Due to space constraints and scope, I didn't include much discussion in Bluebeard Tales From Around the World about the search for historical figures that may have inspired Bluebeard. Folklore scholarship in the nineteenth century was rather obsessed with finding the original source story of fairy tales and Bluebeard with his murderous ways provided great sport. The most popular--and least similar ironically--choice is that of Giles de Raiz who has had several books written about him, naming him the original Bluebeard. Some of those books include Bluebeard discussions, too. That portrayal of Giles de Raiz is debunked these days, but he is a fascinating, gory character if you are looking for a historical evil serial killer.
The reality is that wife-killers are an unfortunate truth of history and any of them could be called Bluebeards of sorts and have been. There isn't any one source of inspiration in history for Bluebeard tales. However, the historical significance of some killers is fascinating, so I included the following article in the book and offer it in its entirety here.
“LA BARBE Bleue” is in the “Contes” of Charles Perrault (1697). Dr. C. Taylor thinks the hero is intended for a type of the castle lords in the days of knight-errantry. Others think that Henry VIII, so often called the “royal Bluebeard,” was the original. But according to Holinshed the original of the nursery hero was Giles or Gilles de Retz (or de Raiz), Marquis de Laval, who lived at Machecoul in Brittany in the reigns of Charles VI and Charles VII of France and Henry VI of England. He was made marshal of France in 1429, distinguished himself by his military genius and courage against the English when they invaded France, and was possessed of princely revenues. Mézeray says he was impious and debauched, maintained sorcerers to discover hidden treasures, enticed the youth of both sexes to his house, then killed them to obtain their blood for his magical charms, and murdered six of his seven wives. For some state crime against the Duke of Brittany, he was strangled and burnt, or, as some say, burnt alive, in a field at Nantes in 1440.
But the crimes of the Sieur de Laval do not resemble those of Bluebeard as nearly as do the crimes of Count Conomor, lieutenant of Brittany in the reign of Childebert. This man was a widower for the fourth or seventh time when he wooed Triphyna, the handsome daughter of Count Guereck of Vannes, who had been educated under the eye of St. Gildas, Abbot of Rhuys. Both father and daughter wished to decline the match, for Conomor was accustomed to murder his wives as soon as they gave evidence of pregnancy; but Conomor had powerful friends, and threatened vengeance if they refused: so, with the help of St. Gildas, an agreement was made that when Conomor tired of his wife he should send her back to her father. The wedding was celebrated at Vannes with great pomp, and Conomor took his bride home to his castle. When the countess became pregnant she observed a change in her husband’s manner, and, fearing the fate of her predecessors, fled on a swift horse with a few faithful followers to Vannes. Conomor pursued and gained upon her. She sprang off her horse and concealed herself in a forest, where Conomor found her and cut off her head with one blow. St. Gildas, hearing of this, hastened to the spot, and, putting the head on the body, by prayer restored her to life. When her son was born he was named Gildas, to which Trech-meur or Tremeur was added to distinguish him from the abbot. The legend is told by the Breton hagiologists Père Albert le Grand and Dom Gui-Alexis Lobineau. The events are said to have taken place in the sixth century.
Hippolyte Violeau, in his “Pèlerinages de Bretagne,” says that in January, 1860, during the repairs of the vault in the chapel of St. Nicholas de Bienzy, some ancient frescos were discovered representing scenes in the life of St. Triphyna: 1, the marriage; 2, the husband taking leave of his wife and intrusting her with a key; 3, a room with an open door, through which are seen hanging the corpses of seven women; 4, the husband threatening his wife, while another woman (“Sister Anne”) looks out of a window above; 5, the wife with a halter round her neck, and the husband ready to put her to death, but interrupted by the arrival of her friends and St. Gildas just in time to save the future saint. Violeau thinks that if the frescos are really of the early date assigned them they probably represent the popular form of the legend, with some additional incidents which the hagiologists did not think worthy of record, and that it was without doubt the foundation of Perrault’s tale.
Holinshed notices another Bluebeard in the reign of Henry VI, 1450. Speaking of the committal of the Duke of Suffolk to the Tower, he says, “This doing so much displeased the people that if politike provision had not been made, great mischief had immediately ensued. For the commons in sundry places of the realm assembled together in great companies and chose to them a captain whom they called Bluebeard; but ere they had attempted any enterprise, their leaders were apprehended, and so the matter pacified without any hurt committed.”
