Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans
At the hour of noon, on a sunny summer's day in the year of our Lord 1425, a young girl of the little village of Domremy, France, stood with bent head and thoughtful eyes in the small garden attached to her father's humble home. There was nothing in her appearance to attract a second glance. Her parents were peasants, her occupation was one of constant toil, her attire was of the humblest, her life had been hitherto spent in aiding her mother at home or in driving her father's few sheep afield. None who saw her on that day could have dreamed that this simple peasant maiden was destined to become one of the most famous women whose name history records, and that this day, was that of the beginning of her career.
She had been born at a critical period in history. Her country was in extremity. For the greater part of a century the dreadful "Hundred Years' War" had been waged, desolating France, destroying its people by the thousands, bringing it more and more under the dominion of a foreign foe. The realm of France had now reached its lowest depth of disaster, its king uncrowned, its fairest regions overrun,—here by the English, there by the Burgundians,—the whole kingdom in peril of being taken and reduced to vassalage. Never before nor since had the need of a deliverer been so vitally felt. The deliverer chosen of heaven was the young peasant girl who walked that summer noon in her father's humble garden at Domremy.
Young as she was, she had seen the horrors of war. Four years before the village had been plundered and burnt, its defenders slain or wounded, the surrounding country devastated. The story of the suffering and peril of France was in all French ears. Doubtless little Joan's soul burned with sympathy for her beloved land as she moved thoughtfully up and down the garden paths, asking herself if God could longer permit such wrongs and disasters to continue.
Suddenly, to her right, in the direction of the small village church, Joan heard a voice calling her, and, looking thither, she was surprised and frightened at seeing a great light. The voice, continued; her courage returned; "it was a worthy voice," she tells us, one that could come only from angels. "I saw them with my bodily eyes," she afterwards said. "When they departed from me I wept and would fain have had them take me with them." Again and again came to her the voices and the forms; they haunted her; and still the burden of their exhortation was the same, that she should "go to France to deliver the kingdom." The girl grew dreamy. She became lost in meditation, full of deep thoughts and budding purposes, wrought by the celestial voices into high hopes and noble aspirations, possessed with the belief that she had been chosen by heaven to deliver France from its woes and to disconcert its enemies.
The times were fitting for such a conception. Two forces ruled mens' minds,—ambition and trust in the supernatural. The powerful depended upon their own arms for aid; the weak and miserable turned to Christ and the Virgin for support; there were those who looked to see God in bodily person; His angels and ministers were thought to deal directly with man; it was an age in which force and fraud alike were dominant, in which men were governed in their bodies by the sword, in their souls by their belief in and dread of the supernatural, and in which enthusiasm had higher sway than thought. It was enthusiastic belief in her divine mission that moved Joan of Arc. It was trust in her as God's agent of deliverance that filled the soul of France with new spirit, and unnerved her foes with enfeebling fears. Joan's mission and her age were well associated. In the nineteenth century she would have been covered with ridicule; in the fifteenth she led France to victory.
Three years passed away. Joan's faith in her mission had grown with the years. Some ridiculed, many believed her. The story of her angelic voices was spreading. At length came the event that moved her to action. The English laid siege to Orleans, the most important city in the kingdom after Paris and Rouen. If this were lost, all might be lost. Some of the bravest warriors of France fought in its defence; but the garrison was weak, the English were strong, their works surrounded the walls; daily the city was more closely pressed; unless relieved it must fall.
"I must go to raise the siege of Orleans," said Joan to Robert de Baudricourt, commander of Vaucouleurs, with whom she had gained speech. "I will go, should I have to wear off my legs to the knee."
"I must be with the king before the middle of Lent," she said later to John of Metz, a knight serving with Baudricourt; "for none in the world, nor kings, nor dukes, nor daughter of the Scottish king can recover the kingdom of France; there is no help but in me. Assuredly I would far rather be spinning beside my poor mother, for this other is not my condition; but I must go and do my work because my Lord wills that I should do it."
"Who is your Lord?" asked John of Metz.
"The Lord God."
"By my faith," cried the knight, as he seized her hands. "I will take you to the king, God helping. When will you set out?"
"Rather now than to-morrow; rather to-morrow than later," said Joan.
On the 6th of March, 1429, the devoted girl arrived at Chinon, in Touraine, where the king then was. She had journeyed nearly a hundred and fifty leagues, through a country that was everywhere a theatre of war, without harm or insult. She was dressed in a coat of mail, bore lance and sword, and had a king's messenger and an archer as her train. This had been deemed necessary to her safety in those distracted times.
