Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods



It is impossible to understand Gilles de Rais without examining the society into which he was born. France in the 1400s was a seething hotbed of political intrigue, violence, pestilence and war. It was a country where loyalty was for sale and the powers that ruled the society did so with their own personal agenda ahead of any greater good. Like much of noble Europe, love and marriage in France were two separate concepts and marriage was usually conducted to secure power or to further concentrate the authority that the few noble families already held.

Charles VI of France, The Mad King (CORBIS)
Charles VI of France, The
Mad King (CORBIS)

At the time of de Rais birth in 1406 in one of his familys several castles allegedly in the Black Tower at Champtoce - France was at war with England over who was rightfully heir to the French throne.  In Paris, the Mad King, Charles VI, sat on the throne of a country torn asunder by a war it was losing badly to the English under Henry V. The Hundred Years War was not, as the name would suggest, a war that was waged continually over a century, but rather a series of major battles (mostly on French soil) followed by years of truce which were interrupted by minor skirmishes and Byzantine alliances among the various parties who ruled the French provinces.

The Hundred Years War began in 1337 as a direct result of the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. William became king of England, but also retained his role as Duke of Normandy. Nearly 100 years later, one of Williams English descendants, Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, the divorced wife of French King Louis VII. Henry and Eleanor were given control over enough land in the north and central regions of France to make them as land-wealthy as Louis himself. Over time, the English lost control of much of this land but would occasionally take it back as circumstances warranted usually when the English kings were not too busy fighting the Welsh and Scots.

King Henry V (CORBIS)
King Henry V (CORBIS)

By the time Henry V took the throne of England in 1413, England, Scotland and Wales were at peace and the madness of Charles VI had caused a major power struggle across the Channel. Henry thought the time was right to assert his claim to the throne of France, joining the Duke of Burgundy and others as claimants.

Map of 15th Century France (Mark Gribben)
Map of 15th Century France
(Mark Gribben)

Charles, whose madness was a true psychosis which caused him to pass in and out of reality over the years, was a beloved but weak king and the French system of governance gave extraordinary power to his lords. The country was divided into several regions, in which Burgundy, Orleans and Brittany played the kings of England and France against one another, switching sides in the conflict several times over the duration. Their large armies and extreme wealth made Charles powerless to punish their disloyalty. A French lords responsibility to the crown was solely one of military service. The lords coined their own money, passed their own laws and made their own treaties and alliances. The king ensured loyalty though the disposition of fiefs and assignments. In return for those handouts, the lords would provide military protection from their standing army on demand as long as the politics involved benefited themselves.

Rallying troops at Agincourt (CORBIS)
Rallying troops at Agincourt

On October 25, St. Crispins Day 1415, the English and French met on the battlefield of Agincourt, where the English under Henry V were overtaken by a much larger force of French troops under the Marshal of France, Jean Boucicaut. The English, who had been on French soil since August, were already half-starved and battle weary, living off plunder and ransom as they made their way eastward from Normandy to Calais. On the evening of October 24, as a heavy rain fell, the larger forces of Boucicaut trapped the English in a diamond-shaped clearing between three wooded areas that surrounded the French fortified towns of Agincourt, Tramecourt and Maisoncelles. Adopting a strategy that had served his ancestor William the Conqueror well at Hastings three centuries earlier, in the muddy clearing Henry took the gambit of attacking from a well-defended position. The next morning, beneath gray but dry skies, he moved his army forward and separated his Welsh archers with their Yew longbows by placing them between divisions of his men-at-arms.

As the English moved within bow range of the French cavalry, the French mounted men-at-arms charged. The heavy mud of the ploughed fields hampered their assault and sometimes knee- or waist-deep in the muck, they became easy targets for the Welsh archers who cut them down by the hundreds. The heavily armored Frenchmen tumbled into the slop as their horses were felled by arrows, and they were either trampled by other charging horses, smothered in their suits of armor, or slain by the English soldiers as they lay helpless often three men deep on the ground. The favored method of killing the fallen knights was to lift the knights visor and thrust a dagger through his eye.

Frightened, riderless horses, hemmed in by the woods turned and retreated into their advancing compatriots, causing confusion and mayhem as the accurate and deadly rain of arrows fell on the battlefield. Those Frenchmen who made it across the field of death were met by English soldiers and by sharp stakes imbedded in the ground by archers. The third line of French soldiers, armed with crossbows and rudimentary guns, observed the carnage of the battlefield and fled, playing little part at all in the fight.

Tapestry depicting the battle of Agincourt
Tapestry depicting the battle
of Agincourt

Within an hour the battle was over. The number of French prisoners far outweighed the number of English available to guard them and Henry was forced to make a bloodthirsty decision. Rather than allow the Frenchmen to be ransomed to fight again, he ordered their slaughter. When the carnage was over, on the field of Agincourt lay 11,000 dead Frenchmen. Among them the Duke of Brabant and the Count of Nevers, brothers of the Duke of Burgundy, the Duke of Alencon, the Duke of Bar, Charles dAlbret, Constable of France, the counts of Marle, Roucy, Dalm, Vaudemot and Dammartin. One of the lesser known, but vitally important casualties at least in the life of Gilles de Rais - was Amaury dCraon, son of Jean dCraon.

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