In search of the true Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc, or Jehanne d’Arc, died at the stake on the 30th of May 1431. This Sunday if the 579th anniversary of her death, as well as her Feast. Every year, I try to write a post on this blog to honor her. I say “try” because any words I could find are inadequate to tell such a story. Jehanne was as complex as she was simple.
Thanks to her tormenters, her voice has come to us, so clear, in the transcript of her trial. Twenty years later, another trial, for the nullification of the first, was held, and in that second transcript, we hear, just as clearly, those witnesses who shared her brief and extraordinary life. We know far more about Jehanne, the peasant girl, than about most medieval queens and princesses.
Jehanne was born at one of the darkest hours in French history. For almost a century now, the country had been racked by war between Plantagenet England and the French Valois dynasty. The Plantagenets, also a French family, had kept their huge holdings in Western France, while claiming the French crown as direct descendants of King Philippe IV le Bel.
The situation became still worse when Jehanne was a child: the King of France, Charles VI, is losing his mind. For months on end he sinks into dementia. His Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, creates scandal by entertaining various lovers. Nicknamed Queen Venus, she bears twelve children, whose true parentage is in doubt, particularly among the supporters of the English cause. Isabeau further pushes the King to sign the Treaty of Troyes, which provides for the marriage of their daughter Catherine to the English King Henry V, and the pure and simple “disinheritance” of the Dauphin Charles, her son and the legitimate heir to the throne.
When poor King Charles VI of France dies in 1422, Isabeau acknowledges the infant Henry VI of England, her grandson, as the true King of France,. Much of the northern part of the country follows suit. As for the Dauphin, he is not crowned King of France. He is tormented by doubts about his own parentage, his very legitimacy as King. The country is more than ever torn by war.
In May 1425, Captain Robert de Baudricourt, military commander of Vaucouleurs, one of those strongholds faithful to the Dauphin Charles receives a strange visit. What does he see? A girl of thirteen, a well-built brunette in a red dress, who claims she traveled all the way from her native Lorraine, hundreds of miles to the east. The girl, Jehanne, tells Robert that she brings the Dauphin a message from her Lord: Charles needs to be crowned, and she will lead him to the Cathedral of Reims to that effect. Captain Robert, astonished, asks, “And who could that Lord of yours be?”
“The King of Heaven,” she responds without any hesitation. Robert, amused at first, is quickly irritated by the girl’s uncanny assurance. He makes sure she is sent back to her parents.
Baudricourt, absorbed by his military duties and the Dauphin’s worsening plight, can be excused for forgetting all about the girl from Lorraine. But a few years later, in January 1429, she appears again before him, no less determined than the first time, but almost four years older. The Dauphin is in Chinon, down the Loire Valley, but things are getting so dire that he is considering fleeing to Grenoble, in south-eastern France, to escape the English armies.
So Jehanne appears again before Robert de Baudricourt. And this time, two of the Dauphin’s courtiers attend the meeting, and they listen to her. One of them, Jean de Metz, is convinced that the girl in the poor red dress is not one of those half-crazed vagabonds the harshness of the times pushes onto the roads. She speaks so clearly, so forcefully, that little peasant, that he is utterly convinced.
“I promise you, and pledge you my faith that, God willing, I will take you to the King,” he exclaims.
She does not seem in the least surprised. “Better today than tomorrow,” she says.
He stares at her. “In these clothes?”
“I would prefer men’s clothes.”
So Jean de Metz gives her some clothes belonging to one of his menservants. Also, the people of Vaucouleurs have now heard of Jehanne. They pool their resources to buy her a horse, riding gear and proper men’s clothes. Now she is ready to leave for Chinon, accompanied by a small troop. They will ride by night to escape the English and their French alllies. Finally Jehanne and her companions reach the fortress of Chinon. The Dauphin, wary, does not receive her right away. He has her questioned by two clerics, who report they see no harm in her meeting the King, or rather -as he still calls himself- the Dauphin.
She is shown into the castle’s state room. But, still leery of this unknown girl, Charles has one of his friends sit on the throne, and simply stands among the crowd. Sneering, the courtiers expect her to stumble and make a fool of herself. She enters the hall with perfect assurance and does not even cast a glance at the impostor sitting on the throne.
“When I entered the King’s chamber,” she will later say, “I recognized him among the others by the advice of the voice that revealed him to me.”
She stops in front of Charles and bows. “God give you long life, gentle Dauphin,” she says.
“What is your name?” he asks. “And what do you want?”
“I am called Jehanne the Maiden and, through me, the King of Heaven directs that thou be anointed and crowned at Reims, and be the lieutenant of the King of Heaven.” Now Charles and all of the courtiers are silent.
‘I am telling thee,” she continues, “from My Lord, that thou art the true heir to France, and the King’s son. And He sent me to thee to take you to Reims to be crowned and anointed, if such is thy will.”
No one has spoken thus to Charles before, no one has put to rest in such definite terms his harrowing doubts about his parentage and the validity of his claims to the crown. Charles then takes Jehanne aside and they have a very long talk. What about? Jehanne, standing a few years later before her judges, will absolutely decline to reveal any of it. As for Charles, he would only say that she had told him a certain secret, which no one save God could have known. Both protagonists have acted almost as though they were bound by the seal of confession. A few weeks later, after yet more doubts, and yet more signs, Charles will entrust Jehanne, devoid of any military experience, with the command of an army…
This is not even the beginning of Jehanne’s story, nor the glory of it, nor the tragic ending. It may be the lesser known part of it, but it bears retelling.