Gateway to the Classics: Stories From English History, Book II by Alfred J. Church
Stories From English History, Book II by  Alfred J. Church

The English In France

On October 22, King Charles VI. of France died. At his funeral the French herald cried aloud, first, "May God have mercy on the soul of the late most powerful and excellent Charles VI. King of France!" and then, "May God grant long life to Henry, by the Grace of God King of France and England!" for indeed the little child, Henry of Windsor as he was called, then not a year old, was by the treaty of Troyes King of France and England. His uncle, John, Duke of Bedford, had been made regent by Henry on his death-bed, and for a time all seemed to go well. Charles, son of the late King, claimed, it is true, the crown of France, and was supported by many of the nobles, but the greater part of the country was content, it seemed, to submit to the English. The Duke of Bedford was an excellent soldier and a good governor. He was on good terms too with the two powerful princes, the Dukes of Brittany and Burgundy. A sister of the latter became his wife. But it was a state of things in which trouble was sure to arise before very long. After all, the English had no real right to be in France, and though some powerful persons in that country, for reasons of their own, supported them, their power had no strong foundation. Then there were perpetual quarrels at home among the nobles who ruled in the young King's name. The Duke of Gloucester, another uncle of the young King, and Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who was also related to him, were the leaders of two hostile parties in the Council, and their quarrels did much harm both at home and abroad. But the chief cause of the overthrow of the English kingdom in France was of a very different kind. This cause I shall now describe.

At the little village of Domremi, in the province of Champagne, there was a peasant family of the name of Darc. One of the daughters, Jeanne by name (commonly spelt Joan), was a very pious and earnest girl, who had been greatly moved by the sad stories which she had heard of the troubles of her country, divided as it was by parties among its own people, and oppressed by a foreign ruler. She thought much about these things, as she spent day after day alone in the fields near her native village, keeping her father's sheep. Before long she seemed to herself to see the figures of angels in the sky, and to hear voices which told her that she had a great work to do for France. As time went on these visions seemed to become clearer and clearer. She saw Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine, and heard the voice of the Archangel Michael. She was to deliver the young King from his enemies, and bring him to be crowned where his fathers before him had been crowned, in the Cathedral of Rheims. Obeying, as she thought, these commands, she went to the officer in command of a neighbouring garrison, and told him her errand. Of course he was disposed to treat her as a mad-woman or a cheat. But by this time she had become famous in the country round. No one doubted her goodness and piety. Many were disposed to believe that she was really chosen by Heaven to do a great work for France. A priest who was sent to question her was much moved by her earnestness, and declared that she was not a witch—people in those days were terribly afraid of witches. At last she got her way, so far at least as to be taken to King Charles. Mounted on a white horse, and dressed like a man, for this, she said, was one of the things which the voices from heaven commanded, with four squires attending her, she rode to Chinon, where the King then was. The King and his Councillors were not disposed to believe in her. But at last her zeal and faith prevailed, not a little, we may suppose, because the King's affairs were in a very bad way.

It was now the early spring of 1429, and Orleans, the most important place which yet remained to King Charles, had been besieged since October 12 in the year before by the English and Burgundians. In February 1429 Sir John Falstaff, who was bringing provisions to the besieging army, had won a victory over an army of French and Scots at a battle called the Battle of the Herrings. If Orleans should fall, it was plain that for some time to come at least King Charles would have little hope of success. This was just what the Maid declared she could prevent, and the King resolved to try her. A force of 7000 men was raised and sent to relieve the town. Joan, splendidly armed, carrying a sacred banner, and surrounded by a troop of picked horsemen, went with the army. They took a supply of provisions for the town, which was carried down the Loire in boats, the army marching along the bank to protect them. The English tried to capture the boats but failed; both troops and provisions got safely into Orleans, and Joan was received with the greatest joy by the townspeople. Thenceforward she was commonly called The Maid of Orleans.

