HISTORY OF JOAN OF ARC
Insistent voices: AD 1428-1429
A sixteen-year-old peasant girl, growing up and tending the cattle at Domrémy, has for some years been hearing voices. She sometimes sees the speakers, and recognizes them as St Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret. But in this winter of 1428-9 they have been giving her a very specific instruction. She must raise the siege of Orléans so that the king of France, Charles VII, can go to Reims to be anointed in the cathedral.
The girl is Jeanne Darc, known in English as Joan of Arc. Her voices reflect a shrewd political perception which no one but she, it seems, has appreciated.
This perception relates to the common people’s idea of their king. Thanks to a long tradition, much fostered in the previous century by Charles V, it is believed that each French king acquires a divine quality once he is anointed with the sacred oil from the Sainte Ampoule at Reims.
At present, in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, there are two rival claimants to the French crown. One is Henry VI, the young king of England, whose forces – in alliance with the Burgundians – control the entire north of France, including Reims itself. The other is Charles VII, king by rightful descent but a weak figure, confined to the region round Bourges.
Neither of these claimants has been anointed – Henry VI because he is a child of seven in England, Charles VII because he cannot get to Reims.
Joan sees with the clarity of passionate faith that if Charles can fight his way to Reims to be consecrated, France will have a king again. This becomes her mission. But first she must reach Charles himself. Dressed in a man’s clothes, with six male companions, she travels for eleven days to Chinon. It is two more days before her request to see Charles VII is granted. (He is often still referred to as the dauphin at this stage; he has been crowned at Poitiers in 1422, but Joan does not yet consider him a proper king).
Joan’s reputation as a woman possessed must have preceded her. Charles conceals himself among his courtiers, as if to test her powers. She immediately identifies him, telling him that she wants to make war against the English so as to open his way to Reims.
For three weeks Joan is examined by leading churchmen. They recommend to Charles that he use her services. He provides her with the household of a knight. She has her own squire and pages, her own painted standard and banner. She has armour and a sword, miraculously found – it is said – behind the altar in a church where she sends men to seek it.
From Orléans to Reims: AD 1429
Joan and her soldiers reach Orléans on 29 April 1429. The city has been besieged for seven months by the English, holding various fortified positions around the town. Joan’s presence among the French troops – armed like a man, fighting at least as bravely as a man, famous already as possessing special powers – proves as demoralizing to the English as it is exhilarating for the French.
One by one the English positions fall. By May 8 their army is in full retreat from Orléans. They withdraw to three other towns on the Loire, where they await reinforcements.
The French have driven the English from one of the three towns when reinforcements arrive in mid-June – 5000 men under the command of Sir John Fastolf. With Joan’s encouragement (and the advantage of a larger army) the French overwhelm this English force at Patay on June 18.
Joan now persuades Charles VII to move northeast towards Reims, about 150 miles away. Summons to the forthcoming coronation are sent out on June 25, even though the entire country as far as Reims is still ostensibly in English or Burgundian hands. The attitude of the fortified towns on the route is uncertain.
But Joan’s magic continues to work. The gates of almost every town are freely opened to the coronation party. One notable exception is Troyes, where the treaty was signed in 1420 diverting the French crown into English hands; but when Joan in person leads an attack on the city, the inhabitants rapidly change their minds.
Reims is reached on July 16. The city opens its gates to Charles. Preparations are made for an immediate consecration in the cathedral the following day. As Charles is anointed with the holy oil, Joan stands nearby with her banner. Then she kneels before him, and for the first time calls him her king.
Capture and trial: AD 1430-1431
For the next ten months Joan continues to campaign against the English and the Burgundians – usually with considerable success, for her reputation is now itself a powerful weapon. Paris is her one failure, in September 1429. The capital city resists both her assaults on its walls and her passionate pleas to the defenders to surrender to their rightful king.
Joan’s misfortunes begin in May 1430. In a skirmish against the Burgundians at Compiègne she falls from her horse and is captured. Over the next few months her fate as a captive is hotly contested. The university of Paris, shamelessly partisan for the English cause, demands that she be handed over to the Inquisition for trial as a heretic.
By January 1431 Joan is in English hands at Rouen, where she is questioned by France’s deputy inquisitor. In March she is placed on trial. The most serious charge is one of presumption in claiming divine revelation and in placing more reliance on such supposed revelation than on the authority of the church; at a more frivolous level Joan is charged with immodesty in wearing male clothes and inaccuracy in suggesting that saints speak French rather than English. The charges, if proved, amount to heresy.
It is important to the English that Joan is shown to be a heretic, so that doubt is cast on the consecration of Charles VII at Reims. But it is not essential that she dies.
Several attempts are made to persuade her to recant. The records of her trial and interrogations survive, revealing the sturdy commonsense with which she maintains her position. In the face of this obstinacy, she is handed over for punishment by the civil powers – a sentence of death. Hearing this, she finally yields. She is then told that she can live, but in ‘perpetual imprisonment’.
Three days later she retracts, maintaining once again everything that she stands for. On 30 May 1431 she is burnt at the stake as a relapsed heretic.
The death of the saint in Rouen (Joan is finally canonized in 1920) comes less than thirty months after the departure of the 16-year-old girl from her village home in Domrémy. During that short spell the political face of France has been transformed. The English in northern France, dominant during Joan’s childhood, are cleared out of the country during the next few decades. And the French king, Charles VII, whom Joan coaxes and chivies to seize his destiny, reigns with great success for thirty years after her death.