In the “Polychronicon” (54, 6, recto, A.d. 1449), Caxton, after relating the troubles in Flanders, the loss of the towns in France, Pont de l’Arche and Rouen, the arrest of the Duke of Suffolk, and the anger of the Commons on account of the deliverance of Anjou and Maine and the loss of Normandy, says, “And in especial for the deth of the good duke of gloucester, in soo moche that in some places men gadred togedere and made hem capytaynes, as blew herd and other, which were resysted and taken and had justyce and deyd, and thenne the sayd parlement adiourned to leycetre.” The name seems to have been a familiar nickname, like Jack Straw, Hob Miller, etc. The saga of Bluebeard, as Grimm calls it, is wide-spread, and appears in many and various forms. The German version differs slightly from Perrault’s: Sister Anne is wanting, and the heroine lays the key in nay, there being a popular belief that hay draws out blood. Three of the tales in the “Kinder- und Haus-Mährchen” of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, namely, “Fitcher’s Vogel,” “Marienkind,” and “Der Rauber Bräutigam,” resemble Bluebeard more or less closely. In “Fitcher’s Vogel” the hero is a sorcerer, and the story is the same, except that the wife, having saved her two sisters from death by starvation, to which the husband had doomed them, makes him carry them home in a sack which bethinks contains gold, and herself escapes by rolling in honey and feathers till she looks like a great bird and is unrecognizable. In their notes the brothers Grimm say that they obtained it from two tales current in Hesse, a third from Hanover varying somewhat. Similar stories are Prohle’s “Fledervogel,” a Finnish version from Erik Rudhek’s collection, and two from Iceland, also a popular ballad “Ulrich und Annchen” (“Wunderhorn”), stories by Rosmer in “Altdänischer Lieder,” by Meier (probably from the French, however), Herder in “Volkslieder,” and Gräter in “Idunna.” A Dutch version represents the husband as devouring the bodies of his wives; the heroine, having found a woman preparing the bodies of her predecessors for the table, escapes in a hay-wagon to a neighboring castle; here, after some time, the husband comes to dine, and his former wife, whom he does not recognize, tells after dinner the story of his crimes, and, though he tries, to escape, he is seized and put to death. There is also a Norwegian tale (Asbjörnsen) and a Swedish popular ballad (Geyer and Afzelius), but nothing in Italian. The indelible blood appears in a story in the “Gesta Romanorum,” where a mother murders her child; four drops of blood fall on her hand and cannot be removed; she has to wear gloves always in consequence.
In “Marienkind” we find the root-idea of many doors which may be opened and one which may not, with punishment following disobedience; but here a religious element is introduced, and the heroine is a child protected by the Virgin, whose curiosity leads her to peep at the divine mysteries and her finger becomes coated with gold, not to be washed off, and betraying her. The ending of this tale is, however, quite different. The Grimms compare this with one by Meier, the Swedish “Graamantel,” one from the “Pentamerone” (where a goat’s face is the punishment), and others from the Norwegian, Wendish, and Wallachian. The legend of St. Ottilia resembles it (told by Frau Norbert in “VolksMährchen”). Grimm’s version is from Hesse.
The story of the “Robber Bridegroom” differs in some respects. He is captain of a band of robbers who entice girls to their den, cut them in pieces, salt and eat them. One girl, who escapes this fate, invites the chief to her house for the wedding-feast, tells the story, and he is killed by her friends. This tale was from Lower Hesse; others similar to it are in Carol, Stahl, Meier, Prohle, and in the Danish and Norwegian. It closely resembles the narrative to be found in Boswell’s Life of Johnson (with Malone’s notes), and by, I believe, Blakeway. In this story, the hero, Mr. Fox, decoys girls to his house, and Lady Mary, one of his intended victims, having discovered skeletons, etc., in his house, escapes, and a few days later, when Fox dines with her family, she relates her adventures, and convicts Fox of his guilt, and her two brothers slay him. This is like the Dutch version of “Fitcher’s Vogel,” already spoken of.
The Grimms add that “Bluebeard” is a popular name for a man whose beard grows strongly, and “Blackbeard” is also heard applied in the same way. The latter “in the first instance referred to some illness only to be cured by bathing in the blood of an innocent maiden: hence the inconceivable horror.”
Finally we have the story of the third calender in the “Arabian Nights” (Night 66). The forty princesses wish to leave their palace for a few days; and give King Agib their keys: he is to enter all their rooms save one. His curiosity overcomes him, and he opens the door, and misfortunes follow in consequence. The same misadventure had befallen other princes, whose warnings he had disregarded.
Among all these variations of the story from so many different sources, it would seem a difficult task to find the genuine “original” of Bluebeard.—One of a Thousand.
“Who was the original Bluebeard?” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine: A Popular Journal of General Literature, Science, and Politics. Volume 43 (Jan.-Jun. 1889). pp. 278-280.