“I am not afraid… I was born to do this.” ~ Jeanne d’Arc
This will be the first in a series of posts exploring the impact on the world of remarkable women.
So often we celebrate men’s amazing achievements, but there have also been many women throughout history who have made remarkable contributions that have continued way beyond their life spans. They have become iconic. Their actions reflect the epitome of the virtues we aspire to today: honesty, commitment, integrity, courage and service to others.
Jeanne d’Arc (6 January 1412 – 30 May 1431)
Five hundred and eighty five years ago, on this very day, a loyal and brave maiden was burned alive at the stake in the old market square of Rouen.
At the age of nineteen Joan suffered a hideous, unthinkable death, which ultimately secured her place in history and cost the English their goal of the French crown.
A fitting finale with Irina Arkhipova as Joan in Tchaikovsky’s opera The Maid of Orleans:
The aftermath of Joan’s death
The young English King Henry VI’s uncle, the Duke of Bedford, who was acting as his Regent, and who had held Philip the Good to their Anglo-Burgundian contract passed away on 16th September 1435.
With his last breath, so too passed the loyalty that the Burgundian Duke had kept since he signed the Treaty of Troyes to align the Burgundians with King Henry V of England on 21st May 1420, which granted Henry’s marriage to Queen Isabeau and King Charles VI’s daughter, Catherine of Valois and ensured his heirs inherited the Crown of France, instead of Charles VI’s son, Charles VII.
His signing had been an act of hatred and revenge against the Armagnacs, who had murdered of his Father, John the Fearless of Burgundy, on the bridge at Montereau in 1419.
Diplomacy continued for a further four years after Joan’s execution, but Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, who was despatched by the Pope to broker peace at the Congress of Arras, (in the face of English opposition), absolved Philip the Good from his war promised treaty and brokered a peace settlement between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs, thus making a significant impact towards ending the Hundred Years War.
I’m convinced her martyrdom was the catalyst in the change of fortune for France, King Charles VII and his Armagnac supporters.
She has captured my imagination, earned my admiration and compassion, and ignited my interest in her life and into a window of history that still dominates literature, the world of art, film and popular culture today.
A moving video of her home in Domremy:
As far as I’m concerned there are no women who deserve this accolade more than Joan of Arc.
She was born to a humble farming family in Domremy in rural Alsace, daughter to Jacques and Isabelle, sister to Jacquemin, Jean and Pierre, during the vicious acrimony that pervaded the land in 1400’s France; an inheritance of the bitter dispute between the younger brother of the king, Louis, Duke of Orléans and his cousin, John the Fearless of Burgundy.
Louis was against John’s regency and guardianship of his brother’s children in the face of King Charles VI’s unfortunate insanity, which caused a deep schism between two royal and noble houses of France, and eventually led to his assassination by the Burgundians in November 1407 on the streets of Paris.
From then on the Armagnacs, (supporters of Charles, Duke of Orléans and the Burgundians, supporters of John’s son Philip the Good) became enemies, which had a profound effect on the course of the Hundred Years War.
With France torn apart by divided loyalties and rapacious greed for her crown, at the age of thirteen Joan began to see visions of Saint Michael and hear voices, directing her to secure the French crown for the disinherited Dauphin, Charles. After convincing Charles and his court that she had been sent by the King of Heaven in his cause, she led an army to rescue Orléans from English occupation.
Siege of Orléans
After six months of siege, the arrival of Joan, her captains, and their Armagnac army meant that the townsfolk finally had hope that Orléans would be freed from the grip of the English and their Captain Sir William Glasdale.
In just four days, suffering with a flesh injury between her shoulder and neck, and with the help of the local carpenters as their attack progressed, Joan had saved the Loire, secured freedom for the jubilant people of Orléans, and caused the ignominious, hasty retreat of Lords Suffolk, Talbot and Graves. With her her swift and decisive victory in the kingdom of Bourges it seemed that God had vindicated the legitimacy of King Charles’s cause.
Trailer to Luc Besson’s 1999 film, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc
Jeanne d’Arc achieved the impossible. Of course she didn’t do it on her own, but her unshakable belief, oratory and unfaltering courage inspired others to follow and serve. She is the subject of so much literature, having already inflamed the imaginations of the likes of Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Tchaikovsky and Leonard Cohen.
