Miniature from Vigiles du roi Charles VII. The assault on Paris
In 1428 an illiterate shepherdess of seventeen decided she had been called by God to save France and expel the English. In fact, far from driving out the English, Joan of Arc merely checked the English advance by reviving Dauphinist morale, and the Regent managed to halt the counter-offensive. It was not the Maid who ended English rule in France.
Playwrights tend to concentrate on Joan’s trial and martyrdom, and seldom give Bedford and his troops any credit for sincerity. Yet the English army can be forgiven from mistaking her for a witch sent by the Devil to be their ruin. For a decade God had apparently blessed the cause of the Lancastrians and looking back, in a report of 1434 to the English Council, the Regent spoke of ‘a greet strook upon your people’; he attributed it to sudden misgivings among the English about the justice of their cause, induced by ‘a disciple and lyme [limb] of the Feende, called the Pucelle, that used false enchauntments and sorcerie’. Shakespeare in King Henry VI, Part I echoes this attitude, referring to the Maid in such terms as ‘fell, banning hag, enchantress’, and shows her bargaining with fiends.
In 1428 the Dauphin’s cause seemed lost. The English appeared invincible, their continuing victories proof that God was with them, while it was unthinkable that Burgundians could ever be reconciled with Armagnacs. The Dauphinists’ worst handicap was the character of their leader, Charles VII as he styled himself without conviction, who even at thirty showed no signs of being a late developer. As usual Perroy has a particularly convincing portrait. ‘Physically and mentally, Charles was a weakling, a graceless degenerate. He was stunted and puny, with a blank face in which scared, shifty, sleepy eyes, peering out on either side of a big, long nose, failed to animate his harsh, unpleasant features.’ Charles was afflicted by strange fears; he disliked entering houses, frightened they might fall on him (after one did so at La Rochelle) and he would never cross a wooden bridge. So shaken was he by his mother’s smear that he was a bastard, that he seriously considered abdication. He left government to a series of greedy favourites who were too busy quarrelling with each other to have any time for fighting the English.
Moreover, there was something sinister about his fugitive court. The first of Charles’s favourites, a poisoner and wife-murderer (and also a former lover of Queen Isabeau), was dragged naked from a new spouse’s bed and drowned in a river; before dying he frantically begged his assassins to cut off his right hand which he had pledged to the Devil. A second favourite, Le Camus, was clubbed to death and his hand was similarly chopped off to stop it raising the Fiend. (As had been done with Duke John of Burgundy on the bridge at Montereau.) This would have been no surprise to a court which included Marshal Gilles de Rais, the Satanist and child-murderer. The King himself was obsessed with forbidden astrology and prophesy, a taste which seriously worried his confessors and attracted charges of heresy. (Such a man as Charles could only too easily have suspected that Joan of Arc, with her gift of foretelling the future, was a sorceress.) Perhaps the most sinister figure of all was the chief favourite, the gross and murderous La Trémoille, who ruled Charles and whose sole concern was to acquire as much money as possible.
Yet there were healthier elements in Charles’s entourage. His mother-in-law Yolanda of Sicily was a sensible and steadying influence, as later was his mistress Agnes Sorel. There were some useful soldiers, such as Poton de Xaintrailles, Etienne de Vignolles (better known as La Hire) and the Bastard of Orleans. The foremost was the Constable de Richemont (the future Duke Arthur III of Brittany) so hideously disfigured by facial wounds received at Agincourt that he looked like a frog. He entered the King’s service in 1425 and eventually overthrew La Trémoille. Richemont developed into a formidable commander and was supported by a small band of faithful Bretons which included the Marshal André de Laval and the Admiral Prégent de Coëtivy.
It was also true that Dauphinist France was much richer than Lancastrian France. Where the Regent’s revenue averaged from 100,000 to 200,000 livres a year, Charles’s potential revenue was three and sometimes five times as much, partly because the area under his control was larger and less devastated. However, in the early years of the King of Bourges his taxes were not properly collected or else went into other pockets, and he was so poor that his clothes had to be patched. Charles VII had both the men and the money to fight the English, but it would take a miracle to make him do so.
