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Authors: Timothy Wilson-Smith

Tags: #Joan of Arc: Maid, Myth and History

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BOOK: Joan of Arc
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In 1430 she acted on her own initiative. One of the terms of the truce between Charles VII and Philip the Good had been that Charles would give up certain towns he had recently captured, including Compiègne, while his cousin of Burgundy had earlier promised to vacate Paris. Alhough the duke had not yet surrendered the capital, the king wanted to keep his part of the bargain by returning Compiègne. At the end of March Joan heard that the townsmen were preparing to disobey Charles’s wishes. She hurried off to help them and on the way defeated an Anglo-Burgundian force at Lagny. On 14 May she reached her target, and entered the town; her objective, to relieve it, proved beyond her. Eight days after her arrival an Anglo-Burgundian force surrounded Compiègne and during a sortie on the following day she was cut off and pulled from her horse by an archer called Lyonnel. She was handed over to Jean de Luxembourg, who, according to a later testimony, was willing to have her ransomed if she would cease to fight the Burgundians. According to the witness Haimond de Maincy, she refused. She would have been cheered to find out that Compiègne was to humiliate the troops investing it by not falling to them. To her captors she was worth more than any royal city, since her capture discredited her cause.

Coming to Trial

n late April 1429 Joan joined the royal army at Blois. In late May 1430 she was captured outside Compiègne. At the end of May 1431 she was burnt to death in Rouen. Her public career is thus neatly divisible into two nearly equal parts, the first involving her military career, the second her trial and execution; but this division does not correspond to a neat division in her way of thinking or of behaving. Her voices impelled her to take up arms and her voices were tested by her judges. Her masculine dress and political pronouncements scandalised her foes long before she was questioned, judged and condemned. The mission she had fulfilled so spectacularly in 1429 was vilified for its seeming ultimate failure in 1431.

There was never any doubt that she would be put on trial and found guilty; the only point at issue was how. She was a prisoner of war and therefore she might be worthy of ransom, although not as much as a king, like John II of France who had died in England before the ransom money could be paid, or as a royal duke, like Charles of Orléans, who was still in gaol fifteen years after Agincourt. That she was valuable was indicated by English anxiety to pay a significant amount to have her, but the purpose of the money exchange was to gain control of her fate: she was bought so she could be given a show trial. She could have been accused of treachery to her lawful king, Henry, and yet Bedford, acting in Henry’s name, was keen to arraign her before an ecclesiastical court. The only court considered suitable was an inquisitorial court.

Historical myth has given the inquisitions a bad name, but in 1430 an inquisitorial trial properly conducted was probably the fairest trial anywhere in Europe. In England at this time, for example, whereas the local courts did not allow the accused to have counsel or to produce witnesses on their behalf and did not grant them time to prepare a defence, an inquisitorial court conceded a right to be informed of any charges, to know the names of the prosecution witnesses (except in cases where the witnesses’ lives would have been put at risk), to receive copies of their depositions, to have the help of counsel, to dispute and challenge charges. Inquisitions also conceded to the accused a right of silence.

Clearly, Bishop Cauchon, the man who masterminded Joan’s trial and sentenced her, despite his expertise as a licentiate in canon law, with his unrivalled experience of pleading a hard case at a General Council of the Church, was disqualified from presiding by one simple fact: he, like all the assessors, was her avowed enemy. But he claimed he had the right to try her because she had been captured in his diocese of Beauvais, and yet, even though one of the spiritual peers of France, he had stayed away from Charles VII’s coronation. He had also been ejected from his diocese by Joan’s supporters, so that he had a possible motive of revenge that was in itself enough to disqualify him from acting in the case. Worse still, his whole career had been based round the cause of the Anglo-Burgundian alliance and its current concomitant, the ‘dual monarchy’ (Henry V’s rule as King of England, and, in his eyes, King of France also). In 1397–1403 he had been Rector of Paris University, an institution committed to political policies he shared. In 1415, at the Council of Constance, he had defended the view of the Paris theologian Jean Petit that John, Duke of Burgundy, had been right to murder Louis, Duke of Orléans, and on that occasion he had shown a precise knowledge of correct procedure. When trying Joan, however, he interrogated her under oath before she was charged; he also demanded answers to questions she was not obliged to reply to and never allowed her advice, never sought out evidence that might conflict with his case. It may well be that he genuinely believed her guilty of sorcery and heresy, and that his opinions were sound; but the trial he conducted violated the best practices of inquisitions.

