Arc of triumph
After accidentally gatecrashing a film set, Joanna Leggett became fascinated with Joan of Arc and decided to follow in her footsteps across France
Following in the footsteps of Joan of Arc in the Loire valley
The year was 1429 and the Hundred Years War between England and France was in its third and final phase. After the crushing defeat imposed by Henry V at Agincourt in 1415, the lifting of the siege of Orléans was France’s first major military triumph. It was a turning point in the war, the moment when the spirits of the French royal army began to revive, paving the way for the country’s ultimate triumph. It was also the first time the army was joined by Joan of Arc.
Movie maiden Almost 600 years later it seems amazing a slip of a girl could galvanise an entire army and turn the tide of defeat into victory.
I became interested in learning more about Joan of Arc last winter. I’d arrived early for a meeting in Brantôme, in Dordogne, close to its ancient abbey church. Seeing a number of vans parked outside, with electrical cables snaking in through a side door, I thought I’d better investigate. Creeping in discreetly, to my astonishment, I walked straight into a film set!
There was a knight in full-on shining armour seated atop the back pew, with men-at-arms bristling in the side aisle, helmets and pikes to the ready, while on the altar a priest in the richest of ecclesiastical robes was sweeping from side to side declaiming lines at full throttle. Someone called “Action!” The ‘priest’ swept down the aisle shouting at the knight, who had by now risen to his feet and was standing on the pew. The director called “Cut” and I decided to exit stage left.
As I left, the actors turned around with charming smiles and wished me bonne journée and bon appétit. Only in France! According to the film runner, they were making a film about Joan of Arc. I said it didn’t end too well for her and dashed off to keep my appointment!
Teenage tongue-twister Seeing these beautifully costumed actors fired my imagination and I attended a talk to learn more about Joan. However, this seemed to pose more questions than answers. One thing was for sure, Joan got bad press from the English, and Shakespeare certainly did nothing to help her reputation!
What I found particularly interesting were questions about who she really was. After all, how could a peasant girl find her way into the French court and hold such sway over the king while just a teenager? If she were indeed of such lowly class, and illiterate, surely it would have been a problem understanding her. Courtly French would have been very different from the language used in her native village of Domrémy in north-eastern France. It can be hard even now tuning in to regional accents on both sides of the Channel.
One theory put forward was she might have been the illegitimate child of a member of the royal family. It certainly would seem to explain how she gained access to a king.
Crown complications England’s reward for Agincourt and other military successes in France was a treaty that acknowledged Henry V and his heirs as the successors to the French throne. So when both he and Charles VI of France died in 1422, Henry V’s infant son was declared king of both England and France. Nine-month-old Henry VI was in fact the maternal grandson of Charles VI, so he was not entirely an imposter. But his coronation in Paris was not fully recognised in France and the country split into two factions.
Put simply, Burgundy and the areas controlled by the English sided with Henry VI while the rest of France sided with Charles VI’S son Charles, who had been disinherited by the treaty. The English also held a large swathe of the south-west (Aquitaine) as well as Paris and Rouen, while the Burgundian territory included Reims, the traditional coronation site for French kings.
The maid of Orléans Enter Joan of Arc who, from the age of 13, claimed to have visions of saints telling her to drive out the English and bring the French king to Reims for his coronation. Three years later she started lobbying for armed escort through lands controlled by the Duke of Burgundy to
visit the Royal Court at Chinon in the Loire Valley. Cropping her hair, she travelled dressed as a male soldier – a normal precaution for women travelling through dangerous country back then, though later it led to accusations of cross dressing. It was a journey of over 500km, ridden mostly at night, a not inconsiderable journey even these days.
Her first meeting with the, as yet uncrowned, Charles took place at Chinon when she was just 17. Impressing him, he sent her to the siege of Orléans as part of a relief mission. Nine days later the siege was lifted and so her influence began. Centuries later it seems strange he would send an untested illiterate girl to the army. One viewpoint suggests Charles’ decision was made because every other rational option to win the conflict had been exhausted.
Only a regime in desperation would pay any heed to a girl claiming the voice of God was telling her to take charge of her country’s army and lead it to victory. Whether or not she bore arms, or merely provided inspiration, is a matter of debate. Historians agree, however, that the French army had remarkable success during her brief time with it.
After further offensive action, the English retreated from the Loire Valley where they joined up with reinforcements under the command of Sir John Folstof – the prototype of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who was a much jollier fellow. The following battle at Patay, 30km north-west of Orléans, was like Agincourt in reverse. The French army moved on to liberate
Only a regime in desperation would pay heed to a girl claiming the voice of God was telling her to take charge of her country’s army and lead it to victory
Reims on 16 July 1429 and the coronation of Charles VII of France took place the following morning.
Heretic, heroine and saint To keep this complicated story short, the following truce was short lived and by May the following year Joan had travelled to Compiègne to help defend the city against a combined English/burgundian siege. During an attack against the Burgundians, she was captured.
Imprisoned at Beaurevoir Castle, she made several attempts to escape, once jumping 70ft from the tower into the soft moat! The English took over her captivity, moving her to their headquarters in Rouen. Her trial for heresy was politically motivated and a foregone conclusion; in 1431, she was condemned to death.
Theories, of course, abound. Revisionists even considered she might be Charles VII’S half sister and some said someone else was burnt at the stake in her place. Historians disagree. Within 25 years of her death she was exonerated and became a French national heroine, but it was 1920 before she was made a saint.
The Hundred Years’ War dragged on another 22 years, but Charles VII remained king of France. England lost its alliance with Burgundy. The Duke of Bedford, who played an integral role in Joan’s trial, died and Henry VI’S weak leadership all led to the end of the conflict.
What I find amazing is the distances travelled following just part of her trail. However, birth and death apart, most of Joan’s amazing story takes place in the garden of French cultural history – the beautiful Loire Valley.
There’s no doubt she galvanised the French. It’s argued Joan’s aggressive use of artillery and frontal assaults influenced French tactics for the rest of the war, and the rest of her legacy, as they say, is history.
A golden statue of Joan on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris
Joan was nicknamed the Maid of Orléans after visiting the besieged city
A stained glass portrait of Jeanne d’arc, as she is known in France