Joan of Arc was born about 1412 in a village called Domrémy on the Meuse in eastern Champagne. As a girl she worked as a cowherd and differed from her companions only in her piety, spending long hours in the parish church. She saw visions, and from the age of thirteen heard voices which eventually told her to go and rescue Orleans. In May 1428 her uncle took her to a Dauphinist stronghold, where the captain was unimpressed. However, she returned the following January; the captain then sent her to the Dauphin and in February she met Charles at Chinon. Although he hid among his courtiers she at once recognized him and told him that God had ordered her to fight the English and to see that he was crowned at Rheims. The Dauphin was doubtful about the peasant girl dressed like a man—in the fifteenth century this was probably even more shocking than male transvestism in the early twentieth—but the theologians who then examined her detected no signs of heresy or insanity, and advised Charles to let her try at Orleans.
Joan had already dictated an extraordinary letter to the Regent and his officers. ‘Jhesus Maria’, it began, ‘King of England and you Duke of Bedford [Bethforth] calling yourself Regent of France; William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, John, Lord Talbot and you Thomas, Lord Scales, calling yourselves Lieutenants of the said Bedford … deliver up to the Maid sent by God, the King of Heaven, the keys of all the good towns which you have taken and violated in France.’ She explained : ‘I have been sent by the King of Heaven to throw you out of all France,’ and ended : ‘Take yourself off to your own land, for God’s sake, or else await tidings from the Maid whom you will soon see to your hurt.’ No chronicler has recorded Bedford’s reaction to the letter.
The Maid set out for Orleans at once, wearing armour, with an army of 4,000 men under the young Duke of Alençon who believed fervently in her mission. As has been seen, she entered Orleans at the end of April. On 3 May the main body of her relief force reached the city. Joan rode in at their head, accompanied by priests chanting psalms; she was claiming the divine support which the English regarded as their special prerogative. Within a few days her troops had overrun the main English earthworks and recaptured the Tourelles, killing the garrison including Glasdale. On 8 May 1429, after an investment which had lasted ninety days, the Earl of Suffolk raised the siege. The outnumbered English made a last defiant gesture to show that God was on their side; they paraded in battle formation on open ground opposite the walls, challenging the defenders to come out and fight, but even now the enemy dared not face them. Suffolk then marched off in excellent order, taking a detachment to Jargeau and sending the remainder to Meung and Beaugency under Lord Talbot and Lord Scales.
Dauphinist morale rose wonderfully and Alençon’s army immediately set about the English strongholds on the Loire. On 12 June Jargeau was stormed, Suffolk being caught as he tried to flee, while—apart from those worth good ransoms—his garrison were put to the sword. The bridge over the river at Meung was captured three days later; at Beaugency the English had to take refuge in the citadel.
Lord Talbot was determined to relieve the Beaugency garrison. He joined Sir John Fastolf at Janville, their combined forces amounting to little more than 3,000 men; the Dauphinists had 8,000 but on past form these were far from impossible odds. Fastolf, however, was uneasy and did not trust his Parisiwan militia (or ‘Faux Français’ as the Dauphinists termed them); he wanted to fall back and wait for fresh troops who were expected daily. But the aggressive Talbot insisted on advancing. Then on Saturday 18 June news came that the citadel at Beaugency had surrendered and the English began to retreat through the woods towards the village of Patay. Joan told the Dauphinist commanders to attack—‘You have spurs, so use them!’—and promised that they would win a victory greater than Charles had ever known. Nevertheless, their scouts could not find the English until they heard them cheering when a stag broke cover. Talbot, realizing that the enemy was near, began to form up his archers south of Patay in a dip while Fastolf tried to position his militia on rising ground behind him. Without warning Dauphinist men-at-arms suddenly appeared at the top of the dip and charged down the slope into the flank of Talbot’s archers as they were still fixing their stakes, and overwhelmed them. Fastolf’s levies thereupon bolted. Talbot and Lord Scales were captured though Fastolf and a band of archers managed to escape, beating off their pursuers. After a gruelling march Sir John reached Corbeil on the following day, where he had to report the defeat to the Regent in person. Monstrelet says Bedford was so angry that he took away Fastolf’s Garter, and a legend grew up which branded the unfortunate knight as a coward—later Shakespeare transformed him into Sir John Falstaff. Yet Fastolf had advised against confronting the Dauphinists, had done his best to rally the troops and had at least saved some of them. In the event, Bedford soon restored his Garter and made him Lieutenant of Caen.