How such a trial should be conducted Cauchon had seen at the Council of Constance, when the Czech priest John Huss and a lay disciple of his were examined on charges of heresy and condemned. There was a difference between Huss and Joan, however: Huss was an educated man who believed that he could demonstrate the soundness of his personal interpretation of Christianity, whereas Joan had no special doctrine to teach and was marked out from other lay Christians only by spiritual experiences she thought authentic. As such experiences are rare, Joan needed to be examined not by dialecticians but by experts at discerning spirits, who might discover if she were deluded. The trial she was in fact granted was technically unfair, on a par with the average secular trial in England or France at the time, where those in power did not lose.

The English did not have much experience of inquisitions till their recent experience of heresy. Inquisitions had been set up in southern France, where they had been used to root out the Cathars, a sect who held a dualistic view of God and the world. Although by about 1300 the Cathars were vanquished, inquisitions remained a procedure useful to the Church, and so they survived. They were employed partly to keep religious dissenters of any kind under control, the most dangerous of whom were university lecturers, with the training to question Church teaching. Such a person was John Wyclif, an Englishman prominent at Oxford, the country’s one influential university, before becoming notorious nationwide for his attack on authority. While the bishops took steps against him, they remained worried at the attraction his anticlerical theology held for leading laymen. They wanted the cooperation of the ruling classes in parliament, lay as well as clerical; and this they obtained when the statute
De haeretico comburendo
laid down rulings similar to Continental practice: heretics whose guilt had been proven in Church courts – and by definition a heretic was guilty of bad faith – could be liable to the penalty of burning under the secular law if they ‘relapsed’, that is, if they obdurately stuck to their heresy or, worse still, reverted to it. The statute became law in the reign of Henry IV, whose uncertain title to the throne made him all the more keen to please the Church. No king, however, was so enthusiastic to crush heresy as his son, Henry V.

Although when he was Prince of Wales, Henry was squeamish about the horrid fate awaiting heretics, he changed his mind at the beginning of his reign when he had to cope with heretics who turned rebels. In 1413, proceedings were begun against the well-connected knight Sir John Oldcastle for possessing heretical tracts. Sir John was put in the Tower to reflect on his errors, but when friends contrived his escape he moved from religious to civil disobedience and plotted to kill the king and his brothers. When the plot was discovered, the government reacted swiftly and decisively against the knights who led the ‘Lollards’, as Wycliffites were called, and those, drawn mainly from the artisan class, society’s natural nonconformists, who made up the mass of the dissenters. As a political threat, Lollardy was finished, and until the coming of the Reformation survived only as an underground movement. The shock of these events, however, left Henry V and probably also his brother John of Lancaster, later Duke of Bedford, with a pathological hatred of heresy. It was at the same time as the Lollard revolt that Huss became an internationally renowned heretic; he could be regarded as a scion of England’s religious deviance, for the spread of Wycliffite ideas to the Czech people had coincided with Richard II’s first marriage to Anne of Bohemia. The Lancastrian dynasty dedicated itself to the uprooting of dangerous beliefs; in 1428 Cardinal Beaufort, half-brother to Henry IV, was charged by the pope with leading a crusade against the Hussites; and Bedford, the conscience of the Lancastrians in France after the death of his elder brother Henry V, called Joan ‘a disciple and limb of the fiend’, who ‘used false enchantments and sorcery’.