The birth of feminism
There were many firsts with Joan. Could she have been the very first feminist? She rebelled against the expected norms of her gender in 15th century France, where women were seen and not heard, robed and displayed for brave knights to fight for, breeding vessels that were traded in marriage among the nobility – trophies. Their choices were non-existent or very limited.
Shock, horror, Joan wore pants! Not only that, she became a soldier! Imagine being the first in a continent to go against the grain of centuries of ingrained culture, repression and strict religious dogma.
After Joan’s victory at Orléans, the French scholar and theologian, Jean Gerson, applied what was known as the discernment of spirits, to justify her masculine attire during the battle. He claimed that although the Old Testament prohibited it, the New Testament did not, and her circumstances as a warrior surrounded by men made it necessary to do so. Therefore, her male dressing deed ‘was done by God’.
Having read about her exploits thanks to the brilliant historian, Helen castor, and from Joan herself, (In Her Own Words), I felt so angry that the French court didn’t continue to heed her advice. Their actions left her and her men vulnerable, and led to the circumstances of her capture by the Burgundians near Compiègne.
In my continuing research I found it helpful to write a dramatic monologue poem, I wanted to put myself in her shoes. Spare a thought today for one who paid the highest price anyone could pay for their faith and love.
The Maid of Heaven:
The English and Burgundians slandered me a sinner,
Their prized prisoner: the Armagnac whore and heretic.
Many hailed me a saint, when my predictions came to pass;
Only after my death, my chastity, never lost, was restored,
Restitution was made to my virtuous reputation,
Half a century passed, before my Sainthood was bestowed.
But the truth is this; I was simply a devout servant;
I listened to, and obeyed our Holy Father,
In my mission to save the most Christian Kingdom: France.
I was known as ‘Jeanette’ in my home town, Domremy,
I span thread with my mother, herded cattle with my father.
The church bells called me to prayer. I was happy
But a country life was not my destiny.
Voices told me to ensure the dauphin was crowned at Reims
With the protective escort of Captain Robert de Baudricourt
I travelled from Vaucouleurs to the royal court at Chinon and Poitiers,
There, scholars and learned men interrogated me…
How could a peasant girl save them?
My virginity was questioned and confirmed, I am intact.
Was I really sent by God?
Could I deliver France from the grip of endless war?
I told them, I am succour for a wounded and betrayed people.
Pitiable suffering, wrought from years of starvation and violence;
Cursed by changing loyalties and treaties carving up the Kingdom,
They suffered greatly for the sake of greed and power.
The holy kingdom of France; having been lost by a woman,
When Regent Queen Isabeau signed her son, the Dauphin
Charles, out of his kingly inheritance, in treachery at Troyes,
I would save as a Virgin; pure in heart, mind and body.
In order to do God’s work, I became the warrior maid,
I was sent by my right and sovereign Lord,
To deliver my King and France from their enemies
I was the Lord’s vessel of choice to chase out the English,
To fulfil this promise I could not be myself…
I had to discard the flowing garments of my femininity,
A shocking, taboo act; forbidden to my fair sex.
Red woollen dress replaced by hose and doublet;
Glossy, lustrous black hair, levelled from shoulders to ears.
None were more determined than I,
As I rode into battle, firm on my steed,
Encased and shielded in a suit of gleaming silver.
I am neither male nor female, but a symbol of hope!
Under my command the men did not rape and pillage,
They would not utter foul, coarse words, or kill unjustly.
‘La Pucelle’ became my sobriquet.
The gentle and grateful folk of Orleans never forgot
The miraculous salvation of their city under siege.
English Lords hurled insults as well as canon,
But this trollop would not go back to herding cattle!
It did them no good. My soldiers and I drove them out.
As promised, my war-cry will be remembered forever…
I proudly held St. Catherine’s saintly sword,
Found where she directed me, rusting in her chapel at Fierbois,
My white, silken banner flapping and flying in the wind
With alacrity I undertook my difficult but divine calling,
My loyal squire, Jean d’Aulon, ever at my side, so too
My captains La Hire, Alencon, the Bastard of Orléans and Xaintrailles
The Dauphin and his nobles believed in our just and holy cause,
But after our victories at Orléans, Jargeau, Patay and Meung,
Came wintry defeat at Paris, La Charité and Compiègne;
Pulled reluctantly away from the assault of Paris, was I;
Screaming and bleeding with an arrow piercing my thigh.