Joan was now at the height of her fame. Monstrelet tells us how after Patay all Dauphinists believed that the English and Burgundians were powerless against her. Instead of marching on Paris she persuaded the Dauphin to accompany her to Rheims to be crowned. Somehow an army of 12,000 men was assembled and then marched through English territory to Rheims where Charles was consecrated King of France; Joan stood near him throughout the ceremony, holding her white banner, and afterwards she addressed him as King for the first time. (Yet it is arguable that both Charles and the Archbishop who anointed him believed she was a witch.) The coronation of Charles VII, as we must now call him, did wonders for Dauphinist morale; according to Monstrelet, a Burgundian : ‘The French believed that God was against the English.’
It is impossible to know whether Joan’s inspiration was restricted to a small circle of court soldiers or if—as today’s social romantics would like to think—she spoke to the rank and file as one peasant to another. What is undeniable is that for a few months many Frenchmen thought they were fighting a holy war, and the English went in terror of the Maid and her sorceries.
The Dauphinist expedition to Rheims gave Bedford a breathing-space. When Charles’s army marched on Paris the Regent was ready, and after some slight skirmishes made it fall back in August; he did his best to provoke Charles into fighting, sending a letter addressed to ‘You who call yourself King’ which accused him of consorting with ‘a disorderly and disgraced woman wearing the dress of a man’. But the Dauphinists refused battle. The Parisians stayed loyal to the Regent; no doubt they still feared reprisals if the Armagnacs entered their city. On the afternoon of 8 September Joan led an assault on the walls between the Porte Saint-Honoré and the Porte Saint-Denis; it was not properly supported by Charles’s commanders and, though the outer ditch was crossed, the attackers failed to get over the inner moat and retreated in disorder. The Maid, wounded in the thigh by a crossbow quarrel, was left lying in the open until nightfall; the commanders made no attempt to rescue her, perhaps hoping she would perish. The legend of her invincibility had been broken. Charles retired to Gien, dismissing his army. Nevertheless Bedford was so alarmed by Joan’s offensive that he temporarily gave up the Regency of France (save Normandy) to Philip of Burgundy, together with the governorship of Paris.
The Maid began to campaign again in October. She took Saint-Pierre-le-Moutier on the upper Loire, but failed to capture the nearby town of La Charité. She was not always merciful; on at least one occasion she ordered the beheading of an enemy commander who had been taken prisoner. In May 1430 she moved to Compiègne. During a skirmish outside the town on 24 May she was plucked from her charger by a Burgundian soldier. Monstrelet noted that the English and the Burgundians ‘were much more excited than if they had captured 500 fighting men, for they had never been so afraid of any captain or commander in war as they had been of the Maid’. In November Joan was handed over to the English. At Rouen she received rough treatment from Warwick’s soldiers—they tried to rape her, and Lord Stafford actually drew a dagger on the girl.
Joan’s trial began on 21 February the following year after a lengthy and unscrupulous investigation by canon lawyers. The prosecution’s case (no doubt with rumours about Charles VII in mind) was that this ‘false soothsayer’ had rejected the authority of the Church in claiming a personal revelation from God, in prophesying, in signing her letters with the names of Christ and the Virgin, and in asserting that she was assured of salvation. These not unreasonable accusations were accompanied by lesser charges, such as her sexual perversity in wearing male dress—‘a thing displeasing and abominable to God’—and her insistence that the saints spoke French and not English. The entire justification of the Lancastrian right to the French throne was at stake: she had to be found guilty. After much bullying, trickery and misrepresentation the lawyers trapped her, and on 30 May 1431 she was burnt by Warwick’s soldiers in the market-place at Rouen as a relapsed heretic. She died quickly and the executioner pulled the charred corpse out of the fire so that people could see that it was that of a woman. She was only nineteen.
King Charles had made no attempt to save her. However, twenty years later he ordered an enquiry, and eventually the Papacy annulled the sentence. She was not canonized until 1920. For at least two centuries the English remained convinced that she was a witch; as Bedford wrote, in a letter to the Duke of Burgundy, she had ‘turned away the hearts of many men and women from the truth, and turned them towards fables and lies’.
Joan’s execution made little stir. However, since then the sorceress maid from Domrémy has aroused far greater interest than in her own short day. In the 1460s François Villon referred to Joan among other of the world’s famous women:
Et Jehanne la bonne Lorraine
Qu’Englois brulèrent à Rouen
and from Voltaire to Shaw to our own day, a surprising range of gifted writers have been fascinated by this Catholic saint. In France some traditionalist Frenchmen still consider veneration of their petite pucelle to be one of the hallmarks of a true patriot. In a different way she inspires no less devotion in England and America. Nevertheless she failed in her mission.