The very next day, Joan, sure that the besiegers were as much disheartened by what had happened as the townspeople were encouraged, prevailed upon the officers in command to attack the English works. The first place assaulted was a tower called St. Loup, garrisoned by three hundred English. It was taken. The next day another fort fell. A few days afterwards the strongest position of the besiegers, the Castle of Tournelles, was attacked. On this occasion the Maid was wounded in the neck by an arrow, and fell to the ground. But she revived when the arrow had been drawn out, and again joined the men of Orleans in the assault. The castle was captured, and most of the garrison either slain or taken prisoners. The spirit of the English was now quite broken down. On May 8, after burning what was left of their works, they gave up the siege, and Orleans was safe. In the course of little more than a week this wonderful girl had turned the tide of war.


English Soldiers Fighting in France.

And now, for some time, victory seemed to follow her wherever she went. Fort after fort, town after town, fell into the hands of the French. At Patay they ventured on a fight in the open field, a thing which they had hardly ventured to do since the fatal day of Agincourt, and gained a great victory. This was on June 18. About three weeks afterwards, on Sunday, July 8, Charles was crowned at Rheims The maid stood by his side, holding her sacred banner in her hands.

And now, feeling that her work was done, she would gladly have returned to her home. The voices, she said, had bidden her rouse the King from his despair, and see him crowned. This she had accomplished, and she asked leave to depart. "What will you do?" the King is said to have asked. "Feed my father's sheep as I was wont to do," was her answer. But King Charles thought too much of the help which she gave him to let her go, and she stayed, though much against her will.

And now her good fortune seemed in a way to leave her. King Charles made an attack on Paris, which the English still held. The Maid was among the foremost in an assault that was made on September 12 on one of the suburbs of the city. She scaled the wall, and when thrown back into the ditch, rose again and waved her banner to encourage the assailants. But nothing could be done, and when it was found that her special sword was broken, men began to whisper that the favour of Heaven had been withdrawn. Again she entreated the King to allow her to depart, and again he refused.

It was near the end of May in the following year (1430) that she fought her last battle. The Duke of Burgundy was besieging Compiègne, and the Maid marched with a considerable force to relieve the town. She made her way through the lines of the besiegers into the town. The next day she headed a sally against the enemy, and took one of their posts. Then her men were out-numbered and compelled to retreat. Joan, staying behind while she tried to rally them, was overtaken by a Burgundian archer, and pulled from her horse. "The English were rejoiced," says the chronicler Monstrelet, "and more pleased than if they had taken five hundred other combatants, for they feared no other leader or captain so much as they had hitherto feared the Maid." When shortly after the Duke of Burgundy himself came to inspect his army at Compiègne, he went to see his prisoner at the lodgings where she was kept. "He spoke some words to her," says Monstrelet, "but what they were I do not now recollect, although I was present." One cannot help being sorry that Monstrelet does not tell us more about this wonderful young woman. But he does not seem to have been very much interested in her.

What remains to say about her is very sad indeed. The Duke of Burgundy gave her up to the Bishop of Beauvais, who tried her as a heretic and a witch. As she declared that she was bound to obey the heavenly voices which she had heard, her judges found her guilty of heresy, and condemned her to death. She was persuaded to acknowledge that she had been wrong, and that she was bound to obey the Church rather than the voices. Having signed this confession—she could not write, but "made her mark"—her punishment was changed from death to imprisonment for life. But her enemies were not satisfied. The dress of a soldier was left in her cell; she put it on, and her gaolers, who had been watching her, found her in it. This was taken as a fresh offence; she was again condemned to death, and burnt on May 30, 1431, in the market-place of Rouen; One is glad to think that this cruel and wicked act was not done by the English. King Charles, who owed his throne to her, did not take the least trouble to save her life.

Six months afterwards Henry VI. was crowned King of France in Paris. But his cause never prospered, and when the Duke of Bedford died, as he did about four years afterwards, it became quite hopeless. The war went on indeed, and sometimes one side got the better and sometimes the other. At last, in 1451, nothing was left of all the English possessions in France but the town of Calais. Things in fact were exactly as they had been thirty-six years before, when Henry V. began his French war. All the blood and treasure that had been spent had been spent in vain.

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