These two Frenchmen are joined by their blood, as in family ties, but there is a major difference in their characters. Gilles de Retz lived and died in the fifteenth century. His family owned more castles in France (especially in Brittany) than even the Capets or the Orlèans. Gilles was therefore very rich indeed, young, brilliant, untrustworthy (though Joan of Arc trusted him enough), and unusually fond of the boys.
Paul de Gondi Retz lived and died in the seventeenth century. He became a cardinal, and was so pushed by personal ambition he wished to replace Mazarin as chief minister of France. He left a priceless book of memoirs for students of personalities and intrigues of 17th century France.
Gilles de Retz (also Rais or Rays) was born in 1404. He became a baron of France almost at birth, and grew to be Marshal of France. So how did this beautiful and brilliant young man become the original version of ‘Bluebeard’?
Before he was 16, Gilles had distinguished himself as a fighting soldier. Breton by birth, he fought in a series of wars to decide succession in the duchy. At 23 he joined the warlike banner of the Duchess of Anjou against the English. He found himself appointed as Head of Joan of Arc’s Guard – a sure sign that he was a capable soldier, as that formidable young woman would have none at her side but the best.
De Retz accompanied Joan to Reims (or Rheims) for the consecration of Charles VII, who as the Dauphin had been inspired by Joan. When he was King, Charles raised de Retz to the high position of Marshal of France, though he stayed at Joan’s side as her personal friend and bodyguard. He was with the future saint when they were attacked in Paris by the armies of the English Duke of Bedford. We should all know what happened to her, but do we know what happened to him?
He retired to live in any one of his twenty-something castles in Brittany, inherited from his father and maternal grandfather (Guy de Laval & Jean de Craon). He married an heiress almost as rich as he was (Catherine de Thouars) amd began a life of luxury, alchemy and lechery. But he had a secret life: when he was not trying to discover the secret of turning base metals into gold, he was enticing children (more male than female) from neighbouring villages, indulging in vile practices with them before killing them. The handsome young squire had turned into an ogre.
Inevitably he was arrested (probably at the request of his own family, who were tired of his habit of selling or mortgaging castles) and charged with heresy and murder at Nantes, the capital. He confessed to everything, and went to the hanging with resignation, though he publicly regretted he had not had time to summon up the Devil. He was thirty-six years old.
Sceptical historians have written since, that the proceedings of the trial at Nantes were full of irregularities, and that he had only confessed under threat of imminent torture. There was also the fact that the Duke of Brittany had a financial interest in Gilles de Retz’ ruin.
Paul de Gondi Retz (or Rais or Rays, born 1613)
was a statesman and cardinal. Though he was waiting to become Archbishop of Paris as the designated heir, he was already so ambitious that he told his friends he had decided to replace Cardinal Mazarin as France’s chief minister. This fact did not endear him to the super-powerful Mazarin, and nor did the fact that Paul was heavily involved with the semi-revolutionary Fronde. This mistake got him imprisoned (by order of Mazarin), but he escaped and fled to Rome and the Pope, who wouldn’t listen but made him a cardinal. Seventeenth century politics, especially within the Church, can be confusing and deluding.
While in exile Paul made himself a severe nuisance to Louis XIV, which could never be described as a good career move). At last he was permitted to return from exile to France, on the assumption he would resign his archbishopric. He died after a number of years in near obscurity, at the age of 66.