Interest and curiosity went before her. Baudricourt's letters to the king had prepared him for something remarkable. Certain incidents which happened during Joan's journey, and which were magnified by report into miracles, added to the feeling in her favor. The king and his council doubted if it were wise to give her an audience. That a peasant girl could succor a kingdom in extremity seemed the height of absurdity. But something must be done. Orleans was in imminent danger. If it were taken, the king might have to fly to Spain or Scotland. He had no money. His treasury, it is said, held only four crowns. He had no troops to send to the besieged city. Drowning men catch at straws. The people of Orleans had heard of Joan and clamored for her; with her, they felt sure, would come superhuman aid. The king consented to receive her.
It was the 9th of March, 1429. The hour was evening. Candles dimly lighted the great hall of the king's palace at Chinon, in which nearly three hundred knights were gathered. Charles VII., the king, was among them, distinguished by no mark or sign, more plainly dressed than most of those around him, standing retired in the throng.
Joan was introduced. The story—in which we cannot put too much faith—says that she walked straight to the king through the crowd of showily-dressed lords and knights, though she had never seen him before, and said, in quiet and humble tones,—
"Gentle dauphin" (she did not think it right to call him king until he had been crowned), "my name is Joan the maid; the King of Heaven sendeth you word by me that you shall be anointed and crowned in the city of Rheims, and shall be lieutenant of the King of Heaven, who is king of France. It is God's pleasure that our enemies, the English, should depart to their own country; if they depart not, evil will come to them, and the kingdom is sure to continue yours."
What followed is shrouded in doubt. Some say that Joan told Charles things that none but himself had known. However this be, the king determined to go to Poitiers and have this seeming messenger from Heaven questioned strictly as to her mission, by learned theologians of the University of Paris there present.
"In the name of God," said Joan, "I know that I shall have rough work there, but my Lord will help me. Let us go, then, for God's sake."
They went. It was an august and learned assembly into which the unlettered girl was introduced, yet for two hours she answered all their questions with simple earnestness and shrewd wit.
"In what language do the voices speak to you?" asked Father Seguin, the Dominican, "a very sour man," says the chronicle.
"Better than yours," answered Joan. The doctor spoke a provincial dialect.
"Do you believe in God?" he asked, sharply.
"More than you do," answered Joan, with equal sharpness.
"Well," he answered, "God forbids belief in you without some sign tending thereto; I shall not give the king advice to trust men-at-arms to you and put them in peril on your simple word."
"In the name of God," replied Joan, "I am not come to Poitiers to show signs. Take me to Orleans and I will give you signs of what I am sent for. Let me have ever so few men-at-arms given me and I will go to Orleans."
For a fortnight the questioning was continued. In the end the doctors pronounced in Joan's favor. Two of them were convinced of her divine mission. They declared that she was the virgin foretold in ancient prophecies, notably in those of Merlin. All united in saying that "there had been discovered in her naught but goodness, humility, devotion, honesty, and simplicity."
Charles decided. The Maid should go to Orleans. A suit of armor was made to fit her. She was given the following of a war-chief. She had a white banner made, which was studded with lilies, and bore on it a figure of God seated on clouds and bearing a globe, while below were two kneeling angels, above were the words "Jesu Maria." Her sword she required the king to provide. One would be found, she said, marked with five crosses, behind the altar in the chapel of St. Catharine de Fierbois, where she had stopped on her arrival in Chinon. Search was made, and the sword was found.
And now five weeks were passed in weary preliminaries, despite the fact that Orleans pleaded earnestly for succor. Joan had friends at court, but she had powerful enemies, whose designs her coming had thwarted, and it was they who secretly opposed her plans. At length, on the 27th of April, the march to Orleans began.
On the 29th the army of relief arrived before the city. There were ten or twelve thousand men in the train, guarding a heavy convoy of food. The English covered the approach to the walls, the only unguarded passage being beyond the Loire, which ran by the town. To the surprise and vexation of Joan her escort determined to cross the stream.
"Was it you," she asked Dunois, who had left the town to meet her, "who gave counsel for making me come hither by this side of the river, and not the direct way, over there where Talbot and the English are?"
"Yes; such was the opinion of the wisest captains," he replied.
"In the name of God, the counsel of my Lord is wiser than yours. You thought to deceive me, and you have deceived yourselves, for I am bringing you the best succor that ever had knight, or town, or city, and that is, the good-will of God and succor from the King of Heaven; not, assuredly, for love of me; it is from God only that it proceeds."
She wished to remain with the troops until they could enter the city, but Dunois urged her to cross the stream at once, with such portion of the convoy as the boats might convey immediately.
"Orleans would count it for naught," he said, "if they received the victuals without the Maid."
She decided to go, and crossed the stream with two hundred men-at-arms and part of the supplies. At eight o'clock that evening she entered the city, on horseback, in full armor, her banner preceding her, beside her Dunois, behind her the captains of the garrison and several of the most distinguished citizens. The population hailed her coming with shouts of joy, crowding on the procession, torch in hand, so closely that her banner was set on fire. Joan made her horse leap forward with the skill of a practised horseman, and herself extinguished the flame.
