Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Suffolk writer Joy Bounds to talk to us about the life and times of Joan of Arc. The subject was familiar to most, but by name only, without any detail other than that she was burnt at the stake. The audience listened attentively while Joy gave a detailed account of the last two years of Joan's short but incredibly eventful life.
She was born in January 1412 in Domrémy, a small village within territory controlled by Henry VI of England, not far from the then border with the Holy Roman Empire, during the Hundred Years war between England and France which had begun in 1337 (as an inheritance dispute over the French Throne). Prior to the appearance of Joan, the English nearly achieved a dual monarchy under their control, whilst the French army had not achieved any major victories for a generation. Joy told us that much is obscure about her life, apart from the well documented trial that lead to her execution, in a world which was vastly different from today - very superstitious and religious.
Joan's parents owned about 50 acres of land and her father Jacques supplemented farming with a minor position as a village official, collecting taxes and heading the local watch. They lived in an isolated part of eastern France that remained loyal to the French crown despite being surrounded by pro-Burgundian lands. We were told Joan was one of five children, probably all illiterate, that there were several raids during her childhood and that her village was burned on one occasion.
Joy told us the family home was a simple affair, comprising just a couple of downstairs rooms with a loft above, and that the family was very ordinary; there was apparently “nothing special” about Joan until she became a teenager, when she suddenly seemed very different:
- She was affected by the war;
- She was not a part of any group;
- In 1425 she experienced her first ‘vision', in her father's garden, of figures she identified as Saint Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret, allegedly they told her to drive out the English and bring the Dauphin to Reims for his coronation;
- She refused to marry, because God had told her that she would do something special.
All of this marked out Joan as someone very different, though no one could have imagined just how different at the time. When she was just 16, she asked a relative to take her to the nearby town of Vaucouleurs, somewhere the English and Burgundians were keen to take; there she petitioned the garrison commander Robert de Baudricourt for an armed escort to the French Royal Court at Chinon. Unsurprisingly she was sent home, but she returned the following January (1429) when she gained support from two of the garrison soldiers, reportedly telling them that "I must be at the King's side, there will be no help (for the kingdom) if not from me. Although I would rather have remained spinning wool at my mother's side, yet must I go and must I do this thing, for my Lord wills that I do so”.
With the support of the two soldiers, Joan obtained a second meeting with the commander, when she made a prediction about a military reversal at the Battle of Rouvray, near Orléans, several days before messengers arrived to report it. According to the Journal du Siége d'Orléans, Joan came to know of the battle through "divine grace" while tending her flocks in Lorraine, using this apparently divine revelation to persuade Baudricort to take her to the Dauphin (heir apparent).
Baudricourt granted Joan an escort to Chinon after news from Orleans confirmed her assertion of the defeat, so things were now grim for the French. Joan made the journey through hostile Burgundian territory disguised as a male soldier, something later leading to charges against her of cross-dressing, although her escort viewed it as a normal precaution. The English had by now marched south to besiege Orléans and Charles' mother-in-law planned to finance a relief expedition. Joan impressed Charles VII during a private conference at the Royal Court, so she asked permission to travel with the army and wear protective armour, which was provided by the Royal government. We were then told that she depended on donated items for her armour, her horse, her sword, her banner and many other items utilised by her entourage.
After years humiliating defeat, it seems the military and civil leadership of France were both demoralised and discredited. When Charles granted Joan's urgent request to be equipped for war and to be placed at the head of his army, his decision must have been based on knowledge that every orthodox and rational option had been tried and failed - only a desperate regime would pay any heed to an illiterate farm girl claiming the voice of God was instructing her to take charge of her country's army to lead it to victory!
Joan effectively turned the longstanding Anglo-French conflict into a religious war, which worried Charles' advisers because unless Joan's orthodoxy could be established beyond doubt, Charles' enemies could allege that his crown was a gift from the devil. The Dauphin therefore ordered background inquiries and a theological examination to verify her morality, and in April 1429, the commission of inquiry declared her to be of irreproachable life, a good Christian, possessed of the virtues of humility, honesty and simplicity. The Poitiers theologians did not however render a decision on the issue of divine inspiration, simply informing the Dauphin there was a favorable presumption to be made on the divine nature of her mission. This was enough for Charles, but they also stated that he had an obligation to put Joan to the test. They recommended her claims should be tested by seeing if she could lift the siege of Orléans, as she predicted.
