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

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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

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