Bedford held the conviction, prevalent among the English, that Joan was a witch. In claiming to identify a witch he showed himself to be a thoroughly modern man. Witchcraft was a recent craze. For centuries intellectuals trained in Arab science had valued the occult knowledge transmitted through alchemy – by which a ‘projector’ could change ‘base’ or common metals into gold – and astrology, by which future events could be predicted from the movements of the heavens. These studies, which would lead to the evolution of modern chemistry and astronomy, were forms of magic attractive to the learned. There were other, less salubrious forms. Necromancers conjured up spirits within their magic circles, healers effected cures with magic potions and spells, sorcerers used holy objects for malicious purposes. All these had one thing in common: they dabbled with supernatural powers. No one, however, was as evil as those practising black magic or witchcraft, for the essence of witchcraft, the theologians said, was a pact with the devil. One revivalist preacher, Bernardino of Siena, told his listeners that anyone who failed to denounce a culprit to an inquisitor must answer for the omission on the Day of Judgement.

In the English royal family, Bedford shared his elder brother’s horror of anything connected with witchcraft. The pressure of investigations, whether carried out by inquisitorial methods or not, required a clutch of erudite theologians and canon or Church lawyers. Since the early years of the thirteenth century the life of the Church had been transformed by the founding and dissemination of the orders of friars. It was above all the manpower of the first two orders, those founded by St Francis and St Dominic, and of these above all the Dominicans or Friars Preacher, who provided the Church with the men it needed. The long hours of study to which Dominicans were committed, made easier by opportunities afforded by the universities, prepared them for the arduous work of assessing who was or was not a heretic or a witch. They compiled books on procedure, kept records of their cases and outlined the symptoms they were looking for. Often, as in Joan’s case, they were dealing with illiterate suspects. Usually, as in her case too, they had a clear idea of what they were trying to find out; they wasted no time on confusion or contradiction. Once brought before an inquisitorial court, Joan might not have a technically correct trial – in her case prima facie she did not – but she would have her presuppositions clearly defined, she would have her words redrafted in technical, precise theological terms, she would have subtle arguments debated before her. What is astonishing about the surviving records is that in whatever circumstances they were compiled, they capture the tone of her spoken French, urgent, colloquial, direct. No one else talked so freely to Church lawyers and theologians, men of acumen and authority. Joan did not go quietly into the night.

The Burgundians removed Joan from the war; the English kept her out of the war for good.

One of her first enemies to interview her, according to an early chronicler, was Philip of Burgundy. He perceived her capture as a sign of God’s favour, in particular His wish that the affairs of the true King of England and France should prosper. Like many involved in French politics in the early fifteenth century, including Henry V and probably Joan herself, Philip viewed victory as a sign of God’s favour and defeat of His disapproval. Although from 1215 the Church no longer sanctioned priestly blessing of trials by battle, the attitude that God was on the side of the winners persisted and was to persist at least till the time of Oliver Cromwell. Joan was now a loser, and any lingering aura of invincibility was gone. She was a liability to those who had believed in her, for she was incapable of leading any more men to victory; and her prediction that the English would be driven first from Paris, then from France appeared incredible. She was a fantasist; there had been fantasists before.

And yet her enemies began to take her more seriously, treating her less as a fantasist than as someone who was wickedly deluded. Philip was keen to send letters to cities in his lands, among them Leiden, Delft, Dordrecht, Zevenbergen and Amsterdam, telling them that she had been captured. His fame needed boosting. His men had taken Joan outside Compiègne: they could not take Compiègne itself. In August French troops began an attack on the southern Burgundian county of Charolais, which eventually fell in the spring of 1431. They also attacked the northern frontiers of the duchy near Auxerre, which had fallen to Joan, and defeated a Burgundian army at the battle of Chappes, near Bar-le-Seine. And although during the year the French assault came to a halt, Charles VII was able to keep up the pressure by enlisting the help of the Duke of Austria. Charles, it seems, was coming to share the opinion of the war party, who had agreed with Joan that Philip’s endless truces were not worth much. But for some time Charles still kept Georges de La Trémoïlle as his main adviser and was still persuaded that Trémoïlle’s belief in accommodation with Philip of Burgundy was a sound instinct. While the king’s son and heir, Louis XI, set out to destroy Burgundian power, Charles needed to neutralise that power to defeat England. In 1430–1 he could not do so, because Philip was content to remain an ally of the English.

BOOK: Joan of Arc
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