Joy told us that the French army, with Joan at its head, was reinvigorated and engaged in battle; just one day later the English generals were slaughtered or fled, along with their army. The French re-took Orléans, whose citizens remain grateful to this day, whilst the French army grew in confidence; Joan then took more towns and cities and halted the English advance. The English army withdrew from the Loire Valley to head north on 18 June, joining an expected unit of reinforcements under the command of Sir John Fastolf; Joan urged the Armagnacs to pursue, and the two armies clashed southwest of the village of Patay, where the battle might reasonably be compared to Agincourt, but in reverse.
Joan then decided that Charles should be crowned at Reims, where all coronations were held. Reims opened its gates on 16 July 1429 and the coronation took place the following morning. Despite Joan urging a prompt march on Paris, the royal court negotiated a truce with Duke Philip of Burgundy, who then violated the agreement by using it as a stalling tactic to reinforce the defence of Paris. The French army marched through towns near Paris during the interim, and accepted several peaceful surrenders. The Duke of Bedford led an English force and confronted the French army in a standoff at the battle of Montépilloy, on 15 August. Shortly thereafter, the King lost interest and stood down the army; by all accounts Joan was very upset.
In October, Joan was with the royal army when it took Saint-Pierre-le-Moûtier, followed by an unsuccessful attempt to take La-Charité-sur-Loire in November and December, and on 29 December, Joan and her family were ennobled by Charles VII as a reward for her actions.
The truce with England quickly came to an end, so Joan travelled to Compiègne the following May to help defend the city against an English and Burgundian siege. On 23 May 1430 she was with a force attempting to attack the Burgundian camp at Margny, north of Compiègne, but she was ambushed and captured. When her troops withdrew toward the nearby fortifications of Compiègne, following the advance of an additional 6,000 Burgundians, Joan stayed with the rear guard. Burgundian troops surrounded the rear guard and she was pulled off her horse by an archer; she agreed to surrender and was imprisoned by the Burgundians at Beaurevoir Castle.
The English negotiated with their Burgundian allies to transfer her into their custody, with Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais, an English partisan, assuming a prominent role in the negotiations and her later trial. The final agreement required the English to pay 10,000 livres tournois (one of many currencies at the time) to obtain her from Jean de Luxembourg. They moved Joan to the city of Rouen, which served as their main French headquarters, and determined to hold a trial.
The trial for heresy was politically motivated, with the tribunal composed entirely of pro-English and Burgundian clerics, overseen by English commanders. Legal proceedings commenced on 9 January 1431 at Rouen; the procedure was suspect on a number of points, which would later provoke criticism of the tribunal by the chief inquisitor investigating the trial after the war. Under ecclesiastical law, Bishop Cauchon lacked jurisdiction as he owed his appointment to partisan support of the English Crown financing the trial whilst the low standard of evidence used violated inquisitorial rules. Clerical notary Nicolas Bailly, commissioned to collect testimony against Joan, could find no adverse evidence so the court lacked grounds to initiate a trial. Opening the trial anyway, the court then violated ecclesiastical law by denying Joan the right to a legal adviser, whilst stacking the tribunal entirely with pro-English clergy violated the Church's requirement that heresy trials be judged by an impartial or balanced group of clerics. At the first public examination Joan complained that those present were all partisans against her, and asked for "ecclesiastics of the French side" to be invited in order to provide balance. Sadly for her, this request was denied.
The Vice-Inquisitor of Northern France objected to the trial at its outset, and several eyewitnesses later said that he was forced to cooperate after the English threatened his life; some other clergy were also threatened when they refused to cooperate. These threats and the domination of the trial by a secular government were violations of the Church's rules, undermining the right of the Church to conduct heresy trials without secular interference.