Endless diplomacy and delays lost our glorious momentum
My faithful voices and counsel thus went unheeded.
I continued in my mission, until that fateful day, 23rd May 1430
Cut off from Compiegne, Jean de Luxembourg captured me,
The kindness of his Burgundian ladies could not allay my fears.
So for once I shunned and ignored my faithful voices,
I flung myself from the stone tower at Beaurevoir.
Injured and recaptured, shame burned my soul,
My bid for freedom failed. No ransom forthcoming from my King,
Instead, for 10,000 livres I was sold to my mortal enemy.
Their hatred for me was born of fear and defeat;
I would be treated badly in a prison guarded by men.
They transported me to Rouen, Warwick’s stronghold in Normandy
My voices told me to be strong, even in frail form.
Duke Philip asserted with smug authority, that my
Capture gave the Burgundians incontrovertible proof,
That my claim to act on heaven’s behalf was indeed false;
My trial was arduous, torturous, iniquitous and full of enmity.
Stultified was I, by leering eyes and jeering mouths.
A mere maiden bearing humiliation for her kingdom,
It seemed I had been abandoned by all,
To the pious and ruthless Pierre Cauchon;
Ever zealous in his quest to declare me an apostate.
He and his cowardly politicians, relentless, asking:
Would I submit to the Holy Mother Church?
Would I renounce my sins?
I told them I would submit to the Holy Father,
Under duress and endless repetition, I told them of my mission.
Puppet of the English, Bishop of Beauvais and his judges,
Most unholy men, they said I was guided by demons,
An idolater I was branded.
Under torture they coerced my abjuration at Saint-Ouen
No more anguish could I feel, than to reject my sovereign Lord,
And all I had accomplished under his command.
No amount of false accusations, fetters, hunger, derision and
Gnarled, groping hands could further assail my spirit.
Even under threat I became the warrior maid once more,
My faith ameliorated at the close of my trial.
I remain vociferous to the task entrusted to me,
Unjust sentence justified in lengthy Latin parchments
That canon law has written to satisfy the English.
Under ecclesiastical waxy stamp my fate was sealed.
Perhaps my death was always required…
Charles has been anointed with the holy oil of Clovis
Phillip the Good, Burgundian adversary, will surely seek peace,
And the English contagion will be expelled across the water,
Whimpering; with their tails between their legs.
Their child King Henry VI, like his Most Beloved grandfather Charles,
Has no stomach for war, strife of Roses on his doorstep.
One fine day, a unified France will remember me.
They will say that Jeannne d’Arc did her duty,
A simple, brave, devout and innocent girl,
Whose courage and vision shaped the mighty realm.
I gasped my last mortal breaths on a rickety bumpy cart,
Carrying me through the narrow streets of Rouen,
Faces peering from open windows in tall, timber houses,
The spring air thick with expectation and hatred
Then mercilessly I was bound to the stake,
My pale, cold feet planted on the pyre.
Brother Pierre, holding a cross for my last prayer
The spectacle of my cruel execution
Brought tears to the hostile crowd,
They who would witness fire and flame
And see the orange dance engulf my flesh,
Consuming me with voracious hunger. In agony
I cried out: Jhesus! Jhesus!
Death has stolen my breath, liberated my soul.
They may blacken my body, but not my memory;
It is not enough that milky skin is seared and charred
Beyond recognition. They want annihilation, not relics.
They may scatter my earthly ashes over the Seine,
To be drowned in the cool blue depths,
But my legacy cannot be destroyed.
It lives and breathes in the fabric of French history,
In the hearts and minds of all those I fought for;
They could not strike my deeds from the story books.
Court clerk, Guillaume Manchon has testified to my purity
And now, what was once sullied is cleansed, nullified,
My name is again revered!
Faith, love and courage kept me company for 19 earthly years
I now abide in paradise for all eternity,
For I am the Maid of Heaven…
By Virginia Burges
“When we take your person into account, you who are a young maiden, to whom God gives the strength and power to be the champion who casts the rebels down and feeds France with the sweet, nourishing milk of peace, here indeed is something quite extraordinary!” ~ Christine de Pizan, (Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc)