Joan of Arc – A Short History

Joan of Arc vs Henry V

To get a true sense of Joan of Arc and her phenomenal achievements, one must understand the mind-set and geopolitical times of the late Middle Ages. Otherwise, it is nearly impossible for us in the 21st century to comprehend why “The Maid” (La Pucelle) continues to fascinate for nearly six-hundred years after her death.

The martyrdom of Joan of Arc, Rouen, France 1431

Superstition reigned in fifteenth-century Europe. Witches and warlocks were universally believed to exist. No one questioned whether God played a direct role in peoples’ daily lives. The outcome of the “greatest of man’s contests” –  war – was believed to be personally directed by God. The victorious had God on their side. The world was black and white. One was either with Jesus (represented exclusively by the Roman Catholic Church enforced under the pain of death) or with His counterpart, Lucifer (represented by large numbers of persons unknown and unrecognizable but who were certain by all to exist). Often the method used to determine one’s true alliance was torture.

Shakespeare’s hero, Henry V (1386-1422), a Lancaster, became king of England because his father imprisoned and later murdered his predecessor, Richard II, a Plantagenet. However, Henry’s crown was not secure for some time. A plot to overthrow Henry and restore Richard’s son to the throne was discovered and foiled on the very day of Henry’s planned invasion of France. Henry was a man of many contradictions, an obdurate mixture of religious orthodoxy and incredible brutality. He owed his popularity in England to his victories against the French that stoked English nationalism.

Battle of Agincourt 1415

On August 13, 1415 Henry invaded France, restarting the Hundred Years War. At the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, Henry’s numerically inferior forces annihilated the French army. After the battle he ordered his archers to cut the throats of a large number of French prisoners who had surrendered. Notoriously blood-thirsty and murderous, Henry V perpetrated acts of violence that made him one of the cruelest and most cold-hearted kings that England has ever known. When Henry’s army took Caen, a Venetian chronicler wrote that Henry ordered every male over the age of 12 to be put to death. When a Dominican friar asked him how he could justify such cold-blooded murder, Henry replied, “I am the scourge of God sent to punish the people of God for their sins.” The slaughter at Caen was just one of his many atrocities. Similar barbaric acts took place at Pontoise in 1419, Melun in 1420, Rougemont in 1421, and Meux in 1422. During the siege of Rouen in the winter of  1418-1419, Henry allowed women and children to leave the besieged town. However, when they became trapped in a ditch between his army and the town, Henry forced them to stay in a ditch to starve and freeze to death.

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.
Maya Angelou

For many people this description of Henry V is hard to accept. After all, wasn’t Henry V a good man and a great king? In Shakespeare’s plays he is the charming, wooing, gracious and triumphant king. He funded monasteries, heard mass daily and went on pilgrimages to holy sites. He was a hero in his own lifetime.  It was the common French people who, more than any other group, suffered from Henry’s cruel ambitions. Henry blamed all this misery and destruction upon the French themselves because they denied his “birthright” to be king of France. The chronicler, Chastellain, said Henry wanted to “exterminate them all whether in battle or under pretext of justice…..he wanted the very name and race to be extinguished in order that he might live there with his Englishmen.”

It is not easy to know whether Henry’s “war without fire is like sausage without mustard” military tactics were in step with the conventions of the time or the expression of an unusually ferocious and sadistic nature. What is certain is the impact on the French people. Henry’s truest and most lasting legacy is the antipathy and distrust of the English, which sadly, to this day persists among many French.

Joan of Arc, (1412-1431) is one of history’s greatest heroine stories. The European world into which Joan was born was tormented by extreme difficulties and calamities. Nearly 13 centuries of prosperity and growth in Europe came to an abrupt halt in the decades just prior to her birth. A series of famines and plagues, most notably the Great Famine (1315-1322) and the Black Death (1348-1353) reduced the population of Europe to about half. European culture took on a harsher and more violent edge. The effects of this could be seen across the whole of society, and perhaps the most striking evidence was in the way warfare was conducted.  Whatever chivalry existed before was tossed aside and replaced with an inconceivable brutality.       

