Friday, February 17, 2012

Peasant, Hero, Heretic, Saint: Part II

            She arrived at the siege of Orléans on 29 April 1429, but Jean d'Orléans, the acting head of the Orléans ducal family, initially excluded her from war councils and failed to inform her when the army engaged the enemy. This did not prevent her from being present at most councils and battles. The extent of her actual military leadership is a subject of historical debate. Traditional historians conclude that she was a standard bearer whose primary effect was on morale. This type of analysis usually relies on the condemnation trial testimony, where she stated that she preferred her standard to her sword. Recent scholarship that focuses on the nullification trial testimony asserts that the army's commanders esteemed her as a skilled tactician and a successful strategist. Stephen W. Richey's opinion is one example: "She proceeded to lead the army in an astounding series of victories that reversed the tide of the war." In either case, historians agree that the army enjoyed remarkable success during her brief career.
Joan of Arc
ca 1854
       Joan of Arc rejected the cautious strategy that characterized French leadership during previous campaigns. During the five months of siege before her arrival, the defenders of Orléans attempted only one aggressive move and that ended in disaster. On 4 May the French attacked and captured the outlying fortress of Saint Loup, which she followed on 5 May with a march to a second fortress called Saint Jean le Blanc, which was found deserted. The next day she opposed Jean d'Orleans at a war council where she demanded another assault on the enemy. D'Orleans ordered the city gates locked to prevent another battle, but she summoned the townsmen and common soldiers and forced the mayor to unlock a gate. With the aid of only one captain she rode out and captured the fortress of Saint Augustins. That evening she learned she had been excluded from a war council where the leaders had decided to wait for reinforcements before acting again. Disregarding this decision, she insisted on attacking the main English stronghold called "les Tourelles" on 7 May.
             The sudden victory at Orléans led to many proposals for further offensive action. The English expected an attempt to recapture Paris or an attack on Normandy. In the aftermath of the unexpected victory, Joan persuaded Charles VII to grant her co-command of the army with Duke John II of Alençon and gained royal permission for her plan to recapture nearby bridges along the Loire as a prelude to an advance on Rheims and the coronation of Charles VII. This was a bold proposal because Reims was roughly twice as far away as Paris and deep within enemy territory.
     Alençon credited her with saving his life at Jargeau, where she warned him of an imminent artillery attack.
          During the same battle she withstood a blow from a stone cannonball to her helmet as she climbed a scaling ladder.Joan traveled to Compiègne the following April to help defend the city against an English and Burgundian siege. A skirmish on 23 May 1430 led to her capture, when her force attempted to attack the Burgundian's camp at Margny. When she ordered a retreat into the nearby fortifications of Compiègne after the advance of an additional force of 6,000 Burgundians, she assumed the place of honor as the last to leave the field. Burgundians surrounded the rear guard, and she was unhorsed by an archer and initially refused to surrenderShe attempted several escapes, on one occasion jumping from her 70 foot tower in Vermandois to the soft earth of a dry moat, after which she was moved to the Burgundian town of Arras. The English government eventually purchased her from Duke Philip of Burgundy.
     The trial for heresy was politically motivated. The Duke of Bedford claimed the throne of France on behalf of his nephew Henry VI. Joan had been responsible for the rival coronation, hence condemning her was an attempt to undermine her king's legitimacy. Legal proceedings commenced on 9 January 1431 at Rouen, the seat of the English occupation government. The procedure was irregular on a number of points.
        The transcript's most famous exchange is an exercise in subtlety. "Asked if she knew she was in God's grace, she answered: 'If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.'" The question is a scholarly trap. Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God's grace. If she had answered yes, then she would have convicted herself of heresy. If she had answered no, then she would have confessed her own guilt. Notary Boisguillaume later testified that at the moment the court heard this reply, "Those who were interrogating her were stupefied."
        Eyewitnesses described the scene of the execution by burning on 30 May 1431. Tied to a tall pillar at the Vieux-Marché in Rouen, she asked two of the clergy, Fr Martin Ladvenu and Fr Isambart de la Pierre, to hold acrucifix before her. A peasant also constructed a small cross which she put in the front of her dress. After she expired, the English raked back the coals to expose her charred body so that no one could claim she had escaped alive, then burned the body twice more to reduce it to ashes and prevent any collection of relics. They cast her remains into the Seine from the only bridge called Mathilda. The executioner, Geoffroy Therage, later stated that he "...greatly feared to be damned."
        Joan of Arc would later become a saint. Not only does she live on in religion but also in legend. Many movies and books have been written about the peasant that would become a hero and even later a saint that would be known for hundreds of years later.

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