The trial record contains statements from Joan which eyewitnesses later said astonished the court - she was an illiterate peasant yet was able to evade theological pitfalls the tribunal had set up to entrap her. Joan should also have been confined in an ecclesiastical prison under the supervision of female guards (nuns), but instead was kept in a secular prison guarded by English soldiers; Bishop Cauchon denied Joan's appeals to the Council of Basel and the Pope, which should have stopped his proceeding. Faced with immediate execution on May 24, Joan agreed to give up male clothing and signed an abjuration document (a solemn repudiation, abandonment or renunciation taken on oath), which she probably did not understand. The court then substituted a different abjuration in the official record.
Heresy was a capital crime but only for a repeat offense, so a repeat offense of "cross-dressing" was arranged by the court. Joan agreed to wear feminine clothing when she abjured, creating a problem; according to the later descriptions of some tribunal members, she had previously been wearing male clothing in prison because it gave her the ability to fasten her hosen, boots and tunic together into one piece, which deterred rape by making it difficult to pull her hosen off. Joan was afraid to give up this outfit, even temporarily, because the judge was likely to confiscate it and she would be left without protection - a woman's dress offered no such protection. A few days after her abjuration, when she was forced to wear a dress, she told a tribunal member that "a great English lord had entered her prison and tried to take her by force." She then resumed male attire, either as a defence against molestation or, in the testimony of Jean Massieu, because her dress had been taken by the guards and she was left with nothing else to wear.
Her resumption of male military clothing was labelled a relapse into heresy for cross-dressing, though this would later be disputed by the inquisitor who presided over the appeals court examining the case after the war. In terms of doctrine, Joan had been justified in disguising herself as a pageboy during her journey through enemy territory, in wearing armour during battle, and then protective clothing when in camp and in prison. Joan referred the court to the Poitiers inquiry when questioned on the matter. The Poitiers record no longer survives, but circumstances indicate the Poitiers clerics had approved her practice.She also kept her hair cut short through her military campaigns and while in prison. Supporters defended her hairstyle for practical reasons, as did Inquisitor Jean Bréhal later in the appellate trial; nonetheless, in 1431 she was condemned and sentenced to die. Her trial described as so "unfair" that the transcripts were later used as evidence for canonising her in the 20th century.
Eyewitnesses described the scene of her 30 May 1431 execution by burning - tied to a tall pillar at the Vieux-Marché in Rouen, she asked two of the clergy to hold a crucifix before her. An English soldier constructed a small cross which she put in the front of her dress. After she died, by smoke inhalation because the executioner took pity and arranged the fire to smoke, the coals were raked back to expose the charred body so no one could claim she had escaped alive. The body was then burned twice more, reducing it to ashes and to prevent collection of relics, before the remains were cast into the Seine.
The Hundred Years' War continued for a further twenty-two years after her death. Charles VII retained legitimacy as the king of France, despite a rival coronation being held for Henry VI at Notre-Dame in Paris on 16 December 1431 (his tenth birthday). Before England could rebuild its military leadership and force of long-bowmen lost in 1429, the alliance with Burgundy ended when the Treaty of Arras was signed in 1435. The Duke of Bedford died the same year and Henry VI became the youngest king of England to rule without a regent.
A posthumous retrial opened after the war ended - Pope Callixtus III authorized the proceeding, known as the "nullification trial", at the request of Inquisitor-General Jean Bréhal and Joan's mother. The purpose was to investigate whether the trial of condemnation and verdict had been handled justly and according to canon law. Investigations started with an inquest by a theologian and former rector of the University of Paris. Bréhal conducted an investigation in 1452 and a formal appeal followed in November 1455. A panel of theologians analysed testimony from 115 witnesses. Bréhal drew up his final summary in June 1456, describing Joan as a martyr and implicating the late Pierre Cauchon (Bishop of Beauvais and a strong partisan of English interests in France) with heresy for convicting an innocent woman in pursuit of a secular vendetta (the technical reason for Joan's execution had been a Biblical clothing law). The nullification trial reversed the conviction, and the appellate court declared her innocent on 7 July 1456.
Joy said that over time Joan was then forgotten, but remembered in Victorian times when she was made a Saint, since when she has become something of a feminist icon. This concluded Joy's excellent talk, to leave our audience quietly pondering the fate of a true French heroine.