It was a remarkable change in her life. Three years before, a simple peasant child, she had been listening to the "voices" in her father's garden at Domremy. Now, the associate of princes and nobles, and the last hope of the kingdom, she was entering a beleaguered city at the head of an army, amid the plaudits of the population, and followed by the prayers of France. She was but seventeen years old, still a mere girl, yet her coming had filled her countrymen with hope and depressed their foes with dread. Such was the power of religious belief in that good mediæval age.
The arrival of the Maid was announced to the besiegers by a herald, who bore a summons from her to the English, bidding them to leave the land and give up the keys of the cities which they had wrongfully taken, under peril of being visited by God's judgment. They detained and threatened to burn the herald, as a warning to Joan, the sorceress, as they deemed her. Yet such was their terror that they allowed the armed force still outside the city to enter unmolested, through their intrenchments.
The warning Joan had sent them by herald she now repeated in person, mounting a bastion and bidding the English, in a loud voice, to begone, else woe and shame would come upon them.
The commandant of the bastille opposite, Sir William Gladesdale, answered with insults, bidding her to go back and mind her cows, and saying that the French were miscreants.
"You speak falsely!" cried Joan; "and in spite of yourselves shall soon depart hence; many of your people shall be slain; but as for you, you shall not see it."
Nor did he; he was drowned a few days afterwards, a shot from Orleans destroying a drawbridge on which he stood, with many companions.
What succeeded we may tell briefly. Inspired by the intrepid Maid, the besieged boldly attacked the British forts, and took them one after another. The first captured was that of St. Loup, which was carried by Joan and her troops, despite the brave defence of the English. The next day, the 6th of May, other forts were assailed and taken, the men of Orleans, led by Joan, proving irresistible. The English would not face her in the open field, and under her leadership the French intrepidly stormed their ramparts.
A memorable incident occurred during the assault on the works south of the city. Here Joan seized a scaling ladder, and was mounting it herself when an arrow struck and wounded her. She was taken aside, her armor removed, and she herself pulled out the arrow, though with some tears and signs of faintness. Her wound being dressed, she retired into a vineyard to rest and pray. Discouraged by her absence, the French began to give way. The captains ordered the retreat to be sounded.
"My God, we shall soon be inside," cried Joan to Dunois. "Give your people a little rest; eat and drink."
In a short time she resumed her arms, mounted her horse, ordered her banner to be displayed, and put herself at the head of the storming party. New courage inspired the French; the English, who had seen her fall, and were much encouraged thereby, beheld her again in arms with superstitious dread. Joan pressed on; the English retreated; the fort was taken without another blow. Back to Orleans marched the triumphant Maid, the people wild with joy. All through the night the bells rang out glad peals, and the Te Deum was chanted. Much reason had they for joy: Orleans was saved.
It was on a Saturday that these events had taken place. At daybreak of the next day, Sunday, May 8, the English advanced to the moats of the city as if to offer battle. Some of the French leaders wished to accept their challenge, but Joan ran to the city gates, and bade them desist "for the love and honor of holy Sunday."
"It is God's good-will and pleasure," she said, "that they be allowed to get them gone if they be minded to go away; if they attack you, defend yourselves boldly; you will be the masters."
An altar was raised at her suggestion; mass was celebrated, and hymns of thanksgiving chanted. While this was being done, the English turned and marched away, with banners flying. Their advance had been an act of bravado.
"See," cried Joan, "are the English turning to you their faces, or verily their backs? Let them go; my Lord willeth not that there be any fighting this day; you shall have them another time."
Her words were true; the English were in full retreat; the siege of Orleans was raised. So hastily had they gone that they had left their sick and many of their prisoners behind, while the abandoned works were found to be filled with provisions and military supplies. The Maid had fulfilled her mission. France was saved.
History contains no instance to match this. A year before, Joan of Arc, a low-born peasant girl, had occupied herself in tending sheep and spinning flax; her hours of leisure being given to dreams and visions. Now, clad in armor and at the head of an army, she was gazing in triumph on the flight of a hostile army, driven from its seemingly assured prey by her courage, intrepidity, and enthusiasm, while veteran soldiers obeyed her commands, experienced leaders yielded to her judgment. Never had the world seen its like. The Maid of Orleans had made her name immortal.
Three days afterward Joan was with the king, at Tours. She advanced to meet him with her banner in her hand, her head uncovered, and making a deep obeisance over her horse's head. Charles met her with the deepest joy, taking off his cap and extending his hand, while his face beamed with warm gratitude.
She urged him to march at once against his flying enemies, and to start without delay for Rheims, there to be crowned, that her mission might be fulfilled.
