cruel and ruthless man. Although the death of his father left Gilles with immense wealth, his grandfather plotted and schemed to marry him off to wealthiest heiresses.
Gilles de Rais was handsome charismatic and elegant with a willful character. He first scandal involved kidnapping his young cousin, Catherine de Thouars, and marrying her one year later. A daughter, Marie, was born of this union. Shortly after their marriage, Gilles assumed control over his property against the wishes of his grandfather.
Gilles then began behaving in a wild and excessive manner, spending his vast wealth on debaucheries that shocked his fellow aristocrats.
The haunting image of a tower who's insides seem to have been blasted outwards.
Then came the call to arms from the King of France, Charles VII. The Hundred Years War was near its end, France was teetering on the edge of collapse. Enter Joan of Arc (see my blog). King Charles VII appointed Gilles de Rais Marshall of France and protector of Joan. It is said that Gilles worshipped Joan of Arc, something in her spiritual nature called to him, and that he never left her side.
Gilles de Rais was awarded the right to bear the royal Fleur de Lys on his coat of arms for the bravery and courage he showed during battle. In reality, the bravery and courage was merely the awakening of a blood lust for butchery.
An excellent film on Joan of Arc is Luc Besson's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc starring Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich and Dustin Hoffman. One of my favorite French actors, Vincent Cassell, plays Gilles de Rais. The film certainly gives you a feel for the period of time when this all happened.
When Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, Gilles de Rais' mind is said to have snapped. Even though he was officially bankrupt, he sold off half his castles to pay for an extravagant theatrical piece re-enacting his campaign with Joan. The play had 140 speaking parts, 500 extras 600 hundred costumes that were created to be worn once, discarded and then created again for other performances. Gilles supplied unlimited food and drink for the spectators. HIs family put an official hold on the sale of the rest of his properties and he was obliged to move back to Château de Champtocé.
The remains of the main entry and drawbridge. There were once 11 towers.
Financially devastated and utterly mad, Gilles turned to the occult under the tutelage of the infamous and sadistic sorcerer, Francesco Prelati, who convinced him he could regain his fortune by sacrificing children to a demon, which would allow him to successfully practice alchemy--the art of turning base metal into gold.
And so the killings began.
Gilles de Rais kidnapped, tortured, sodomized and murdered hundreds of children, mainly boys, with the help of his cousin Gilles de Sillé and his body servant Étienne Corrillaut, known as Poitou. Gilles committed these heinous crimes in his own bedroom, the bodies were burnt in his own fireplace and, afterwards, the ashes disposed of in the moat.
The moat today.
The details are vivid and gory, I won't post them on this blog. I'll leave your imagination to do its own work. If you want read more click here.
After brutally murdering hundreds of children from 1431 to 1440, Gilles kidnapped a priest in effort to rob a church and local authorities had finally had enough. A secret inquest was convened, Gilles and his evil henchmen were arrested and charged with child murder and heresy and a scandalous trial began which ended with Gilles' confession and subsequent hanging and burning at Nantes on Wednesday, October 26, 1440.
Unfortunately, the chateau is now closed to the public as it recently passed from private hands to a public domain. There is a massive crypt under the castle that I wanted badly to see. I spoke with several locals, lunched in the only local restaurant (which felt right out of the David Lynch film Lost Highway, I kid you not), and went to ask permission from the Mairie or Town hall. Everyone was incredibly tight-lipped about the castle and clearly not happy with my questions. Even the gardeners who pulled up to trim the grass along the edge of the castle refused to give me any information, merely firmly repeating what I already knew.
Hot, disgruntled and in need of the loo, I headed back to the restaurant where I had lunched. The Mister was in the back, the Misses at the bar, drying off wine glasses with a linen towel. I could have been in the middle of the Nevada desert at some deserted roadside diner, the ambiance was the same. The woman looked as though life had worn her hard, suspicion had left its marks on her face, her mouth was a straight line of a lifetime on non-communication.
I engaged her in conversation; lunch over, work slower, she obliged, albeit reluctantly. Eventually I asked, "I hear there are spirits that haunt the castle?" Just then a local man walked in and she spat out a terse, "C'est pas vrai!", "It's not true!", signaling the end of the conversation. I left her with, "Well I have the phone number with someone who might allow me to visit the underground crypt." Her eyes showed a flicker of fear and, almost as though she couldn't help herself, she leaned over the counter and hoarsely whispered, "Don't go in there alone!"
Bon, now I really want to get into that crypt!
Gros bisous bien macabre et a bientôt.