However, this is not the end. On writing this review, it is apposite to mention the recent sale of her ring and the diplomatic incident it created. As described by the Daily Mail in December 2015:
A 15th century ring believed to have been given to Joan of Arc by her parents in 1431, before she was burned at the stake, will go under the hammer in London. Thought to have been worn by the patron saint before her death, and handed down through King Henry VII, it is set to be auctioned in February. The auction lot comes with an antique oak casket and documents supporting the authenticity of the ring. The piece of history will go under the hammer in late February, with an estimate of between £10,000 and 14,000; however, Mr Hammond said it could sell for a lot more.
In March 2016 the Telegraph reported:
Last month, a gold-plated silver ring believed to have been owned by the French martyr, who defeated the English before being burned at the stake, was sold at auction in London for nearly £300,000. Given to Joan by her parents as a devotional object for her first communion, it was seized from her prison at her death in 1431 by a pro-English bishop and taken as war booty to England, where it remained for six centuries. The French, however, finally cried victory when they won a tense bidding battle over the relic, whose pre-sale estimate was only £10,000. To mark the ring's triumphant return, the buyers, a historically-themed French amusement park called Le Puy du Fou, staged a lavish ceremony on Sunday before 5,000 people near Nantes, western France.
"The ring has come back to France and will stay here" Philippe de Villiers, the founder of Puy de Fou told the crowd before a rousing rendition of the Marseillaise. However, he then revealed there was a new twist to the saga. “The British government has sent our lawyer an unprecedented demand: the return of the ring to London” Mr de Villers told the shocked throng. “We are told that the National Arts Council considers this ring part of those objects with, and I quote ‘high national symbolic value' and as such should have part of a special legislation.” According to the demand, on purchasing the ring the Puy de Fou park should have obtained a special export licence necessary under European regulations.
Auction house TimeLine's managing director, Brett Hammond, told Art Newspaper: “We handed over the ring to the buyer's solicitors in London on 3 March. We also gave them a letter, which they signed for, advising them the ring would need a UK export licence.”
Mr de Villier's son, Nicolas, who runs the theme park, confirmed on Monday that he had received a letter asking to send the ring back. "It is inconceivable that the ring leaves France or is put back on the market for a British buyer to put in another bid," he told the Telegraph. Joan of Arc, he went on, remained "one of the last bones of contention between France and England" and its return was an act of "appeasement". Any attempt to reclaim it would, he went on, “be deeply traumatic for France" and the scores of private donors who helped pay for it with donations from €20 to €50,000. "We are simply putting history to rights" he said. In a final flourish, he laid down the gauntlet by stating “Ladies and gentlemen from Britain, if you want to see the ring, then come to the Puy de Fou. For the rest it's too late, the ring has returned to France and here it will stay…even if the European Commission orders it back."
In August 2016, The Guardian reported the final act in the saga:
Puy du Fou president Nicolas de Villiers, whose father Philippe, a French politician, founded the theme park, said there had never been any question of returning the ring. “The request made us laugh,” he told the Guardian. “We wrote to the Queen asking her if she could help sort things out quickly. Clearly Buckingham Palace spoke in the right person's ear because we then heard we could keep the ring”. De Villiers added: “It's a symbol, a relic, that has been held prisoner in England for 600 years. It's a small ring, but it has extraordinary symbolic significance for the French and we had to get it back. “It's a strong symbol of an extraordinary period in our history, and reminds us of this great woman who overcame such obstacles to get people to listen to her and lead our country to victory. We hope this symbol of hope and victory will help the French rediscover the pride and confidence that they have lost today”.
Clearly the Maid of Orléans remains as much a symbol to the French today as she ever did!
Our next event will be at 7.30 in the Parish Room on 20th September, when Sarah Doig, a local writer, researcher and brilliant speaker on local and general history, will take us through her own A-Z of Curious Suffolk. As described by Amazon:
The book romps through Suffolk's rolling countryside and along its shingled coastline, unearthing the curious along the way. Sandwiched between ecclesiastical penances handed to adulterers and fornicators, and the odd porcelain incendiary bombs commemorating the Zeppelin raids, is an alphabetical cornucopia of strange, spooky and mysterious facts about the county.
Its going to be great, so make a note in your diary.