"I shall hardly last more than a year," she said, with prophetic insight; "we must think of working right well this year, for there is much to do."
Charles hesitated; hesitation was natural to him. He had many advisers who opposed Joan's counsel. There were no men, no money, for so great a journey, they said. Councils were held, but nothing was decided on. Joan grew impatient and impetuous. Many supported her. Great lords from all parts of France promised their aid. One of these, Guy de Laval, thus pictures the Maid:
"It seems a thing divine to look on her and listen to her. I saw her mount on horseback, armed all in white armor, save her head, and with a little axe in her hand, on a great black charger, which, at the door of her quarters, was very restive and would not let out her mount. Then said she, 'Lead him to the cross,' which was in front of the neighboring church, on the road. There she mounted him without his moving, and as if he were tied up; and turning towards the door of the church, which was very nigh at hand, she said, in quite a womanly voice, 'You priests and churchmen, make procession and prayers to God!' Then she resumed her road, saying, 'Push forward, push forward!'"
Push forward it was. The army was infected with her enthusiasm, irresistible with belief in her. On the 10th of June she led them to the siege of the fortified places which lay around Orleans. One by one they fell. On Sunday, June 12, Jargeau was taken. Beaugency next fell. Nothing could withstand the impetuosity of the Maid and her followers, Patay was assailed.
"Have you good spurs?" she asked her captains.
"Ha! must we fly, then!" they demanded.
"No, surely; but there will be need to ride boldly; we shall give a good account of the English, and our spurs will serve us famously in pursuing them."
The French attacked, by order of Joan.
"In the name of God, we must fight," she said. "Though the English were suspended from the clouds, we should have them, for God has sent us to punish them. The gentle king shall have to-day the greatest victory he has ever had; my counsel has told me that they are ours."
Her voices counselled well. The battle was short, the victory decisive. The English were put to flight; Lord Talbot, their leader, was taken.
"Lord Talbot, this is not what you expected this morning," said the Duke d'Alençon.
"It is the fortune of war," answered Talbot, coolly.
Joan returned to the king and demanded that they should march instantly for Rheims. He hesitated still. His counsellors advised delay. The impatient Maid left the court and sought the army. She was mistress of the situation. The king and his court were obliged to follow her. On June 29 the army, about twelve thousand strong, began the march to Rheims.
There were obstacles on the road, but all gave way before her. The strong town of Troyes, garrisoned by English and Burgundians, made a show of resistance; but when her banner was displayed, and the assault began, she being at the head of the troops, the garrison lost heart and surrendered. On went the army, all opposition vanishing. On the 16th of July, King Charles entered Rheims. The coronation was fixed for the following day. "Make good use of my time," Joan repeated to the king, "for I shall hardly last longer than a year."
In less than three months she had driven the English from before Orleans, captured from them city after city, raised the sinking cause of France into a hopeful state, and now had brought the prince to be crowned in that august cathedral which had witnessed the coronation of so many kings. On the 17th the ceremony took place with much grandeur and solemnity. Joan rode between Dunois and the Archbishop of Rheims, while the air rang with the acclamations of the immense throng.
"I have accomplished that which my Lord commanded me to do," said Joan, "to raise the siege of Orleans and have the gentle king crowned. I should like it well if it should please Him to send me back to my father and mother, to keep their sheep and their cattle and do that which was my wont."
It would have been well for her if she had done so, for her future career was one of failure and misfortune. She kept in arms at the king's desire. In September she attacked Paris, and was defeated, she herself being pierced through the thigh with an arrow. It was her first repulse. During the winter we hear little of her. Her family was ennobled by royal decree, and the district of Domremy made free from all tax or tribute. In the spring the enemy attacked Compiègne. Joan threw herself into the town to save it. She had not been there many hours when, in a sortie, the French were repulsed. Joan and some of her followers remained outside fighting, while the drawbridge was raised and the portcullis dropped by the frightened commandant. The Burgundians crowded around her. Twenty of them surrounded her horse. One, a Picard archer, "a tough fellow and mighty sour," seized her and flung her to the ground. She was a prisoner in their hands.
The remaining history of Joan of Arc presents a striking picture of the character of the age. It is beyond our purpose to give it. It will suffice to say that she was tried by the English as a sorceress, dealt with unfairly in every particular, and in the end, on May 30, 1431, was burned at the stake. Even as the flames rose she affirmed that the voices which she had obeyed came from God. Her voice was raised in prayer as death approached, the last word heard from her lips being "Jesus!"
"Would that my soul were where I believe the soul of that woman is!" cried two of her judges, on seeing her die.
And Tressart, secretary to Henry VI. of England, said, on his return from the place of execution, "We are all lost; we have burned a saint!"
A saint she was, an inspired one. She died, but France was saved.