Into this blackest of times for France arose an idealistic, religiously fanatic 16 year old peasant girl who believed that God had sent her to save France from English domination. After convincing the local magistrate to fund and support her travel, she rode on horseback from her home in the Lorraine region across 350 miles of enemy-occupied territory to deliver her message to the French crown prince, Charles. In a time when any woman who travelled with a military detachment was automatically regarded and treated as a prostitute, Joan remained a virgin, revered and respected by the men-at-arms with whom she traveled and fought. Her message to Charles was, “I have been sent by God to save France.”

Joan believed that feudal law was God’s temporal law. To her, this meant that Charles –– not Henry –– was the true and rightful heir to the French crown. Because the English had been winning for nearly eighty years, it was widely believed that God was on their side and that they would soon conquer the remainder of France. By the time Joan arrived at the royal castle at Chinon, on March 6, 1429, Charles was making preparations to go into exile in Scotland. All major cities in France north of the Loire River were in English hands. To the East was English allied-Burgundy. To the West, English controlled-Aquitaine and to the South, Spain. What little remained of France was completely surrounded and bankrupt. The last French stronghold guarding the remainder of France below the Loire valley, Orléans, was under siege by the English and their Burgundian allies. Orléans was predicted to fall soon. If Orléans fell, France would soon cease to exist as an independent country. The combined countries of England and France would be ruled by the new English king, Henry VI, the son of Henry V and Charles’ sister.

Somehow Joan convinced Charles to make one last attempt to save Orléans. She joined the military operation to raise the siege. During the attack on the English stronghold, she was wounded by a crossbow arrow that pierced her armor above her left breast. Seeing her leave the battlefield wounded, the beleaguered French army broke off the attack and began to retreat. Joan went into a nearby wood, removed the bolt from her shoulder, and returned to the battlefield. She urged the retreating French to renew the attack. Inspired at seeing Joan again at the forefront of the battle, the French turned with a renewed vengeance upon the English, captured the stronghold, and broke the siege. 

The victory at Orléans led to a number of successive French victories, most notably at Patay in June of 1429. The French, outnumbered more than three to one, surprised the English before they could form and slaughtered thousands.  This is the battle for which Shakespeare labeled Fastolf (as the character Falstaff) a coward for retreating. In fact Fastolf did the right thing and was later exonerated. At Patay, the French returned in kind their devastating defeat at Agincourt by completely destroying the English army. In the process they captured John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, and other major English captains. Never again would the English seriously threaten the Loire Valley.  Joan then led the triumphant Prince Charles to Reims to be crowned King Charles VII.

Coronation of Charles VII at Reims, France 1429

Charles understood that his best opportunity to secure the future of France was to break the alliance between Burgundy and England. Joan meanwhile, now a national heroine, agitated for continued war. Nevertheless, Charles was determined through negotiation to make peace with Burgundy.  Flushed with success but jealous of Joan’s popularity, Charles may have made a secret agreement with the Duke of Burgundy to capture Joan at Compiegne. At the very least, the man Joan made king, if not complicit in her capture, failed to act in any way to rescue her or gain her release. After a time in a Burgundian prison, she was sold to the English for an enormous sum. The French clergy tried and convicted Joan of heresy and she was turned over to the English to be put to death because the Catholic Church didn’t kill people. Her heretical crime? She wore men’s clothing. For this she was slowly roasted alive in Rouen on May 30, 1431 at the age of 19. However, it was too late for the English. Joan had already accomplished her mission. Above all, she taught the French they could win. The inappropriately named ‘Hundred Years War’ ended after 116 years with the French victory at Castillon in 1453.

In 1920 Joan was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. She is the only person to be both burned alive as a heretic and made a saint by the Catholic Church. Without Joan, it is impossible to imagine the modern map of France.

Alexander Salaun Labry, M.F.A.

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